I am a computer scientist. My job is solving problems, not boasting about about my tools or fall in love with them. Thus, of the murky story ([1][2][3]) of the city of Pesaro abandoning OpenOffice in favour of Office365 I care just as much as I would care for the converse. That is to say, I care about its why and its how. Unfortunately, I can see the debate is becoming a clash between bands of supporters and this is sad, because what has happened in Pesaro is quite indicative and would deserve serious analysis. Besides, in these kinds of clashes, everybody loses. The point is not which package is best, or cheapest. The point is why and how the choice was made.

So let’s get back to facts. Here’s what I am interested in:

  • does the choice (to abandon Open Office and move to Office365) solve one or more problems?
  • How does it solve them?
  • What are the economics?
  • What are the consequences?
  • What are the (typically hidden) side costs?

All the rest, believe me, is just fan fiction. All the long-standing disquisitions on Free vs. Proprietary software boil down to a petitio principii i.e., to begging the question. I can, politically and culturally, prefer one side to the other. Professionally, though, I value each side for what it does, not for what it is.

Let us therefore analyse the reasons the City of Pesaro is giving itself for the transition (that will cost around €40,000 per year, short of price/list increases, one of which has just happened). I am hereby copying the official motivations of the city of Pesaro, as they appear in Determination n. 2043 of 29/11/2014; for improved comprehensibility, each stated motivation is followed with a translation in common English by a colleague of mine, currently BOFH Director at a major Public Administration. The determination, then, reads:

…Open Office has exhibited several criticalities that have caused several problems to users:
– difficulties in interfacing with the procedures used within the Administration, requiring repeated technical interventions for text editing and layout.

Translation: our procedures read .doc files. Creating them, in the usual total absence of specifications and time, and with the utter lack of collaboration or understanding by them darned lusers, has been a bloodshed. Now the procedures don’t work with OpenOffice: why should it be our problem? Let those lusers get back to their Office and be quiet for a while.

– slowness in the opening of documents, especially remote ones

Translation: lusers took years learning Office, it was taken away from them and now they are supposed to relearn everything again. They do not know what to say, and pick the first thing that comes to their mind. If they could get away with it, they would blame solar spots.

– migration was never completed in the first place, and several installations with obsolete Microsoft Office releases are still operational. This heterogeneity of forms inevitably causes loss of user time.

Translation: the Imperial Director of Personnel Dr. Shufflebottom and the Chancellor of Finance Mr. Dungworth, Esq. have an extremely high opinion of themselves as Office superusers. This has caused no end of trouble to vassals, serfs and other lower life forms down the chain of command. I sent myself a memo to raise the issue, exactly 24 hours after my retirement.

– the necessity to edit documents imported from Open Office, which lose their original Microsoft Office layout

Translation: why, you think a Municipality should have standard templates for all offices? So that every time Mr. Hiscock in Registry has issues with his mistress he can nag us in Information Systems because his effing margins aren’t proper? They feel so digital, let each office spend its time inventing titles, margins and styles for any bloody document they create. That will keep them quiet and, what’s important, away from us in IS. And one more thing: with Microsoft Office nobody would be entitled to complain, because that’s the “standard”, and if it doesn’t work it’s your own problem. With this open source thing, instead, every problem becomes mine, as I didn’t have enough already. Read my lips: we go back to Microsoft so no one can complain.

– unresolved criticalities in the use of Excel and Access; the utter inadequacy of the DB component in the OpenOffice suite has never allowed the migration of particularly complex spreadsheet.

Translation: I already told you the Chancellor of Finance  Mr. Dungworth, thinks he is a real digital maverick. Are you going to be the one who tells him one must be fool to use Excel for complex stuff? Excel is all he knows, he sometimes plays around with Access; what do you think he should do, come to us admitting he cannot do his job?

OK, enough humour now.

There is nothing to laugh about. There’s all to cry about instead. Are these really the motivations the City of Pesaro puts forward to justify costs “in the order of 40 thousand Euros per year” (I am quoting the Determination)? There would be reason to cry even if the operation was cost-free, only it is not.
You don’t get why there’s reason to cry? Let me explain:

  1. we don’t see a figure, nor a quantitative parameter. Here is an IT department that backs its decisions with folklore and oral tradition; which means three things:
    1. IT does not know the facts
    2. or it does know them, but deems them unnecessary to decide
    3. or it knows quite well that the decision has already been made elsewhere and for other reasons.
      In every case, this is a cultural disaster.
  2. the administration of a city of 110 thousand people, in 2015, still hinges on word processor and spreadsheet, despite having (like any other Public Administration) a software designed to handle procedures and document cycles end-to-end (which makes the actual production of the documents a minor issue)
  3. there is still debate on formatting issues as if they were of any value. (Seriously, what formatting are you blabbing about? Have you seen an official PA document recently? It will have the layout level you get with a typewriter, only badly done.) Did these clerks ever undertake a word processing class? Or maybe nobody ever thought that a standalone word processor is an obsolete tool, especially in a Public Administration?
  4. the utter lack of standard document templates is astonishing (among other things, they would save everybody time and guarantee the layout we just mentioned)
  5. IT in four years cannot complete a trivial migration between office suites; this tells us, at the very least, that it has the authority and accountability of a pet gerbil. Technical difficulties? Don’t make me laugh
  6. training is not mentioned in the Determination; and this in spite of the fact that the previous migration, from Office to OpenOffice, has had “unexpected costs fro training among other things (at least, that is what the City says); are we expected to believe that knowledge of the Microsoft Office suite is somehow a genetic legacy?
  7. in the event to presentto the public the administration’s return within Microsoft’s embrace, the press reported “unexpected costs” of about 300K Euros for the previous migration to OpenOffice: we now know, thanks to Paolo Vecchi, that the figure is invented, nothing more than a guesstimate. Until tangible evidence to the contrary is presented, it is therefore wise to also consider a pure guesstimate the savings estimates (80% less than using OpenOffice! Yeah, sure) and the increase in productivity (not quantified, as the only reasonable measures of it would be an extension of the level of service or—God forbid!— personnel cuts) put forward to justify the return to Microsoft Office .

This is how IT is managed in a province capital of a hunred thousand souls, in Italy, A.D. 2015. And this is what should, in the mayor’s own words, make it a “smart” city. It’s just too bad that, while we have seen a great attention to publicity, a comparable interest in tangible outcomes is nowhere to be seen. If in the past century this was the land of The Leopard, it is now the land of the Smartopards.

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