iMio, short for Intercommunale de Mutualisation Informatique et Organisationnelle in French, is a Belgian inter-municipal organisation that coordinates the sharing of solutions and services for local authorities of the Walloon Region. iMio carries out three types of activities: the production of interoperable open source software (OSS), the purchase of IT solutions from central purchasing bodies and/or markets, and the organisational structuring of local governments’ working processes. This study focuses on the pooling of IT solutions and the development of OSS tailored for local municipalities and public entities.
iMio comprises a large community of 350 local public entities spread over the Walloon Region. Since its establishment in 2012, iMio and its members have been developing in-house OSS solutions based on co-creation to enhance interoperability between local public administrations. iMio currently has a catalogue of 10 open source solutions that can be adapted to members' needs, and they are constantly updated and expanded with new features.
To learn more about iMio, its members, and their open source initiatives, OSOR spoke to the General Director of iMio, Frédéric Rasic, and the municipalities of Mons (Marc Barvais - Municipal Councillor) and Liège (Cindy David - Administrative Officer, Benoit Joseph – ISD Director and Philippe Rousselle – General Director).
iMio is an autonomous organisation acting on behalf of local authorities in Wallonia to promote and coordinate the pooling of business solutions, products and services for local authorities.
By pooling of IT solutions, iMio aims to strengthen the governance and IT capacities of local authorities through joint OSS developments and the sharing of methodologies and tools. As a recognition of their achievements iMio received the European Commission Sharing & Reuse Awards in March 2017. Since then, iMio has evolved considerably and its catalogue of open source solutions developed in collaboration with its members now comprises 10 solutions.
Among these 10 open source solutions, five aim to simplify and/or support internal procedures, such as the management of emails (iA.Docs), local urban planning (iA.Urban), technical services (iA.Tech), strategic planning (iA.PST) or decision making (iA.Delib). Three solutions help to optimise the management of the procedures within the municipality and citizen interaction, such as administrative requests (iA.Téléservices), citizen participation (iA.Ideabox) or extra-curricular activities (iA.AES). Lastly, two solutions address municipal communication, facilitating the creation and management of a website (iA.SmartWeb) or the online management of the cultural heritage of the municipality (iA.Bibliotheca). The repository of all these solutions can be found on iMio’s GitHub page.
In addition to these solutions, iMio also offers support, consultancy and audit services through iA.Consult to assist local entities in the implementation of new IT solutions.
In the mid-2000s, the two independent communities, Qualicité and CommunesPlone, each composed of five Walloon municipalities, set out to regain control of their IT tools by creating an open ecosystem based on partnerships. These open ecosystems were established to develop products and services that would meet the needs of municipalities. The merger of these two communities resulted in the creation of iMio in January 2012. Supported by its 10 founding members and a subsidy from the Walloon regional government, iMio gradually grew over the next few years. A large number of local authorities became involved with the inter-municipal cooperation, motivated by the vision proposed by iMio and the initial results achieved by iMio members. As of 2021, 350 local authorities are part of the inter-municipal cooperation, representing 90% of all municipalities in Wallonia. In parallel, the iMio team now comprises 50 people including 40 technicians.
iMio is expected to reach a new milestone in 2021: complete self-financing. Since its creation, iMio has received a subsidy from the Walloon region for its launch and development, which will come to an end in 2021. iMio is already 98% self-financed thanks to the revenue generated by the services and products offered to municipalities. Software development is financed by iMio's own funds that are allocated to investment and by members' voluntary contribution. Additionally, municipalities pay a small one-off membership fee (EUR 4) as well as a contribution for the services used. iMio gives a quote for this contribution, which is then reviewed with the municipality. This figure given is based on the municipality’s specific requests and on the package that iMio offers them based on the size of the municipality, indicated by the number of inhabitants. To meet the needs of the large number of members, iMio is currently working on applying the European Commission's interoperability standards to be able to provide a more standardised interoperability framework at the regional level.
iMio's decision-making process is based on co-creation, and the community members are involved in the development of new products and services. Members can formulate requests that will be answered if they meet common needs shared by other local entities (i.e. at least 50 other municipalities). If not, the solution is not developed as it would cost too much to maintain in the long run. To further include its members in the decision-making process, iMio regularly organises workshops where users can request modifications and/or adaptations to existing software and outline their needs for new software. Another element influencing the decision to adopt or develop a solution is iMio’s technology market surveillance, which helps to ensures that they keep abreast of new IT services and products that are available on the market.
In addition to the traditional co-creation process, a large city committee was created in 2019 to bring together the iMio members that have the largest numbers of inhabitants. These municipalities meet to consider collaboration on new OSS solutions that address their specific strategic needs.
Once a need is identified, iMio checks whether relevant software is already available for reuse before developing something new. If a decision is taken to develop software in-house, iMio can rely on its team of 40 technicians and the technical support of its members, or on external partners. In the latter case, a transfer of assets and knowledge is put in place to guarantee that iMio retains expertise of the software. The inter-municipal cooperation makes it possible to maintain the solution, even if the external partner were to cease activity. In order to join the iMio software portfolio, solutions must also comply with its development standards as well as functional and technical criteria (i.e. quality, interoperability). Finally, before launching the solution, a technical audit is carried out to ensure its scalability.
The development of new products and services by iMio is based on co-creation among community members. They can lodge request for a new solution, and it will be answered if it meets common needs shared by other members. If the request doesn’t meet the needs of minimum 50 other municipalities, the solution is not developed as it is deemed too costly to maintain. In addition, iMio regularly organises workshops where users come together to request modifications and/or adaptations to existing software and express their needs for new software solutions. The co-creation process is often conducted over the medium to long term, which requires a high level of engagement from the municipalities. The commitment between iMio and its members is quite strong due to the nature of their relationship, which is based on transparency, collaboration, co-creation, and the mutual interdependence of their contributions.
In total, more than 1,000 applications are currently managed by iMio, including both OSS solutions and proprietary software. The maintenance of solutions is under iMio’s responsibility and is managed via an internal reporting system that municipalities can access, and through feedback-gathering sessions during the abovementioned workshops. iMio remains the point of contact for any problems that cannot be solved by the municipalities’ IT teams. On average, iMio receives about 10,000 maintenance requests per year for all solutions. The provision of user support is carried out in a similar fashion: municipalities can request iMio's assistance with the implementation of the solutions if they do not have the necessary skills internally.
iMio membership gives local authorities access to the iMio solution portfolio without going through a public procurement process or participating in software development. They can also opt to launch their own public procurement outside of iMio. The 350 members of iMio benefit from a specific form of ‘in-house’ public procurement. In accordance with Belgian law, the use of the in-house procedure is made possible by two criteria met by iMio: no private sector clients and pure capital, in the sense that only contracting authorities are members.
There are several reasons for local public administrations to join iMio and to adopt open source solutions.
Municipalities have developed a desire to modernise and to digitalise part of their activities. The software market targeting municipal administrations is a niche market. Prior to the establishment of iMio, it was very difficult for local entities to find software adapted to their needs, and even more complex to find software for local entities that wished to adopt alternatives to products developed by private IT companies. In this sense, iMio was the first organisation in Belgium to offer collaborative OSS creation among its members, aimed directly at municipalities and their specific needs.
Various factors inherent to open source have convinced municipalities to adopt these solutions. Firstly, iMio’s solutions allow them to avoid vendor lock-in and to achieve digital sovereignty by maintaining control over the development of solutions and adapting them to their needs. Moreover, this form of control facilitated by iMio's co-creation process allows local authorities to set strict standards related to data security and data protection. Local authorities can also set interoperability standards among themselves and among local authorities and other public entities such as public centres for social action (CPAS in French) or police authorities.
In addition to these benefits, the adoption of OSS has increased the transparency of the development process as iMio members have visibility over the entire project lifecycle. iMio's OSS allows municipalities to increase the transparency of their spending for their own local administration and citizens.
Finally, the last advantage for municipalities is financial gains. Smaller municipalities that would not be able to procure the complete development of an IT tool can participate in the software development according to their means and only pay for the services and products they use. Nevertheless, this economic advantage must be put into perspective. For some large municipalities that make significant investments in the development of solutions, the financial returns are sometimes quite limited. In this case, the other abovementioned advantages often outweigh the economic investment.
According to the feedback from Mons and Liège, four main challenges related to the adoption and the development of new OSS are faced by municipalities:
- Standardisation of the solutions: iMio faces a constant dilemma during the development of new OSS between its desire for the standardisation of solutions to enlarge the user base, and the level of customisation to specific needs expected by municipalities financing the solution. iMio also needs to find the right balance between the needs of small and large municipalities.
- Requirement of a minimum number of interested members: The development of new tools may be limited by the minimum number set by iMio, which is 50 interested municipalities.
- Change management: Another challenge faced by the municipalities is their internal change management processes. The digitalisation of their activities requires time as well as both financial and human resources.
- iMio success: A victim of its success, iMio and the growing number of municipalities involved in the development of OSS solutions sometimes have had difficulty in meeting the development deadlines that were initially set, due to the large number of requests and the complexity of developing solutions for a large number of municipalities. The iMio internal team has also grown over time, from 30 employees in 2012 to 50 in 2021, which has required an adaptation of iMio’s structure and team.
The cycle of adoption of an iMio solution: the case of iA.Delib in Mons and Liège
In 2012, iMio developed iA.Delib with the contribution of its 10 founding municipalities as the inter-municipality’s first in-house open source solution proposed to local authorities. iA.Delib allows municipalities to organise their deliberative assemblies by managing each step of the decision-making process while operating in accordance with the Code of Local Democracy and Decentralisation (CDLD) or internal regulations depending on the specific entity. It provides them with a platform on which all civil servants - from the case handler to the decision-maker - can follow the progress of a given project and have access to the various associated documents. The iA.Delib solution has become a standard in Wallonia and meets municipalities’ needs in terms of transparency and interoperability. iMio has recently integrated new functionalities into this tool, including a citizen's module allowing them to access the agenda of municipal council debates. iA.Delib is currently used by over 250 local authorities, including Mons and Liège.
Mons and Liège have been iMio members for many years, which illustrates the sustainability and stability of their commitment. In addition to their member status, Mons and Liège are part of the large city committee, created in 2019 to bring together iMio members with the largest inhabitant numbers. The purpose of this committee is to consider collaborations on new OSS that focus on the strategic needs of large cities, for which the digitalisation of procedures and decision-making processes is an essential element of their modernisation. Both Liège and Mons have extensive experience using iA.Delib, with Mons adopting it in 2012 and Liège in 2015.
Available since 2012, iA.Delib has gradually evolved over time, perfected by the experiences and feedback from iMio’s members who implemented this solution. Municipalities are free to install all iMio solutions on their servers. 99% of solutions are hosted as Software as a Service (SaaS) on iMio's cloud. While the code base of the cloud is open source, the database is private for confidentiality reasons (GDPR, public data, etc.) and is therefore managed exclusively by iMio. The effort to deploy a new iMio solution depends on several factors such as the size of the municipality, the number of users, and the technical team on site. In Liège, for instance, the deployment of iA.Delib was in some ways more challenging than for other municipalities because of the local specificities of Liège and the large number of users within the municipality, and yet in other ways it was easier because the city was able to solve minor problems and train the solution’s users using its own IT team.
The use and maintenance of iA.Delib is highly dependent on the technical means at the disposal of each municipality. For instance, the Mons administration relies solely on the maintenance provided by iMio while Liège’s IT team is responsible for the basic maintenance of the solution. iMio’s maintenance is only used by Liège when the problems encountered are too complex to be solved in-house.
iMio provides a detailed documentation on each of its solutions as well as access to an online documentation centre with clear explanations of all the features and updates of the different software, including videos. The provision of this information centre facilitates the independent uptake of iMio solutions while allowing iMio to compensate for its limited human resources.
In addition, iMio adopts a sustainable approach to the development of its solutions by continuing to update and improve them, as is the case with iA.Delib, which continues to be regularly updated since its creation nine years ago.
Another good practice mentioned by Liège is the rigorous project management process adopted by iMio when developing new solutions. All software development is conducted as a structured business project and is based on objectives established through several elements: the clarification of needs, the limitation of the scope of action, the revision of functionalities at each iteration and a defined work team.
Beyond the singular aspect of the creation of OSS by an inter-municipal organisation, various elements inherent to the iMio model were underlined by the general director of iMio and the municipalities of Mons and Liège:
- Self-financing: The financial independence of iMio, which will become a reality by the end of 2021, will allow iMio to pursue one of its primary objectives: promoting good governance at the local level thanks to the development of digital solutions that respond to municipalities’ needs. Although iMio remains under the umbrella of the Walloon region, iMio and its members have complete independence in the development and adoption of new solutions while having the means to independently ensure the sustainability of the solutions in the long term.
- Public sector environment: The business model adopted by iMio facilitates the ease of engagement with local authorities, collaboration around OSS and its reuse. As iMio members are all public administrations, iMio constitutes a so-called administrative extension of the municipalities, allowing them to adopt iMio’s solutions as in-house-developed OSS.
- Adaptability: One of the essential elements of iMio's success is the adaptability that characterises its open source solutions. Each municipality, from the smallest to the largest, has the possibility to tailor the implemented solutions to its local needs.
The commitment between iMio and its members is strong due to the nature of their relationship, which is based on transparency, collaboration, co-creation, and the mutual interdependence of their contributions. Some municipalities such as Mons or Liège have been members for many years, which illustrates the sustainability and stability of this commitment.