The digital strategy of the French region of Rhône-Alpes includes the use of free software, interoperability, open formats and open data, following a decision by the regional council. The move can be seen as a form of “regionalisation” of the so-called Ayrault Circular (signed by Jean-Marc Ayrault, former French Prime Minister), which recommends the use of free software by ministers.
- Ayrault Circular: In 2012, the then French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault wrote to all government ministers inviting them to consider the use of free software as “a reasoned choice”. This circular covered only central government, not regional or local authorities.
- General Repository for Interoperability (Référentiel General d’Interopérabilité – RGI): The RGI provides a global framework and guidelines for the use of open standards across administrations in France. The RGI is defined in an order published in 2005 relating to electronic exchanges between users and administrative authorities. A 2.0 version is currently being approved.
Rhône-Alpes' four principles
Four principles have officially been formalized by the Regional Council of Rhône-Alpes to promote the use of open formats, free software and open data. Signed by council president Jean-Jack Queyranne in 2014, these measures are part of a global programme called “Rhône Alpes, la Région Connectée” (“the Connected Region”) whose goal is to promote the expansion of digital technologies and the creation of a digital ecosystem in the area.
Software as “common goods”
Jean-Jack Queyranne had previously commissioned Jean-Marie Chosson, a regional councillor representing the environmentalist party EELV, to work on interoperability, free software and open data. In 2010, Chosson confirmed the region’s involvement in free software, explaining that it was a means to pool software resources, which he described at that time as “common goods”.
This idea of software commons is also at the heart of an intervention by Chosson in 2014 at the plenary session preceding the resolution of the regional council. In his speech, Chosson made three proposals:
- Interoperability. “Open format files permit interoperability in the context of digital exchanges in accordance with the recommendations of the RGI, [which is] published by the services of the state,” he explained;
- Free software. “Belonging to society as a whole, it is incomprehensible that [free software] is not used by local government, since it is already in the service of the state following the publication of the Ayrault circular in September 2012 which prescribes the use of free software in state services.”
- Open Data: to promote “more responsible behaviour” and “not hold onto data and studies produced by the community on behalf of our citizens.”
In its deliberation (PDF), the regional council confirmed these points and approved “the establishment of an active policy of interoperability, free software (open source) and public open data.”
Free software: a priority for office use and business applications
The Rhône-Alpes region accordingly set down the following principles:
- Promote and encourage the use of digital files published in open formats, both for its internal use and externally through partnerships;
- Give priority to free software “for common office uses and business software”, subject to legal and technical constraints. “To this end, and in particular in the case of end-of-life, the obsolescence of a software version or the deployment of a new tool, the Rhône-Alpes Region is committed to study and emphasize the possibility of migrating towards a free solution in compliance with the rules of public procurement,” the document states.
In addition, the region confirmed its commitment to pooling efforts. It “wants to diversify its involvement” by joining both APRIL (the French association for the promotion of free software) and ADULLACT (Association pour les Développeurs et Utilisateurs de Logiciels Libres dans les Administrations et les Collectivités Territoriales), a group representing developers and users of free software in public administrations. Since Rhône-Alpes had already become a member of ADULLACT the February decision acted as a confirmation, Chosson said.
A key point also addressed the spreading of good practices in terms of interoperability and free software. The region is encouraging all its partners “to act in the same direction through promotional activities and exchanges” with governments and agencies in the region, private businesses, the education sector, and other regions with which Rhône-Alpes collaborates.
- The region also wants to see the creation of a “commonwealth of free software”, encouraging its partners to publish their developments under free licences.
- Finally, the region will “actively enter a data opening process in compliance with personal data protection rules.
Technology choice: Open source software
Main results, benefits and impacts
According to Jean-Marie Chosson, a year after the region officially formalized its involvement in free software it had made real and tangible progress.
The LibreOffice productivity suite is now installed on all the region’s 2 000 workstations, alongside Microsoft Office. LibreOffice should now be “the default choice”, Chosson said.
The region is also working on:
- Publishing a best-practices guide for civil servants so that they can use standard formats (ODT and PDF) to exchange documents.
- Strengthening collaboration with associations and communities, and promoting the pooling of resources. “I may be somewhat underestimated the political and administrative aspect,” Chosson said. “But when an administration of this size makes a commitment the driving force can be significant, particularly in cooperation with associations, businesses and the whole open source community.” The civil servants are now collaborating with ADULLACT on document management. The Rhône-Alpes region is also working to organise meetings between APRIL and local associations.
- Expanding the use of free software and standard formats to all its departments and workstations. . “We need to change our behaviour”, Chosson explained. A code of conduct was published to help civil agents to publish documents in open formats. “The general rule is to use PDF or ODT. But we wanted to give agents the choice of using the application they want.”
Jean-Marie Chosson was not re-elected in the last French regional election in December 2015. During this election, French citizens were able to vote for the creation of new regions, following a governmental decision to merge areas. As a result, Rhône-Alpes has merged with the Auvergne region.
“The public services in Rhône-Alpes anticipated the fusion with Auvergne and were prepared for this,” Chosson said. Nonetheless, he remains uncertain about how the new political situation will affect free software, open data and interoperability.
Return on investment
Savings from using LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office are evaluated at EUR 200 000, and the region’s dependency on Microsoft has decreased by 50%. But, Chosson adds, “the price is not the most important thing: this is primarily about better control and security of the region’s information system while supporting the development of genuine ‘software common goods’.”
“For the public interest, we always have to consider free software and implement appropriate processes and best practices, including backup and deduplication”, Chosson said. These best practices help to increase rates of adoption and acceptance, and limit hesitation among administrations.
Among the hurdles Chosson cited the example of “political resistance” in a 2010 vote. “Technicians didn’t have a positive approach towards free software, because they were hired to work on proprietary software,” he said.
Most importantly, “elected representatives must show their commitment strongly – but it is also important not to proceed too quickly,” Chosson added. “We need to urge departments to implement migration processes, but we also need to respect their needs to work at their own pace, and not to migrate too quickly.”
With free software and interoperability strongly linked, “open data is also an extension of this openness and interoperability strategy”, Chosson added.
Scope: Regional (sub-national)