Free software in government: Munich and LiMux
Unfortunately, after the publication of this article, Munich city council's administrative and personnel committee decided to move any remaining GNU/Linux systems to Windows 10 in 2020. The Document Foundation and other free software supporters have thrown their support behind the “Munich stays free” alliance.
Government adoption is an important step for the advancement of free software. When governments make the switch from proprietary technology, larger-scale change may follow: workers who use free technologies bring them home from the office, and students bring file formats, specialized software, and services like online homework submission systems home from school. Government offices also purchase software on massive scales, and their money can have large-scale impact on technology.
Government use of free software is also good for the governed. Using free file formats, for example, means that government-produced documents and studies can be accessed by any user – and digital evidence being levied against someone can be viewed by defense teams. Citizens aren't locked into particular software to do their taxes or submit a petition. Freeing government software democratizes government software.
Also, government software is paid for with tax dollars, and technology paid for by citizens should belong to citizens. This understanding is what drove the initial development of the US Federal Source Code Policy, and is inspiring similar discussions within the European Union. Within the United States, the FSF has worked on this issue with state governments, including New York and Massachusetts, and we have worked with the US Department of Defense to formulate policies around creating and sharing software.
Many governments and agencies have created custom free software modified for their specific needs, including Cuba, Turkey, Venezuela, autonomous regions in Spain, and, finally, the city of Munich. Munich is an example of the successes of government adoption of free software, but also the forces that can undermine its use.
In 2003, the city council of Munich voted to plan a migration from a Microsoft-based system to a GNU/Linux one. By 2004, bidding was open for companies interested in performing the migration, but was temporarily halted due to patent concerns. (This came to light at the same time as a 2002 HP memo stating that Microsoft was planning to launch a “patent-based legal offensive against [GNU/Linux] and other free software projects.”)
Nevertheless, after an extended pilot study, migration started in 2006, when the mayor's office started running on Debian GNU/Linux. By 2013, more than 15,000 machines moved to LiMux, which was customized for Munich. Along with LibreOffice, LiMux includes WollMux, a LibreOffice extension, to handle the templates, forms, and letterheads used by the city.
Of course, every system has issues, and there were complaints, both during the switch and after. However, in 2012, the number of monthly complaints to the city's IT support department dropped over 30%, in comparison to when they were using Windows. The free software-based systems have cost millions of Euros less than maintaining proprietary services. The migration did not cost significantly more than the alternative proposed at the time, which would have simply updated Windows and Microsoft Office. In addition to the respect the use of free software has shown employees and residents of Munich, these financial benefits made a compelling argument for those focused on the bottom line.
When Microsoft began expressing interest in moving their German headquarters to Munich in 2014, mayor Dieter Reiter proposed returning to Windows – a move which wouldn't make sense in light of the success. From a practical standpoint, GNU/Linux was saving Munich money while making the correct choice from a rights standpoint. While Josef Schmid, Munich deputy mayor, described the original move to GNU/Linux as being “driven by ideology,” rather than “financial prudence,” Karl-Heinz Schneider, head of IT services in Munich, insists there is no technical reason to change.
As of October 2017, Munich has not made the decision to downgrade to Windows, but a vote is scheduled for November. We hope the city council will maintain the status quo, rather than kowtowing to the misleading language of corporate interests. We would love to see more governments adopting free software policies, in procurement, standards, and development, and we encourage free software supporters to urge their politicians and institutions to usher in the changes we need.