In 2001, Horst Bräuner, the IT director of Schwäbisch Hall, a fairy-tale city in southern Germany, faced a situation familiar to many local U.S. government officials. Germany was in an economic slump — the country’s economy had been flat for several years. The gross domestic product dropped from a 2.5 percent rate of growth in 2001 to an anemic 1.4 percent in 2002. In response, the federal government expanded the number of tax deductions firms could take on as losses. Since local governments in Germany depend heavily on business taxes, the change in the country’s tax law coupled with the broader economic recession led to a sharp decline in local tax revenue. But according to Bräuner, Schwäbisch Hall’s problems were even worse. 

Just as government budgets were cratering, Microsoft Corp. upgraded its operating systems from Windows NT to Windows XP, forcing IT directors like Bräuner into a difficult choice: retain an outdated operating system without support from Microsoft, pay for the new operating system, or find an alternative. When Schwäbisch Hall’s technological and budgetary challenges collided, it felt to Bräuner like a slow moving tsunami. Things would only get worse.

While most governments bit the budgetary bullet and opted for the Microsoft upgrade, three cities in southern Germany embarked on something radically different. Munich, Schwäbisch Hall and Treuchtlingen adopted and implemented plans to migrate all PCs to open source operating systems and applications.

With some notable exceptions like Garden Grove, Calif., and Largo, Fla., most local government officials in the United States have had little exposure to free/open source software (FOSS). This article sheds light on the topic by considering the experiences of these three German cities. The focus is simple: If a local elected official or IT administrator were interested in migrating to FOSS, what should he or she keep in mind? Before answering the question, some background on the cities and FOSS is needed.

Treuchtlingen, Schwäbisch Hall and Munich may represent the most advanced migration to FOSS among local governments in the world. The cities vary in population from 13,000 for Treuchtlingen to 1.3 million for Munich. They also differ in the degree to which they’ve implemented their FOSS migration policy. Treuchtlingen and Schwäbisch Hall have completed migration, but Munich’s migration is only partially finished.

Although each city followed its own path toward FOSS, they overcame similar organizational and personnel challenges that reveal what local governments should take into account as they consider open source.

FOSS is a generic term for software that is nonproprietary, can be reviewed by large numbers of users, and can be revised and shared for free. FOSS refers to program licenses that permit users the freedom to run the program for any purpose, to study and modify the program, and to freely redistribute copies of the original or modified program.

The use of FOSS is widespread in the public and private sector. In April 2008, a survey of 328 IT and business executives found that 53 percent use FOSS and an additional 10 percent planned to do so in the next 12 months. And a January 2010 survey of more than 273 million websites by Netcraft found that Apache, a FOSS Web server, is the most widely used Web server with 59 percent of the market share. The FOSS Web browser, Firefox, continues to gain market share on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, particularly among users who have a choice of browser. And 65 percent of all active websites use open source code to run their sites.

For governments, the decision to switch to FOSS operating systems, such as Linux, is wrought with challenges. There are technical issues of compatibility and interoperability since many popular applications are designed for the proprietary software operating systems: Windows and Mac OS. And as with any new IT application or system, there are personnel challenges associated with training, accepting and adjusting to new systems and different ways of doing things. Also, as with any change in technology, a switch to FOSS can be costly in the short run. Finally, research on FOSS suggests political challenges to its adoption and implementation. Elected officials are often skeptical of new software, particularly nonproprietary software. Local governments may confront external pressure from software vendors to continue with existing (proprietary) systems.

Despite the immense challenges, Treuchtlingen, Schwäbisch Hall and Munich opted for innovation over the status quo. The IT directors were each asked: What suggestions would you give to a manager or IT director in an American city considering the switch to FOSS? The following summarizes their answers.

Political Backing and Leadership Are Essential

The adoption of new technology is difficult under any circumstances, whether proprietary or FOSS. Studies indicate political backing is an essential ingredient to a successful migration since IT managers need the freedom to take risks. The experiences of the three cities confirm this. In each case, the mayor and parliamentary majority supported the shift to FOSS. As one IT director put it, “The political leadership must embrace the change to FOSS in order to give the IT administrator the freedom to make mistakes and try new things.” He added that in the case of FOSS, one should expect criticism from private vendors and some resistance for change from government employees.

In Munich, a high-level administration member took a leadership role to shepherd staff through the process. In practice, this meant the administrator did several things: made the case for adoption; took the political heat when the migration process hit a glitch, thereby shielding the IT staff; and consistently communicated to the Parliament and public the rationale for the migration, thus controlling the terms of the debate about FOSS.  

Cost Arguments Should Be Secondary

Scholars note the importance of cost savings in the motivations of local governments to consider FOSS. The experience of these three German cities supports this view generally. However, the story is more interesting. Each government turned to FOSS not when surplus funds became available to try something new and innovative. Instead, FOSS became an option for the cities when a change in the federal government’s tax system triggered a sudden budget deficit. The federal change served as a catalyst that directed public officials’ attention toward the need to save money and be self-sufficient. It was in this new environment, created by the change in federal tax law, that FOSS found fertile ground. A lesson offered by the German cities’ experiences is that although leadership, knowledge and expertise are important, an unexpected event or crisis is often needed to create an opportunity to redirect organizational attention and behavior in a new direction.

While a decline in tax revenue created an opportunity to adopt FOSS, each of the IT administrators echoed findings in much of the FOSS literature, namely that its adoption and implementation is costly. As with any new technology, FOSS requires a significant investment in training, implementation service and maintenance to succeed. The IT administrators also acknowledged that it’s easy to manipulate the total cost of operation of any type of technology. Although cost savings are important, they say IT directors must also make the case for FOSS on other grounds, including better cooperation among governments; greater independence from monopolistic software providers; more flexibility and security; and increased local economic development. Thus, the two takeaway lessons from the three cities are: to be successful, FOSS is likely to be expensive in the short run; and while cost savings are important, officials should strive to make the case for FOSS on other grounds.

Take Incremental Steps, but With an Overall Strategy

The three IT directors said it was unusual for a municipality to completely switch to FOSS in a single step, particularly if the governments have little experience with FOSS. The directors suggested taking incremental steps or a “soft migration.” They recommended beginning with common software applications like the Firefox browser, Thunderbird e-mail program and OpenOffice suite (an equivalent to Microsoft Office). In Schwäbisch Hall and Treuchtlingen, city employees were given free programs on a single disk and encouraged to install and use the software on their home computers. As mentioned, such steps reduced the anxiety of city employees to the new software. A second step is for the city to develop macros, templates and forms in the OpenDocument format, and set up pilot desktop stations in each department that run on the Linux-based operating system.

While the IT directors suggested an incremental approach, they also stressed the need for an overall strategy. “You have to know where you are going,” said one director.

“Incrementalism is fine, but there needs to be a clear idea of the end goal. Otherwise you could find yourself going nowhere or in the wrong direction.”

Practical experience trumps theory

Interviews with the IT directors underscored the importance of experience over theory. Just knowing about FOSS wasn’t enough, they argued. Instead, the IT directors suggested that any local government considering FOSS migration to spend time in a government that uses it, learn firsthand what that government isdoing and collect information from line employees who are using FOSS. One IT director also suggested that local governments consider hiring a college intern with computer science training and no bureaucratic experience. He noted, “It’s important to get someone with the latest technical knowledge. But you also want someone who has not been infected by the ‘bureaucratic virus.’ You want someone who will look at a problem with eyes unencumbered by the bureaucratic culture. A university student is often a good resource.”

Organization Matters

IT administrators said organizational structure is important. IT infrastructure is often decentralized so that each department has its own IT person. Officials in the three German cities stressed that a change as fundamental as migrating to FOSS is easiest with a centralized IT department. Based on their experience with migration, the directors reported that a decentralized IT structure creates cultural and structural barriers in the organization that make it difficult to adopt a governmentwide strategy. 

In Munich, for example, before migration to FOSS, IT was highly decentralized. More than 850 IT professionals were scattered across 17 departments. The departments did not resist change per se. Instead, when migration to FOSS was proposed, the city departments were reluctant to give up what they perceived as their IT professional(s) or expertise. This significantly slowed the migration process since migrating to FOSS required taking stock of the government’s entire IT infrastructure, identifying FOSS alternatives, and then standardizing the government’s operating systems and software. Such a change is made easier by a centralized IT structure, regardless of the city’s organizational culture. IT directors in all three cities argue that a centralized structure improved migration to FOSS.

The cities’ experiences with migration to FOSS also demonstrate a more complex relationship between organizational and technological change than what appears in scholarly literature. While technological change is often viewed as the product of organizational characteristics, the three case studies point to an inverse relationship: New technology changes the organization.

Respondents in each city explained that migrating to FOSS led to virtual and physical organizational changes. Virtual organizational change refers to how the cities managed their computer software systems. The policy to migrate to FOSS forced each city to take stock of its IT hardware and software because without such an assessment it wouldn’t have been possible to implement the migration policy. In some cases, cities conducted the assessments on their own. In other cases, cities relied on assistance from private-sector partners such as IBM and Novell. As cities addressed their virtual organizations, several also made changes to their physical organizations. Cities took stock of their IT staffs, identified redundancies and moved toward a more centralized IT support structure.

Finally, respondents in the three cities reported that the switch to FOSS improved their internal capacity and increased employees’ willingness to innovate. Because the benefits from FOSS derive from working with computer code, the advantages of open source increase as the IT staff’s expertise increase. While Schwäbisch Hall and Munich relied on contractors to aid the implementation process, all three cities were and are committed to doing as much of the IT work in-house as possible. And as the skill level of the IT professionals increased, so did the motivation to innovated. Each city reported developing new programs and applications, which were shared with other cities, as well as the broader open source community. Schwäbisch Hall, for example, recently developed a new council information application to provide materials and minutes to city parliamentarians. Munich and Treuchtlingen also have developed dozens of new applications. And Munich was recognized with the European E-Learning Award in 2007 for the learning platform the city developed to teach staff how to use open source software.

In sum, the German cities’ experiences suggest that the decision to switch from proprietary to open source software is neither easy nor obvious. It depends on a range of factors — administrative capacity, political backing and organizational structure. Yet, the experiences of the three cities underscores that while FOSS may not be appropriate for every circumstance, it should at least be considered by U.S. local government officials as a viable, perhaps even superior, alternative to its proprietary counterpart. ¨

Mark K. Cassell is an associate professor of political science at Kent State University. He specializes in public-sector transformations. His writing includes How Governments Privatize: The Politics of Divestment in the United States and Germany and Mission Expansion in the Federal Home Loan Bank System.

Mark Cassell  |  Contributing Writer

Mark K. Cassell is an associate professor of political science at Kent State University. He specializes in public-sector transformations. His writing includes How Governments Privatize: The Politics of Divestment in the United States and Germany and Mission Expansion in the Federal Home Loan Bank System.