Manitoba is a Canadian province that began in the days of horse and wagon. Municipalities were necessarily small as there were great difficulties communicating and travelling larger distances. In the 21st century however, there are better ways of doing things. The minister responsible for local government released a memo recently including the following:
“Lemieux said some of the ways municipalities would be strengthened through amalgamation would include:
- reinvesting administrative savings into better services;
- reducing operational costs through sharing major assets like water-treatment and recreation facilities;
- helping to recruit and retain skilled municipal staff;
- providing more opportunities to attract business and economic development with reduced red tape, common regional regulations, infrastructure and services; and
- finding savings and efficiencies through economies of scale.
Minister for Local Government
In a recent memo your government emphasized the benefits of consolidation of municipalities. Those are important measures but there are key issues of information technology that aren’t really dependent on economies of scale. Today, one server could provide services to the whole province thanks to faster hardware, software and networks. One server could replace most of the paper documents used within government. One server could replace most of the PCs in the province with thin clients rather than expensive Windows+Intel+software licensing fees per seat.
Reduction in duplication is just one avenue of efficiency in government. Another and probably more important avenue is use of Free Software everywhere. That’s not $free software but software that is delivered with a licence that allows the government to run the software without limitation, examine the software, modify it and distribute the software with or without modification under the same terms. see The Free Software Foundation for more information.
Free Software is a great fit with government. It does not provide artificial barriers to prop up the revenue of a vendor. It allows the best performance of the hardware owned by government and follows open standards for documents, file-formats and networking protocols. All these features of Free Software tend to drive the cost of software down to $0 because a solution can be developed by one office and shared with all other similar offices. The chief costs are installation and training, not on-going licensing/updates. The cost of migration once is far less than paying for licences/updates forever. The world can and does make its own software cooperatively. There is no need to pay particular companies for the use of hardware that government buys. Governments should collect taxes, not pay them.
Governments of all sizes can benefit themselves and their constituents by using GNU/Linux operating systems on servers and PCs and Android/Linux operating systems on tablets and smartphones. Similarly, Apache web server, PostgreSQL database, SugarCRM customer relations, WordPress blogging, and LibreOffice are key applications capable of industrial strength information technology at the lowest cost. The Government of the United Kingdom runs its whole public domain on WordPress. The UK plans to replace much of its bureaucracy with a network of servers cutting the cost of transactions by as much as fifty times over person to person interaction. The UK plans to make Free Software (Open Source, in their terminology) the default for all changes in IT. Typically, it costs about half as much money to run IT with Free Software as with non-free software. Often savings are immediate with less need to upgrade hardware or to fight malware.
The greatest savings are moves that combine a shift to Free Software with a shift to thin clients where the major computing is done on servers rather than desktop PCs. That way users get the performance of a new, powerful server rather than an ageing PC with too little memory or speed. A ten year old PC can show pictures and send clicks as fast as it ever did and a server can deliver the goods much faster by keeping data and applications in fast memory rather than slow storage. Even a small office can save using GNU/Linux and thin clients if they have as few as two PCs. They just use a regular PC as a terminal server and a $50 box as a thin client. It takes only about $20 of server hardware to please a user. That makes an incremental cost of about $70 per seat compared to $hundreds for PCs running WindowsTM. There is increased reliability, speed, security and maintainability. Thin clients are like telephones. You plug them in and they keep working for many years with little maintenance.
The Province of Manitoba could assist municipalities to maximize their efficiency by providing guidance in better use of information technology. I recommend suggesting Free Software by default to maximize return on investment in hardware and using networks and servers to provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people whether in a small office, a whole municipality or a network of municipalities.
St. Andrews, MB