Politicians, lobbyists and scapegoats: When choosing not to choose should make you vote the next time

The famous and much awaited RGI (Référentiel Général d’Interopérabilité) has officially been published and enacted. This announcement was met with mixed reactions and as I have been following the RGI for quite a few years now, I thought I would write some of my thoughts about it.

The RGI is actually old, not just because it was already online as a final draft in May 2009, but because the RGI as a project dates back several years. Its story goes like this: Somewhere in 2006 the decision is made by the French government to draft a public sector-wide policy on IT matters. This policy is to be published in several parts, one on security, another on accessibility and the last one on interoperability. The last one, called the RGI, is published as a draft on the same year and submitted for public comments on a wiki, which was at the time something daring and courageous. The feedback that was received was ominously  good. In fact the first version of the RGI was mandating the use of Open Standards, and most notably ODF throughout the whole administration. At that very moment, Microsoft decided it was time to intervene and through a violent strategy of pressure and influence, managed to repel the RGI and have the process restarted. The process did restart and the same document finally got finalized for official approval in 2007. There the RGI progressively fades away, partly because of the presidential elections taking place in France at that time, partly because of a strongly applied pressure from the outside.

The freshly elected government seems to have not so fresh ideas about I.T. Its track record in the matter is probably one of the worst possible as it is the one who authored and championed the Hadopi law (the french three strikes system) and other network censorship legislation. Any communication system that is not controlled by the Hungarian director of police  glory of our nation, the President, is progressively being put under his control.  In this context one could believe that the RGI would have lost not time being reexamined again. The exact opposite happened, partly because of the neo-conservative bias of the new government who seems to believe in the omnipotence of markets vs State intervention, partly because of a strange proximity with Microsoft (four ministers inaugurated the new Microsoft offices in Paris!) and a common hatred of Google. In this context, the people in charge of drafting the RGI discovered they were deprived of any political support. Moreover, they also realized that the opportunity for a clear policy drafting had gone away. They are public servants, after all, and public servants cannot do a lot without the support of the politicians in power.

This is how we come to the present RGI. The document by itself has been totally rewritten, choosing to leave aside the policy aspect in favor of an exhaustive referencing and classifying of existing technology and standards.  This document itself integrates well with the upper echelons of European interoperability framework and does not attempt to dictate what the public sector stakeholders should do. On the crucial question of the office file formats, it is obvious that the authors spent some time carefully choosing their words. While the use of xml-based file format is clearly recommended, ODF is being put under observation (the reason for this is unclear) and so is OOXML, but at least we know the reason for this: OOXML has no known implementation (and won’t have any until a long time, they might have added) and therefore cannot be used.

This is what happens when a government is fiddling too much with powerful corporations and forget the interest of its own people: honest, competent, public servants have to compose with whatever they have in order to keep things going. If I were to judge this document from this standpoint only, I would actually give it a big cheer.The problem is that the whole concept of the RGI has become somewhat of a loaded gun in France, and it is I believe useless to use people of the DGME as scapegoats. With what they have, they could not have done better. But what was at stake was an opportunity for France to become a champion of open standards and sustainable digital future. It’s sad to see this government never gave it a chance. I hope one day we will realize that the ideological bias against any form of openness entertained by the present President and Prime Minister is something akin to the outrageous denial of global warming by the previous U.S. administration.I look forward to the future versions of the RGI, and think they will bring more constructive, innovative and positive elements to the development of a coherent information infrastructure  for our national public sector.

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