Auditor inquisition could determine ODF's fate in Massachusetts

Summary:At a hearing yesterday in room 437 of the venerable State House in Boston, Mass., a Commonwealth Senate oversight committee chaired by Senator Marc R.

At a hearing yesterday in room 437 of the venerable State House in Boston, Mass., a Commonwealth Senate oversight committee chaired by Senator Marc R. Pacheco opened yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of Massachusetts' Enterprise Technical Reference Model -- a blueprint for the state's information technology, authored by the state's IT Department (ITD). 

Andy Updegrove, legal counsel to OASIS (the consortium that published the OpenDocument Format standard), has published his stenographer's notebook of the proceedings. Dan Bricklin, who at my request brought his recording gear in the event that mine failed (I was one of few who were given permission to record the session), has made the audio available in three parts (as it turns out, his gear was better suited to the environment than was mine). 

In his blog, John Palfrey, executive director at the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society sets the expectation that I'll leave no important quote from the event unturned, which I intend to do in the coming days (there was much to digest).  But for starters, I wanted to provide a higher level overview of what I observed.

Although the committee has seven members, only two -- Pacheco and Senator Richard T. Moore (who sat to Pacheco's left) were present when the proceedings began and Senator Moore, who only spoke up a handful of times, left part way through the hearing.  For a majority of the session which started at 1pm and lasted approximately 3.5 hours,  the room was packed with observers to the point that it was standing room only. 

As evidence of how central the Massachusetts decision is to the technology industry's balance of power, several of the largest vendors  -- IBM, HP, and Sun just to name a few -- were present at the hearing, as were the representatives of several industry lobbies.  Also present were several people with a variety of disabilities (some testified, some did not) and numerous advocates of open standards and/or open source.  Although the ongoing viabilty of Microsoft Office to the state's executive branch has been a central issue throughout the state's ETRM deliberations, no one known to be directly affiliated with Microsoft was present for the hearing.

As was expected, the primary focus of hearing was to explore the process that led to a key part of the ETRM blueprint -- the part that establishes OASIS' OpenDocument Format (ODF) as the standard XML-based file format that the state's executive branch must begin using on January 1, 2007 for the creation, editing, storage, and retrieval of the state's public documents. 

In a line of questioning directed at several state officials, Pacheco raised questions about the constitutionality of the decision, the authority that the ITD has to establish such standards, to what extent the ITD was obligated to include others in the decision, and, subsequently, to what extent it fulfilled those obligations.  Although I'd say that "process" was Senator Pacheco's chief concern, the deliberations also included some significant vetting of the wisdom that went into the ODF decision as well as a discussion of the potential costs and benefits should the state move forward with its plan. 

As those invited to testify were dismissed, it was clear from Pacheco's comments that the matter would remain open for investigation.  He asked that written copies of the testimony be forwarded to his office and tasked the state's auditors with the job of combing through everything there was to comb through with a fine tooth comb to better understand every knob and lever that was turned or pulled in reaching the decision.  Except for the state's CIO Peter Quinn and ITD general counsel Linda Hamel who, sitting side-by-side before Pacheco and Moore testified first, the testimony was decidedly unfavorable to both ODF and the process that preceded ITD's decision to select it as a statewide standard. In fact, after Quinn and Hamel took their seats in the gallery, I don't recall anything being said in the decision's favor.

After Massachusetts Office on Disability director Myra Berloff testified that her office was not consulted during the decision making process, the decision took a drubbing from two men with disabilities -- Gerry Berrier (Bay State Council for the Blind) and John Winske (Disability Policy Counsel).  The concern is that, if enforced, the new policy will result in a step backwards when it comes to the accessibility of computers to state employees with disabilities (an issue I will cover in painstaking detail in another blog).  During the hearing, Pacheco embarked on several digressions, some of which admonished Quinn and Hamel for not adhering to the collaborative spirit of open source by including more people in the decision making process.  Pacheco was also noticeably disappointed by how the decision may have been rushed, citing numerous requests to slow the process down and give others more time to comment on the decision.

Given how lopsided the testimony was, some of those in attendance who favor ODF, including Updegrove, left the hearing feeling as though the deck was purposely stacked against Quinn and Hamel (Updegrove says as much in his blog).  Whereas such a hearing couldn't take place without hearing testimony from Quinn and Hamel, the rest of the invitations to testify were clearly issued to those who are dissatisfied with ITD's decision. Whether or not that was by design, I cannot say. The Senator did not publish the criteria for his selections (verbal testimony was by invite only) ahead of time.  Several pro-ODF parties volunteered to testify but were denied the opportunity and submitted written testimony instead.  

As I left the hearing, and knowing what I know about open standards and open source, I came away with several impressions.  The first of these is that the ODF decision in Massachusetts was a very complicated one that cannot possibly be fully-vetted in the course of a single four-hour hearing.   Four hours is just enough time for enough people to say some things but not others in a way that only part of the truth is revealed, and in a way that certain misconceptions get to be aired without opportunity for rebuttal.  For example, during yesterday's proceedings, Senator Pacheco used the term "OpenOffice" where he should have used "ODF" as though the two are interchangeable and they are not.  There was not sufficient opportunity for anyone to articulate the difference between the two and why that difference is so important to the deliberations at hand. 

At one point, Quinn went unchallenged when he said that IBM's Lotus Workplace was one of several ODF-compliant solutions on the market today and it is not.  IBM's Lotus Workplace Managed Client -- the part of IBM's Workplace offering that will support ODF -- is a product that IBM is currently testing with a handful of customers and it could be said that, by virtue of that testing, it is still in its beta phase.  In other words, it is not yet shipping. 

Another impression that I left with is that the ODF decision could end up scuttled for two reasons. First, much the same way that a person caught red handed committing a crime can get off on a technicality -- for example, improper application of his or her Miranda rights -- the ODF decision could also be blown up on a technicality as well. Whereas Microsoft has raised questions about the fairness of the process, Senator Pacheco never really brought that up as an issue.  Instead, questions about constitutionality, authority, and inclusion of other state officials where they potentially should have been included -- questions that I as a technology journalist cannot even begin to address -- must now be thoroughly considered. 

What I can say is that during the hearing, it appeared as though Senator Pacheco and ITD General Counsel were disconnecting on the scope of some of the questions.  For example, Pacheco would ask a question about ITD's authority to  make such a sweeping decision and Hamel would essentially agree that ITD doesn't have that authority, but that the decision wasn't as sweeping as it was characterized to be.  Later, similar questions would be asked as though that disconnect was not resolved.   The entire four hours could probably have been spent establishing a foundational understanding on which to base more questions and testimony. 

At this point, it's impossible to say whether there was some sort of violation in process.  What's clear is that enough doubt has been raised about the process to require a more probing investigation.  If there's a silver lining to that cloud, it's that the policy setters in other governments (state, local, federal, etc.) that are considering similar types of decisions -- the ones who are watching the Massachusetts affair very closely -- will incorporate better i-dotting and t-crossing into their playbooks so as not to have their decisions subject to a similar inquisition over technicalities. 

The second reason that ODF could end up scuttled has to do with Peter Quinn and Linda Hamel themselves.  Although I have interviewed Quinn, this hearing was the first  time I had the chance to shake their hands.  Although I didn't ask, neither strikes me as a politician.  As stoic as they were while testifying to Pacheco and Moore -- and they were very stoic --  I couldn't help but think "What would happen if either of them decided for personal reasons that this fight isn't worth the personal sacrifice that it has so far been?" Although they were questioned with respect, it was clear from the beginning that Quinn and Hamel were not exactly in the good graces of Senator Pacheco.  I can't imagine that Quinn or Hamel ever envisioned or hoped for a day like yesterday.  Given that they are now the lone champions of the ODF decision in Massachusetts, they will need to have the stamina and the courage it takes to stay in the fire.  I'm not saying that they don't.  I glanced their way multiple times during the hearing and never once did I see a "What the heck am I doing here?" look on their faces.  But if either one steps down, ODF's future in Massachusetts will end up in serious jeopardy.

Finally, my last impression -- as a Massachusetts resident -- is that when people immerse themselves in the trees as has been done here, sight of the forest can at times be lost.   Perhaps some parts of the processes could have been better executed.  Perhaps the costs and benefits should have been detailed in an unassailable 500 page study (and now, because the state auditors are involved, it may).  Perhaps when it comes to implementing ODF, January 1, 2007 is simply an unrealistic date for those with disabilities to begin working with as-of-yet unproven solutions (unproven in terms of how accessible they are to those with disabilities).  Ultimately however, much the same way a killer can get off on a technicality in prosecution, it would be a terrible miscarriage of information technology if the bigger goal for Massachusetts gets lost in politics. 

Guaranteeing the accessibility to the state's public documents in perpetuity --  for all of the state's citizens and all of its employees -- is a noble cause that can only be served by an open standard (regardless of what that standard is).  Today, there are certain public documents in Massachusetts that are not as freely accessible as they should be (a situation that is not exclusive to Massachusetts).  Ultimately, after the processes have been vetted, and the costs and benefits are better understood (both short and long term), and those with disabilities have been assuaged (perhaps by more inclusion and different deployment dates), a decision on how to improve the current situation will have to be made and the definition of open and how openness can best serve the people of Massachusetts will once again be the most important questions. 

In the next few days, I will attempt to ask an answer some of the same questions that those now charged with examining the ODF decision will be studying as well.

Topics: Open Source

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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