Bill drops bomb on OpenDocument Format in Massachusetts

Summary:This is relatively late breaking news and more details won't be known until tomorrow.  Two days after a Senate oversight committee in Massachusetts (1) questioned the authority of the state's IT department (ITD) to standardize on formats for storing public documents and (2) demanded that state officials take more time to study the potential impact of setting the OpenDocument Format (ODF) as a standard, an economic stimulus bill [Update: it's S.

This is relatively late breaking news and more details won't be known until tomorrow.  Two days after a Senate oversight committee in Massachusetts (1) questioned the authority of the state's IT department (ITD) to standardize on formats for storing public documents and (2) demanded that state officials take more time to study the potential impact of setting the OpenDocument Format (ODF) as a standard, an economic stimulus bill [Update: it's S. 2256, the Commonwealth Investment Act] that goes before the Massachusetts Senate tomorrow (Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005) has been suddenly amended with text that, if passed, would essentially subjugate all IT procurements and ITD decisions including standard setting to a special task force. 

Based on the way the amended text makes specific reference to document formats and technology selections for state workers with disabilities, it turns the stimulus bill into a bomb that could easily blow up ODF's already weakened chances of becoming a statewide document standard.  The salient points of the amended text says the following:

There shall be a commonwealth information technology expert task force, hereinafter referred to as the task force, consisting of 4 members to be appointed by the governor, 1 member to be appointed by the treasurer, 1 member to be appointed by the state secretary, and 1 member to be appointed by the auditor......An  executive agency or department shall not adopt or implement a policy, practice or standard  concerning information technology standards  or systems or the  procurement or use of hardware, software , and cellular phones and other electronic devices, without the affirmative approval of the task force by majority vote. Any  executive agency or department policy, practice or standard  concerning the creation, storage or archiving of documents or materials shall also be approved by the supervisor of public records and the records conservation board, and shall be certified by the state auditor as maintaining or enhancing the commonwealth's compliance with Section 508 of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1973.

Not being familiar with how such legislative text is treated in practice, it's hard to figure out just what exactly to make of the amended bill.  But taken at face value,  just about any IT-related activity including something as simple as a single sourcing purchase orders for Push-to-Talk cell phones (eg: from Nextel) could be stretched to fit within the jurisdiction of the bill if passed as is.  It's therefore unclear to what extent the text and the decisions it subjects to the approval of the task force could have a paralyzing effect on the State's procurement of technology. 

There are no details on who sponsored the amended text.  That information will apparently become available tomorrow when the bill reaches the Senate floor.  However, the coincidence of the text isn't the only thing that connects the amended text to this past Monday's hearing.  Senator Marc R. Pacheco, the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee chairperson who led the hearing, is also on the Senate's Ways and Means Committee.  If Pacheco had anything to do with the introduction of the text or knew of it and didn't object, it would be rather ironic given the way Pacheco characterized the ODF ratification process as one that didn't include as many people as it should have and ultimately as a process that was too rushed.

A lot of political stops are being pulled out to stop the ODF decision dead in its tracks.  What makes the political maneuvering unusual is that ODF is small part of the state's Enterprise Technical Reference Model -- a much larger and all encompassing technology blueprint for Massachusetts that sets many other standards that haven't received one iota of scrutiny from the state's politicians.  One thing is for sure:  There's more to these politics than meets the eye.  It reminds me of a book I once read called I Never Played the Game by Howard Cosell.  In that book, Cosell laments about how the most significant events in sports -- events that affected the outcome of most competition -- took place off the field (or outside of the boxing ring, etc.).

Topics: ZDNetLive

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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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