How to alienate your government customers 101?

Summary:Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. Some tech media outlet would send one of its bloodhounds on the trail that was left in the wake of Massachusetts' decision to standardize on the OpenDocument Format (ODF)for the archival and retrieval of productivity documents (word processing, spreadsheets, etc.

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. Some tech media outlet would send one of its bloodhounds on the trail that was left in the wake of Massachusetts' decision to standardize on the OpenDocument Format (ODF)for the archival and retrieval of productivity documents (word processing, spreadsheets, etc.) to see what lengths Microsoft went to in order to keep that state's Information Technology Divsion (ITD) from deciding for itself what was best for the state. 

First, a quick refresher. Back in early 2005, as a part of a larger technology blueprint known as the state's Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM) , Massachusetts' ITD appeared to be on track to allow the both ODF as well as the proprietary file formats associated with Microsoft Office. But then, mid-way through the year, ITD officials had change of heart (leading Microsoft to believe it was unfairly railroaded) and told Microsoft that instead of allowing both formats, that it's preference was for Microsoft to offer support for ODF in Microosft Office. From my point of view, it was a very typical case of a customer telling one of its solution providers what it wanted and needed from that solution provider. Any customer should have the ability to make such a request of its solution providers and should also have the freedom to switch to another vendor if their request goes unanswered.

But Microsoft did answer the request. Just not in the way a solution provider typically responds to a customer request. Instead, it basically told its customer -- in this case, the state of Massachusetts -- that it was wrong to make such a request. It led me to pen another post: Microsoft vs. Mass.: What ever happened to "The customer is always right"? But Microsoft didn't stop there. Battle lines were drawn and people who probably had no business getting involved in an IT decision about file formats were sucked into the debate and suddenly, ETRM was turned into a political football. Although we in the press were at that time only exposed to anecdotal data that suggested that Microsoft was lobbying hard to turn the decision into a political one, rather than a technical one (where the state's own CIO had the authority to make the decision -- as it should be in any organization), it was pretty clear that vendors on both sides of the debate were digging their heels in in whatever way they could.

But the extent to which Microsoft was working the political knobs and levers wasn't really known until now, thanks to ComputerWorld's Carol Sliwa who has published a multi-part investigative report, the heart of which is titled How Microsoft & Massachusetts played hardball over open standards. Wrote Sliwa:

Less than a week after he became CIO of Massachusetts last February, Louis Gutierrez sensed a serious threat to his power — one that was being promoted by a seemingly unlikely source. Within a matter of days, Gutierrez confirmed that Brian Burke, Microsoft Corp.’s government affairs director for the Northeast, had been backing an amendment to an economic stimulus bill that would largely strip the Massachusetts Information Technology Division of its decision-making authority.....

....The amendment Burke was promoting had the potential to stop the ODF policy dead in its tracks by giving a government task force and the secretary of state’s office approval rights on IT standards and procurement policies....[Gutierrez] clearly was rankled by Burke’s involvement with the amendment. Yet he made no attempt to shut the door on Microsoft. On the contrary, he did the opposite...."While Brian will never be welcome in my office, Microsoft, of course, will remain so,” Gutierrez wrote to Alan Yates, a general manager in the company’s information worker product management group, in an e-mail....

The message, sent on March 3, is one of more than 300 e-mails and attached documents obtained by Computerworld under the Massachusetts Public Records Law. The e-mails provide a behind-the-scenes look at some of the hardball tactics used, compromises considered and prickly negotiations that ensued...

Although his departure was never publicly connected to the file format controversy, Gutierrez is no longer the Commonwealth's CIO. He was the second Massachusetts CIO to bite the dust in a year. That said, the ComputerWorld special report is certainly an eyebrow-raiser when it comes to revealing the lengths to which vendors might go in a government situation to politicize IT decisions that are normally the domain of an IT department.

Now that ComputerWorld has published this report and other government IT executives can see first hand the extent to which Microsoft might go to strip them of their authority if it doesn't like the way things are going, perhaps the question for Microsoft is how to convince those execs that it's a friend and not a foe. Gutierrez seemed especially forgiving when he said Microsoft was welcome in his office, but that Brian Burke was not. How many other government CIOs will now be on their guard every time someone from Microsoft comes a'knocking and of them how many will be equally as forgiving if Microsoft once again demonstrates a willingness to undermine them?

Topics: Microsoft


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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