Bill drops bomb on OpenDocument Format in Massachusetts

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.

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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.).

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  • Fast action in MA

    The language quoted would create a committee with broad membership to review all standards, just as predicted.

    The second part of the prediction was that the committee would not make specific decisions about formats, but create guidelines for use by agencies, etc.

    If the language passes and becomes law, we'll learn about the accuracy of this guess. Judging by the speed of action so far, that should be apparent by week's end.
    Anton Philidor
    • It will be interesting to see..

      what becomes of this. I would imagine a lwasuit somewhere to invalidate this if it passes.
      Patrick Jones
      • Invalidate?

        On what basis?

        Carl Rapson
        rapson
        • My guess

          would be something along the lines of overstepping their bounds. I don't know what actual legal language would be used since IANAL.
          Patrick Jones
          • Overstepping their bounds...

            Are you thinking of violation of separation of powers? Because that's the first thing that popped into my head. (Not saying whether they did, as IANALE, but that would probably be the specific grounds for enjoining them)
            Third of Five
          • Something like that..

            The question becomes "who's authority is it to set these policies?"
            Patrick Jones
    • ITYS!

      I feel a giant pressure inside me bubbling up to the surface, kind of like a massive pimple ready to erupt.

      Here it comes: [b]I TOLD YOU SO.[/b] (Splat.)

      While the law is not on the books yet, let's assume it'll get passed. That would be the reasonable assumption based on past instances like these, which most of you have carefully ignored.

      While most of the commentary here has been along the lines of, "Microsoft is flexing its muscles and Massachusetts lawmakers are giving in," the truth is that it is sheer speculation that anyone at Microsoft needed to lift a finger to make it happen.

      There are some additional possibilities.

      Suppose all the local governments and third parties who interact with the MA executive branch complained - to their congresspeople, not to MA ITD - that the proposed standard put a tremendous and unnecessary burden on them at a time when IT budgets have been cut to the bone.

      What if people in Massachusetts were outraged that ITD, in essence, wrote a standard that Microsoft didn't meet, then rubbed everyone's noses in it by broadcasting far and wide how clever they had been.

      What if state auditors became concerned that the proposed standard was negotiated with the help of some vendors, but not all, opening up the state to claims of favoritism (or anti-favoritism) in the procurement process.

      Look at who is selected to choose members of the proposed oversight committee outside the governor's office: Massachusetts treasurer, secretary of state, and auditor. That's a pretty heavy load.

      With the addition of the text creating the task force, I suspect the hearings will quietly wind down. Too bad - it's less likely that anyone will get down to the "who talked to whom" level.

      Useful standard or no, the bald fact is that MA ITD Screwed This Up and deserves what they will get.

      And by the way - I told you so.
      GDF
      • If you're correct, that's even more worrying.

        [i]"Suppose all the local governments and third parties who interact with the MA executive branch complained - to their congresspeople, not to MA ITD - that the proposed standard put a tremendous and unnecessary burden on them at a time when IT budgets have been cut to the bone."[/i]

        What you are describing is called [b]vendor lockin[/b] and Microsoft knows that game very, very well. It is the kind of game that only works for a vendor in an extremely powerful position, like a monopoly, and should be the chief argument for [b]not[/b] using Microsoft's proprietary formats.

        Think of the logic - they are so indebited to Microsoft that they can't stop using Microsoft's products. MS can now do what they like, all those local governments and '3rd parties' just [b]have[/b] to keep using Office.

        It was bound to come to this, and it won't stop here.
        Fred Fredrickson
      • If you're correct, that's even more worrying.

        [i]"Suppose all the local governments and third parties who interact with the MA executive branch complained - to their congresspeople, not to MA ITD - that the proposed standard put a tremendous and unnecessary burden on them at a time when IT budgets have been cut to the bone."[/i]

        What you are describing is called [b]vendor lockin[/b] and Microsoft knows that game very, very well. It is the kind of game that only works for a vendor in an extremely powerful position, like a monopoly, and should be the chief argument for [b]not[/b] using Microsoft's proprietary formats.

        Think of the logic - they are so indebited to Microsoft that they can't stop using Microsoft's products. MS can now do what they like, all those local governments and '3rd parties' just [b]have[/b] to keep using Office.

        MA ITD didn't screw up at all, they actually got it spot on. If others had done so many, many years ago when IT people were trying to tell them, they wouldn't be in the lock-in position they are now in.
        Fred Fredrickson
    • Good

      Lots of people get very upset when non-elected individuals set policies that have the force of law. This time the elected officals decided it was time to take back the authority and responsibility of setting laws.
      zchief
      • Crap

        So a special task force of appointed persons is elected?

        So who do you trust, a hand-picked Star Chamber, or a bunch of professionals who are trying to do the right thing by their employers and the community they serve?
        Fred Fredrickson
      • Rubbish

        So a special task force of appointed persons is elected?

        So who do you trust, a hand-picked Star Chamber, or a bunch of professionals who are trying to do the right thing by their employers and the community they serve?
        Fred Fredrickson
        • I would trust people you can fire by voting for the other guy.

          If the elected officials want to keep their job, they should fire these out of control IT politickers. Even Truman fired MacArthur for getting out of line. If you don't like your job, get a new one.
          osreinstall
  • With billions of annual revenue at stake ..

    There are billions of dollars of annual Microsoft revenue at risk, so it is not the least surprising that Microsoft is throwing lots of money to reverse the democratic process that led to adoption of the Open Document format.

    With a string of faulty and misleading complaints already raised by Microsoft, let's hope the facts don't get burried.
    interoperate
    • This isn't Star Wars...

      ... and Massachusetts isn't poor besieged little Tatooine at the mercy of the big evil MS Empire.

      It is about money, though. The politicians don't want to shell out huge transfer costs to move their offices from the de facto standard, MS Office, to second string app platforms just because of some IT bureaucrats' decree.

      Sounds reasonable to me.
      broper
      • Standar FUD

        The cost of converting existing docs to ODF cannot possibly even come close to the long-term cost of MS Office lisences. Not to mention the continued lock-in for Mass. and all of their public documents. And for those of us who do not use Windows or MS Office it creates an unacceptable barrier to access regarding public documents.

        Only a fool would believe there's no behind the scenes big-money politics at play here.
        Tim Patterson
        • Lock-In

          It would be great to see a public forum where the value of access, and the probable costs of creating barriers to access, to public information could be openly discussed. Let's hope that this is what this is what MS has in mind.

          For me the combination of the DMCA and Microsoft's use of proprietary formats can only mean two things:
          - Unacceptably high access costs; and
          - Certain lock-out at some later date.

          On that last point, whenever a supplier tells me that they are too big for their 'standard' (ho-hum) to become lost, irrelevant, and unsupported - I always remember this:

          I met a traveler from an antique land
          Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
          Stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand,
          Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
          And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
          Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
          Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
          The hand that mocked them, the heart that fed;
          And on the pedestal these words appear:
          My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,
          Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
          Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
          Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
          The lone and level sands stretch far away...

          This poem (Ozymandius by Percy Bysshe Shelley) was not written in some passing fancy. It is based on reports of Egyptologists uncovering the remains of once-mighty nations, now long forgotten.
          Stephen Wheeler
          • Ozymandias was Ramses II...

            ... and he certainly is not forgotten. What he didn't build or rebuild he slapped his name on, and it's probable that every year millions of people touring Egypt or looking at exhibits in their own countries see his name.

            For the ancient Egyptians, to be thought about was to become vibrant in a heaven they imagined as no more than Egypt without the aggravation.
            Ramses is living, and living well.

            So much of ancient Egypt was preserved by the affection of the people who lived in that culture that we can see many details, though only from the outside.

            I can think of only one likelihood greater than the continued acknowledgement of Ramses II: the ability to read Microsoft formats in future years.
            Anton Philidor
          • Hear, hear...

            Last week I pulled up an MS Word document from 1991 in Word 2003. Same with an Excel spreadsheet. No problems. OASIS and ODF weren't even in existence in 1991. Can anyone seriously say that a different file format, with productivity software percentage in the single digits, is going to be around longer than MS formats?
            Rodney Davis
          • Yes

            Because those format specifications are open to everyone so anyone can create an importer for those formats. IIRC, the Word format you are talking about had to be reversed engineered by others to be able to import it into their programs. And, as I have stated before, we have had problems with older Word documents opening in newer Word programs.
            Patrick Jones