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Educating David Coursey
Friday, January 06 2006 @ 04:22 AM EST

David Coursey's latest column, "Quinn's Actions Snub His Employer", tells me that he still doesn't quite understand the Massachusetts decision to go with ODF, so I'd like to help him out. Here's how his column begins:
Opinion: When he tried to tell the people of Massachusetts what file format they should use, the state's CIO was forgetting who works for whom. ...

I still find myself wondering: Why did the Massachusetts state CIO believe it was his job to tell the people of Massachusetts what file format they should use?

Evidently, Coursey hasn't yet read the ITD FAQ on the Final ETRM Version 3.5 Open Document Format Standard. So I'll reproduce some of the pertinent material from the FAQ, as needed to help him with his confusion. But here's the first hint: the people of Massachusetts don't have to save their documents in ODF and Peter Quinn never told them to. Here's a bit from the FAQ:

The Final ETRM Version 3.5 applies only to the Executive Department, and then only to documents created by the Executive Department. Implementation plans will take into account the need to maintain interoperability through the use of a variety of acceptable formats.   

That's clear, don't you think?

There's more, from the FAQ:

QUESTION:    If the Final ETRM V. 3.5 is adopted, won’t state   agencies need to work with private sector organizations and citizens on a case-by-case basis to work out ways to convert documents back and forth and to troubleshoot problems?  The impact of this process on critical agencies like those within the Executive Office of Human Services who depend on the interoperability of their respective IT systems with other branches of state government, particularly the judicial and public safety sectors, will be unacceptable.  

ANSWER: The Final ETRM V. 3.5 does not apply to documents that the Executive Department receives from external entities. Agencies outside the Executive Department with which EOHHS does business are not subject to Final ETRM V. 3.5. Current data exchanges between EOHHS and its partners outside of EOHHS will not be affected by the Final ETRM 3.5 Data Formats section because the Open Document Format standard applies only to office documents, not to pure data exchange between systems. To the extent to which agencies exchange documents created using office applications with outside agencies, ITD understands that there can be no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to implementing the Final ETRM Version 3.5. Each agency will create its own implementation plan taking into account the possibilities and limitations of its communications with outside parties.

   QUESTION: What impact do these changes have on the vendors who currently do business with agencies by exchanging and submitting documents to us using MS office tools? Are there additional challenges we place on customers and clients who must manage their business with us one way and with other clients in a different way?

  ANSWER: Because under the Final Version 3.5 agencies will be able to continue using their current MS Office applications, as long as they use methods to save documents in Open Document Format, this should not be an issue. And the Final ETRM applies only to documents that agencies create and save, not to documents they receive from third parties.  

Here's Coursey's next issue:

Why should the state select a format for storing state documents that is different from what a huge majority of its citizens are already using? And which the state itself already uses? Of does that improve access to state information?

Put another way: Is it the responsibility of citizens to change what they're doing for the convenience of the government? Or should government seek to meet the needs of the largest number of its citizens?

Rather than adopt a single format for the distribution of documents, governments should support multiple formats or at least provide some means of converting from whatever format the state uses to whatever the citizen is using.

And here's the answer, from the FAQ:

QUESTION: Why are you making agencies deploy a single office product? Doesn’t state procurement law require competition among vendors, which you will foreclose?  

ANSWER: The Final ETRM Version 3.5 does not require that agencies use only one office product. To the contrary, it offers agencies many choices. Agencies may choose to retain their existing MS Office licenses, as long as they use a method to save documents in Open Document Format. They may also use one of the many office tools that support Open Document Format in native format--- OpenOffice, StarOffice, KOffice, Abiword, eZ publish, IBM Workplace, Knomos case management, Scribus DTP, TextMaker and Visioo Writer. Because the Open Document Format is an open standard, it increases the vendor pool available to state agencies by encouraging and permitting vendors not already in this field to develop products that support the standard.    Adoption of the Final ETRM Version 3.5 will greatly increase competition among vendors for the sale of office applications to agencies....

 QUESTION: Where does ITD get authority to issue a set of standards like Final ETRM Version 3.5?

  ANSWER:   ITD is authorized   under its enabling legislation, Mass. Gen. L. ch. 7, sec. 4A(d), and under the Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, Mass. Gen. L. ch. 110G, s. 17, to set standards for electronic documents created by Executive Department agencies and to determine “whether, the extent to which and the manner by which” each Executive Department agency creates, maintains and preserves electronic records”....  

   QUESTION: Many state agencies currently rely on Microsoft Office (hereinafter “MS Office”). Adoption of the Final ETRM Version 3.5 could cause difficulty in daily office function. How will agencies share documents smoothly with other agencies, municipalities, citizens, businesses, and other government agencies?  

  ANSWER: the   Final ETRM V. 3.5   applies only to documents created by Executive Department agencies. It does not require that citizens, businesses, and other governments use open document format in communicating with the Executive Department. The Final ETRM V. 3.5 permits agencies to keep their existing MS licenses as long as the software supporting them includes a method for saving documents in Open Document Format. Implementation plans will take into account the need to maintain interoperability through the use of a variety of acceptable formats.   

It's no wonder Quinn decided he'd had enough. It's bad enough to have real flaws aired in public. But when folks get things so wrong, it must be infuriating. And everything Coursey complains about was answered in this FAQ, which has been available for months. What is the use of an opinion, if it isn't based on facts?

Coursey suggests that the public should have PDF documents provided to them. That's fine, and PDF is one of the formats that the MA executive department agencies can use. But there are sometimes documents that need to be worked on by more than one person, and PDF isn't ideal for that kind of editing.

ODF is an archiving format. It's for internal use. The FAQ is clear that no citizen is to be burdened with any interoperability issues, and so it seems likely that if a citizen needs a document, it will be provided as PDF. It seems logical to me that when citizens are provided documents, they will be in PDF format precisely because no government is going to provide official documents in a format that can be edited. Is this hard to grasp?

Finally, Coursey states something rather odd, and it's precisely here that Microsoft's train runs off the rails:

Microsoft is here, and as the overwhelming choice of customers, it gets to make certain decisions, file formats being one of them

First, the thing about being a monopoly is that people lack a choice, so it's a stretch to say people have chosen it. Try to buy a computer without Microsoft's operating system. Second, Microsoft doesn't get to tell governments what file formats to use. Coursey asks on what authority Quinn chose a file format for government use in executive agencies. There is statutory authority for that, actually, as the FAQ showed. But Microsoft has no such authority, and it's extraordinary that anyone would suggest that one of the perks of being a monopolist is that you get to tell governments what to do and what file formats to use. Has Microsoft forgotten who works for whom?

As Quinn's previous boss, Eric Kriss, mentioned to Microsoft and others at a public meeting a while back, sovereignty is the issue. Sovereignty means that governments get to decide what they want in the way of software, and it is up to software vendors to meet their needs, not to tell them that they should not want what they want. And what Massachusetts has said is it wants open formats, open standards. They are not interested in a single-vendor format, precisely because access is the issue, and if Microsoft goes out of business, or changes its formats -- and according to Coursey, they have that right -- then what happens? Here's the last snip from the FAQ:

 QUESTION: Why are you adopting this format when current formats are reasonably available to those making public records and other document requests?

  ANSWER:   Ease of access to electronic records created in proprietary formats is limited in time. Once the proprietary vendor abandons a particular version of an application or format, documents created and formatted in those applications and formats may become inaccessible to all readers.    The proprietary formats supported by our current office applications may place a permanent lock on future access.

Hopefully, reading this material will be helpful, and his next column will reflect these facts. No charge. This is a free service. Research is what we do, and we enjoy sharing.

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