It is perhaps no surprise that Minnesota, a blue state like Massachusetts and heir to the political traditions of the Prairie Populists, should be the situs of a bill to require "open data formats." In spirit, this is a good thing, as it indicates a broadening appeal for open document format standards that, if missing, would be worrisome. But is the bill as submitted an encouraging signal that a bandwagon effect is taking hold, or a step towards standards Babel, and a leap backwards? The question is a serious one for a variety of reasons, and cuts to the heart of why standards exist.
Clearly, the definition of an "open standard" contained in the Minnesota bill includes many of the attributes that make a standard useful, such as requirements intended to prevent "lock-in" by a single proprietary vendor. But inherent in the concept of a standard is wide acceptance - and if everyone comes up with their own definition of what an "open standard" means, then there is no "standard" for what a "standard" is. If that happens, then the whole economic basis for standardization collapses, because the incentive for a vendor to support a standard is to reach and sell to a large potential customer base with a single, uniform product. Unless each customer specifies the same standards requirements, then the vendor can expect no return on its investment. Moreover, the citizenry suffers as well, because the software that someone needs to exchange a document with her state congressman in St. Paul may not be what's required to communicate with her senator in Washington.
Does this make the Massachusetts policy bad as well?
The answer is no, because there is one crucial distinction between the Massachusetts policy, and the bill filed in Minnesota. That difference is that the Massachusetts bill refers to whether or not a specification has been approved by a recognized standards body, while the Minnesota bill (thus far) does not. In doing so, Massachusetts is doing several productive things:
- First, it is piggybacking on the good work that has already been done elsewhere, through recognized and respected standards organizations, in creating "open" standards for specific purposes.
- Second, it spares the State the burden of evaluating every product on its own, rather than being able to rely on evaluations (and sometimes certifications) that are already available in the marketplace for standards-compliant products.
- Third, it is taking advantage of the appeal to vendors that a recognized standard provides - that there will likely be many customers that will include compliance to the standard in their purchasing requirements. This means that there will be likely to be many more products offered, with more attractive and varied features, and with greater price competition.
- Finally, the products purchased will be likely to be interoperable with far more products outside the state, enhancing the utility and efficiency of the software purchased.
By omitting reference to recognized standards, the sponsors of the Minnesota bill are actually taking a step backwards in the area of government purchasing. Ten years ago, the federal government abandoned the costly procedure of commonly using "government unique" standards - the kind that led to the infamous $200 toilet seat, and other exorbitantly expensive purchases by federal agencies. Under the Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, the federal agencies were instructed to use public standards whenever possible, to report to Congress on their progress in making the conversion to such standards, and even to participate in the activities of standards organizations. In consequence, government procurement left the world of "government unique," and entered the more competitive, varied world of "COTS" (commercial off the shelf software).
The lesson, then, is clear. When legislatures and IT divisions of governmental entities wish to move towards open standards - a commendable goal - they should not create their own definition of what open standards are, but make use of the sdefinitions of tandards - and the products that meet those standards - that already exist.
This does not mean abandoning the ability to choose among standards. For example, a government could state preferences as among various standards. For example, a law could state that a standard that prohibits proprietary extensions would be used over one that doesn't. This would permit current purchasing from the field of standards and products that exist, while signaling the way to get more business in the future from the adoption of tighter standards.
There is also a second moral to the story: it is (in my view) very appropriate and desirable for governmental agencies (such as IT departments) to restrict purchasing to products that support open standards, wherever possible. It may even be useful for legislatures to require this - but only if those that craft the bills get the language right, and if that language survives floor debate and the reconciliation of drafts, which is not so easy to manage in the rough and tumble of the legislative process. A flawed bill, once passed, may needlessly restrict purchasing in a way that may cause long term harm.
Hopefully, the Minnesota legislature will add in references to established standards if the bill moves forward. Hopefully, too, this will become the norm in any other states that decide to walk down the same road.
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