An Interview with Mass. Supervisor of Public Records Alan Cote

When it comes to politics and technology, there are always (at least) two opinions. Today, I provide the full interview with Massachusetts Supervisor of Public Records Alan Cote, whose views on ODF differ substantially from those usually expressed in the Standards Blog

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an advocate of open standards in general, and of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) in particular. They will also know that while Massachusetts has endorsed ODF (and Adobe PDF) for saving Executive Agency documents, that decision has been contentious. By definition, if there is contention over a decision, there are (at least) two views on whether that decision is appropriate or not, and each view merits attention in order to move forward. That is the purpose of this blog entry.

Parties in Opposition: Those that have questioned or oppose adoption of ODF in Massachusetts fall into four camps:

1. Those vendors (most notably Microsoft) that have decided not to support ODF and several industry groups that include vendors in their membership that oppose ODF:

2. Massachusetts officials in the office of Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin who are displeased with the exercise of power by the Information Technology Division (ITD) in adopting standards for documents;

3. Massachusetts legislators who are not yet convinced that adopting ODF is a wise move; and

4. members of the community of the disabled that are concerned that office productivity applications that support ODF will not be as able to meet their needs as does Microsoft Office (together with existing accessibility tools from independent software vendors).

Various individuals have become most associated with each of these positions. In the case of Microsoft, that person is Alan Yates, general manager of business strategy for Microsoft’s Information Worker Group. In the case of Massachusetts legislators, Senator Marc R. Pacheco, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight has been most visible and most often quoted in the press. Several individuals have been vocal on behalf of the community of the disabled, many of whom are employees of associations that work to protect the rights of the disabled.

In the case of the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Secretary Galvin has never (to my knowledge) been directly quoted on the topic of ODF, although it is known that he expressed “grave concerns” to the Romney administration over the adoption of ODF. Instead, the views of Secretary Galvin’s office have often been communicated by Alan Cote, the Supervisor of Public Records in the Public Records Division of the Secretary’s office. In that capacity, Alan Cote has frequently spoken to the press, as well as participated in various meetings and hearings, including the hearing held by Senator Pacheco on October 31, 2005.

Last month, I spoke at length with Alan Cote, and reported on that conversation in a blog entry called The Other Side of the ODF Coin: an interview with Mass. Supervisor of Records Alan Cote. At that time, I noted that Alan had agreed to a written interview, and that interview is reproduced in full below, without editing.

Issues: As you will see, the interview focused in part on process and authority, given that Secretary Galvin’s office and Alan have voiced the opinion that the ITD did not have the authority to adopt version 3.5 of the Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM) with the inclusion of the parts that mandate use of ODF.

Alan is strongly of the opinion that the ITD did not have this power, while then Secretary of Finance and Administration Eric Kriss and former Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn were just as forcefully of the opposite conviction. As a result, many of the individual conclusions and positions on the law expressed in this interview are different than those that would be taken by the ITD. The clearest statements of the ITD position may be found in two places: The first, and most concise, appears in the FAQ posted by the ITD on September 21, at the time that it announced the adoption of ETRM version 3.5. The second and much more detailed argument appears in a brief submitted by ITD General Counsel Linda Hamel, in response to a request by Senator Pacheco at the October hearing. Finally, for a full, chronological review of the events covered in this interview, see the Feature Article of the September 2005 issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin.

The Public Records Office and the Public Records Supervisor: Alan Cote became Supervisor of Records in February of 2002. In doing so, he became responsible under relevant law (Chapters 9 and 66 of the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) to, “take necessary measures to put the records of the commonwealth, counties, cities or towns in the custody and condition required by law.” Historically, this has meant assuming control of paper documents, and ensuring that they were stored in conditions under which they would remain stable and accessible. The office of the Supervisor of Records is also responsible for entertaining requests for access to public documents, and therefore for evaluating which records must be produced and which may be withheld.

Appropriate to such a task, Alan Cote’s academic credentials include a bachelor’s degree in public administration and a law degree. But although his undergraduate studies also included a minor in computer science, he points out that his duties relate to implementing policy, not implementing technology. Instead, he relies “heavily on [the state’s] various state CIOs, our state Archivist and his staff, other states’ chief record officers, the federal government record officers and representatives of industry when deciding on technology issues.” The Interview:

I. The Public Record Office

CSB: Does your office have it’s own IT staff, or does it rely on the ITD or another IT center?

Cote: The office of the Secretary of State has its own CIO and an IT Staff.

CSB When did your office first begin archiving documents electronically?

Cote: My office does not archive documents electronically. All records whether paper or electronic belong to the various agencies. As the agencies run out of storage space, they are allowed to request storage space from the Record Conservation Board (RCB). The Board then works closely with the State Records Center located at Columbia Pointe, to provide low cost storage options to all agencies as needed.

CSB: Approximately how many documents are added to the archive each year? How many are deleted?

Cote: The Archive staff and the RCB review all records for archival quality as they are presented to the RCB for destruction. As you may know, every record has a specific lifespan. As the record reaches the end of its life, the agency presents that record to the RCB and asks for permission to destroy it. The destruction procedure is a widely accepted and integral component of proper record management. Before permission is granted to destroy the record, the members of the Archive staff review the record and if it is deemed to be historically significant, the record may be transferred to the Archives for permanent retention and preservation.

CSB: What percentage and types of documents are kept indefinitely?

Cote: The federal government estimates that it retains 2% of all documents permanently. I would guess that we retain 5 – 7% of all state records for more than 30 years with only 3-5% being retained permanently. The majority of those are payroll and personnel records.

CSB: Please describe briefly how documents are electronically archived now.

Cote: Electronic records transferred to the archives facility because they contain historically significant material are stored in many different media. Some are printed, some are captured through microfiche or microfilm and some are stored in multiple electronic formats to ensure readability in the future. We are always looking at new electronic formats for our electronic records. Dr. Warner and I constantly review archival science journals and working groups such as NARA and NAGARA to find information on trends and best practices. It is a fluid program that has worked well for some time now.

CSB: Anything else I should have asked to get a flavor for what your office does that’s relevant to this issue?

Cote: Actually, I don’t know where to start to answer that question. The staff of this office, the archives facility and the state record center work diligently every single day to make sure that the records of our government are captured, maintained and preserved for posterity regardless of form or format. We have many dedicated employees who eat, sleep and breath record management and archive science. They may not all be technology gurus but they genuinely care about this issue and they work very hard and I think the Commonwealth has been served well thus far.

II. Relations with the ITD Questions

CSB: When and how did you first learn that document format standards might be included in a new ITD policy?

Cote: I believe that I first learned of the new document format inclusion during a summit in June 2005. I may have heard vague rumors before that but I am not sure exactly. News that an agency may be discussing a new document format would not have caused me any alarm because the RCB and I routinely allow agencies to adopt new document formats, as they deem necessary to perform their mission critical tasks. In other words, we have many agencies such as MassGIS that store their documents and data in a format that is different than say, DSS or DOR. As long as the format is well researched and reasons for adoption clearly explained to this office and the RCB, it is generally approved.

CSB: What opportunities were you given to provide input?

Cote: I believe I was asked to provide comment after the first version of the ETRM was published. The RCB has never been asked to review the ETRM or to provide comment.

CSB: At what point did you learn that the new policy would only apply to the Executive Agencies?

Cote: I knew immediately that this policy, if approved, would only effect the executive branch agencies as ITD does not have the authority to establish policy for any other branch of government or the municipalities.

CSB: What do you believe should have been done differently?

Cote: Honestly, I don’t know where to start to answer this question. I wish ITD had come to me and to the RCB in the beginning to explain the need for adopting a new format. As I mentioned before, I don’t even know how many of the agencies under the executive branch can follow this policy since their agency may require alternate forms and formats. I don’t know if anyone has looked at the financial aspects of adopting such a policy or if the policy is well researched and understood by ITD staff. I mean, is this providing good value to the taxpayers? How does it promote and improve interoperability if no one else in the state adopts this policy? There are so many questions that need answers and there was a process in place that was completely subverted.

CSB: At Senator Pacheco’s hearing, I recall your stating that you believed that the ITD had violated applicable law in promulgating the policy on its own. What laws do you believe the ITD violated, and was this also the conclusion of any state attorneys that support your office?

Cote: Section 17 of the Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (which I drafted with Linda Hamel of ITD) clearly states that ITD, the RCB and the Supervisor will work together in drafting and promulgating regulations concerning electronic records. ITD simply does not have the authority to adopt this policy on its own.

III. Format Questions

CSB: What is your opinion of document formats like ODF? Do you think that they show promise and will be useful to you?

Cote: I think a great more work needs to be done to fully understand this very complex issue. I am not opposed to ODF and I think it does show promise as one of the formats our government should use to accomplish our goals of preserving records and serving the public.

It is interesting to note that according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 29, 2005), the federal government has recently awarded a six year, $308 million dollar project to Lockheed Martin Corp. concerning this very issue. Lockheed will use a “handful of widely accepted formats” such as HTML to save electronic records. Like the federal government, I don’t think that adopting one format and drawing a line in the sand is the solution. Clearly, Massachusetts is not the only place dealing with electronic records issues. Understanding what has worked in other venues and learning from other people’s experiences is very valuable and saves the Commonwealth money.

CSB:Do you have any opinion about whether ODF or the Microsoft XML Reference Schema would serve you better?

Cote: I don’t think choosing one over the other is the answer and I don’t think we need to restrict ourselves to just one format. I believe that a statewide policy setting forth broad concepts of “openness” with a clear outline providing guidance for record creation, maintenance and preservation is the best choice.

IV. Next Steps Questions

CSB: What do you think should happen next?

Cote: I believe that there are too many commissions, advisory boards and task forces performing the same function. I strongly believe that the legislature needs to get behind the original, existing record management framework setup by statute, that is to say we need to strengthen the authority of the Record Conservation Board. I would like to see more agencies included in the RCB, especially the municipalities and the judiciary. I think we need a flexible but comprehensive records management plan for the Commonwealth concentrating on technology issues and true interoperability.

CSB:What do you expect will happen next now that Louis Gutierrez has taken over the CIO’s job?

Cote: I am very encouraged by his appointment. I think he brings a great deal of talent and experience to the table and I look forward to working with him in a an open and cooperative manner to resolve this issue in a positive way.

CSB:Any last thoughts?

Cote: I think it is important to understand that we are public servants first and foremost. That our actions should be guided always by what is best for our customer, the taxpayers.

This is a huge issue, now and in the future. It will affect each and every citizen of the Commonwealth through his or her daily interactions with government. We owe it to them to properly research and implement this program openly and honestly, in the most transparent forum available and in a manner that instills confidence in our abilities and judgment.

I want to thank you for the chance to answer these questions and I look forward to future conversations on this and many other important issues of the day.

[To browse all prior blog entries on this story, click here]

subscribe to the free Consortium Standards Bulletin
(and remember to Buy Your Books at Biff’s)