Legislators Wimp Out on Open Document Format Bills

To begin with, it was disappointing to hear legislators complaining that taking responsibility for the long-term availability of public documents should not be their concern. In Minnesota, Don Betzold, the Democratic state senator who was the original sponsor of the open formats proposal was quoted in retreat as follows: “I wouldn’t know an open document format if it bit me on the butt. We’re public policy experts. [Deciding technical standards] is not our job.”
Oh? And if not a legislature’s job, whose is it? State and federal legislators annually rule on a bewildering array of topics, from funding super conducting super colliders, to the rights of people to die, to stem cell legislation, to complex tax issues, to international affairs, to defense expenditures. Somehow they manage. One reason they do is because they are supported by large staffs of aids (extremely large staffs, in the case of federal congressmen and senators) and are free to call upon experts of all types. They seem to think that they are capable of mastering all of these topics, or at least that they can vote up or down on this wide range of issues based upon what they are told – which is, of course perhaps what happened here as well.

But the statement by Betzold (and the reticence displayed by other legislators) indicates that many may not really understand what this is all about.  As Marshall McLuhan famously observed in a different setting, “The Medium is the Message.”  Here requiring the use of open formats is public policy.  How those documents are defined is a matter of detail, for which expert advice can be sought, and readily obtained.

Does it matter if those in elected office claim that they are not competent to address the bills that are brought before them by their fellow representatives, and to make the hard calls? The answer is yes for three reasons. First, it is their job to protect the public record.

And second, in a situation like this, it is a cop out for legislatures to claim that they should defer to their IT departments to make decisions on open formats.  You don’t have to have that good a memory to recall why these bills were introduced in the first place: not because state IT departments aren’t a good place to make such decisions, but because successive State CIOs in Massachusetts had been so roughly handled in trying to make these very decisions that no state CIO in his or her right mind was likely to volunteer to be the next sacrificial victim.

As both Peter Quinn and Louis Gutierrez both found out, trying to make responsible standards-related decisions where huge sums of vendor revenues are at stake is scarcely a career-enhancing pastime. CIOs should be entitled to stay out of harm’s way, and try their best to serve the public’s interests the best they can. Where that can’t be done, legislatures should protect them, and keep them safe from the types of unwarranted threats and attacks that Carol Sliwa reported on in a series of public-records request-based stories at ComputerWorld last December.

The third reason why legislatures should intervene is because they can modify commercial behavior.  Taking the most cynical view possible (often the safest choice, when speaking of politics and commerce), ODF has gotten as far as it can because companies other than Microsoft saw advantages for themselves in uniting behind it.  The action of the Massachusetts Information Technology Division brought the issue into the limelight, and attracted global attention.  Microsoft opened its OfficeOpen XML formats in competitive response, in order to confront the challenge of ODF-compliant products, and to meet the requirements of its government customers.  It submitted the OOXML format to Ecma, and it is now before ISO.  However one feels about whether ISO should, or should not, approve OOXML, that is still a very long way from the status quo ante, when OOXML was wholly proprietary.  The courage of Peter Quinn and his team was instrumental in getting us to where we are today.

So I’m disappointed. And not just on behalf of open documents, but on behalf of the CIOs of this country, who are now caught between a rock and a hard place, without a paddle to defend themselves with if they won’t to do anything new, innovative and necessary, if a major vendor’s ox might be gored in consequence.

After the impressive lobbying assault mounted over the past six months against open document format legislation, I expect you won’t be hearing of many state IT departments taking the baton back from their legislators.
And who can blame them? If they tried, it wouldn’t be likely to be anything as harmless as an open document format that would bite them in the butt.

For further blog entries on ODF and OOXML, click here

subscribe to the free Consortium Standards Bulletin

Comments (4)

  1. Hello!

    In Russia use of OpenSource software is more safely, that use something that you must paid (and then you must present payment documents, contract on support this software and much more, and anyway any policeman can withdraw computer on expertise for establish is that software is license or it’s piratical; expertise can last for 6 month, and anyway you can’t return you’re computer without bribe, even you computer absolutely clear).

    And i want to ask you: is exist any conversation software from OpenDocument to Microsoft Word/Excel (Office 10/11) in runtime?

    For example, when you opening any document (take abstract XXX.odt) in computer without OpenOffice installed, that program convert ODT to Ms Office Word 10 (97/XP). User working with document, when user close file XXX.doc then happen backward conversation ( DOC to ODT).

    I know that exist some utilities for Ms Office 2003 ( http://sourceforge.net/project/showfiles.php?group_id=169337 ), that can open ODF in Word 2003/Excel 2003, but it’s functional incompletely (when you open ODF, you first convert it in OpenXML and then you must save file over "Export ODF" procedure, and only then you can save file in ODF. It’s too hard for users, we must have instruments for transparent working with ODF in Microsoft Office without any addition effort.

    Unfortunaly, our government organization such us Revenue Service, publish documents in DOC/XML format.

    And in that case there is two path: first in writing plug-in for MsOffice 97/XP/2003 for working with ODF files without any additional software, or writing runtime conversation software.

  2. Oh and this Rick Jelliffe.

    In January 2007, a Microsoft "technical evangelist" asked Jelliffe to correct Wikipedia articles about some of the standardization efforts in which he was involved, including Ecma Office Open XML and OpenDocument. The Microsoft employee also raised the possibility of paying him for the time he spent editing Wikipedia. Jelliffe commented on the offer in a blog posting entitled: "An Interesting Offer: Get Paid To Contribute To Wikipedia."[1] The offer received international press coverage.[2]



  3. Thanks for bringing the Jeliffe statements to my attention.  I’ll try and find the time to blog on them, because every single statement quoted in the story is either inaccurate or misleading.  It’s certainly good that he didn’t get to work on the Wikipedia entyr.

      –  Andy

Comments are closed.