I've just read Massachusetts ITD General Counsel's challenge to the Senate amendment that would transfer control of the Commonwealth's IT structure to a political task force. The abiding question it raises is this: Why would any sane person want to do this?
As has been widely reported, including in this blog (see, for example, The Fix is in on ODF and A Nasty Little Turf Battle on Beacon Hill), an amendment was recently added to an economic bill in the Massachusetts Senate that would, if enacted, transfer control over most meaningful state IT decisions to a new politically appointed “task force”. The bill to which that amendment is attached has not yet been adopted, but may be early in the New Year, if not sooner.
On November 16, General Counsel to the Commonwealth’s Information Technology Division (ITD) Linda Hamel released a legal brief substantiating State CIO Peter Quinn and the ITD’s legal authority to adopt ODF. You can find that brief here. I have now received a copy of a challenge that Ms. Hamel has also prepared, which will form a part of the Legislative Information Package relating to the proposed amendment, which is formally referred to as “Floor number 185, as amended on November 16, 2005.” The challenge is titled ” A Revolutionary Amendment to Transfer Control of Information Technology from the Governor and the Municipalities to the Secretary of the Commonwealth.”
It would take more time and space than I have currently available to summarize the 17 single-spaced pages of closely reasoned argument and information that Linda has crafted, but having given the document a reading, there is one abiding question I am left with, and that is this:
Why would any sane person want to do this?
Previously, I have written mostly about the power politics and industry pressures that led to the proposed amendment, rather than spending a great deal of time on the practicalities and consequences of the amendment in question. For example, I have previously noted that the amendment would not only take control of procurement and standards policy away from the State agencies directly involved in architecting, buying, deploying and training, but would also take the same power away from the heretofore autonomous municipalities of Massachusetts as well — exercising hegemony, in other words, over thousands of town halls, libraries, first responders, and much more.
What exactly would that mean? Here’s what Ms. Hamel offers as an introduction to her piece:
Imagine a world in which the Town of Reading has to get permission from the Secretary of the Commonwealth to issue cell phones to its employees. The Department of Public Health has to get permission from the Secretary of the Commonwealth before providing information about AIDS-related health issues to the public on its website . . .Viruses proliferate throughout networks, continuously shutting down access for thousands of state employees, because the Governor cannot issue network security standards without getting permission from both the Secretary of the Commonwealth and a task force that neither the municipalities nor the Governor control.
And who would make up this task force? That would be two industry representatives (one with a telecom background, and one with IT experience) and the balance being the following State officials: the CIO, the Supervisor of Records, the Archivist, the Treasurer, the Secretary of State, and the Auditor (or, in the case of the last three officers, his or her designee). In short, there would be an eight person task force, only three members of which would be sure to have any relevant knowledge at all, and all of whom would have full time, or more than full time, jobs in addition to their duties on the task force.
What would the task force be responsible for supervising? The following excerpts hardly do justice to the reality described in greater detail in Ms. Hamel’s contribution to the legislative package:
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a 23 billion dollar enterprise…Executive Department agencies employ roughly 1700 technologists at the agency level, while the Information Technology Division (“ITD”), the central agency assigned authority over the Executive Department’s use of information technology, employs an additional 250… the Executive Department…employs roughly 55,000…. ITD manages and maintains the Commonwealth’s wide area network; runs a state of the art data center that hosts almost all of the Commonwealth’s mission critical IT systems; hosts the Commonwealth’s e-government portal, Mass.gov; and operates enterprise IT systems, including a central e-mail system, a central human resources system, and a data warehouse for the Commonwealth’s electronic financial and human resources data. It also develops enterprise-wide applications; operates telecommunications facilities; makes recommendations to the Secretary of ANF for the distribution of approximately $80,000,000 in information technology bond funding annually; sponsors a number of enterprise wide IT related groups such as the Enterprise Security Board, the WebMasters Group, the TechLaw Practice Group, and the Enterprise Architecture Council; and has issued hundreds of individual standards related to the acquisition and use of information technology by Executive Department agencies.
And lastly, over what domains would this largely non-technical task force have authority? According to the proposed amendment, the subjects of its control would include:
(1) procurement policies by commonwealth agencies, constitutional offices, and other government entities concerning computer hardware and software, cellular telephones, personal data accessories, and other information technology devices; (2) format and content of web pages maintained by commonwealth agencies, constitutional offices, and other government entities; and (3) software standards governing commonwealth agencies, constitutional offices, and other government entities.
In offering recommendations, the task force’s analysis shall include, but not be limited to, the following considerations: (1) cost-benefit analysis of proposed policies or practices; (2) security of proposed policies or practices from viruses, hacking, and other breaches; (3) the extent to which the proposed policy or practice results in user-friendly applications for commonwealth employees, business entities, and members of the public; and (4) proposals and options to facilitate more efficient transactions between commonwealth entities and the public, including on-line transactions.
Ms. Hamel is not sanguine about the ability of the Commonwealth to continue to operate, if it is subject to the constraints of the task force. She notes:
None of ITD’s current operational responsibilities can be fulfilled if ITD must await the decision of the ITETF [the new task force] or the Secretary’s Supervisor of Public Records before adopting or implementing information technology policies, practices or standards, or the creation or storage of record. Today, IT and the use of electronic records permeate every aspect of the Executive Department’s activities…. State employees employ sophisticated IT from desktop PCs and complex software systems to cell phones, handheld devices, laptops, notebook computers, Palm Pilots, and Blackberry devices. ITD simply could not function if every decision it made about information technology policy, practices, and standards had to be cleared by the ITETF or the Secretary….
It is impossible for ITD, in its capacity as chief IT organization for the Executive Department, to manage a 21st century IT environment without having the discretion and authority to issue policies and standards that profoundly affect the creation and storage of public records within the Executive Department by Executive Department agencies….
The document goes on to point out that, not surprisingly, that the IT professionals that currently manage the Commonwealth’s IT and telecom resources are better versed, capable and likely to properly decide what needs to be done.
The second thrust of the document is to analyze the degree to which the amendment would “radically reorganize State government,” and I may provide detail on what Ms. Hamel has to say in this regard on another day. But my message for now, both analytically as well as from the perspective of a Massachusetts resident (which I am), comes back to the same, simple, question I noted above with alarm:
Why would any sane person want to do this?
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