More on Friday’s ODF Summit Meeting in Armonk

In this second report from the ODF Summit Meeting in Armonk I report on Peter Quinn's account of the past history of his efforts to reform the Commonwealth's IT infrastructure, the present challenges to those efforts, and the future that he is confident will follow.

In this second report from the Friday, November 4 ODF meeting in Armonk sponsored by IBM and Sun, I’ll focus on the presentation by Peter Quinn, the embattled Massachusetts CIO who is now the target of a double-pronged offensive in the Massachusetts legislature led by State Senator Marc Pacheco and a yet to be revealed sponsor(s) of a proposed amendment to Section 4 of S 2256. [This amendment may have been debated yesterday in the Massachusetts Senate yesterday, so if you know what happened in that debate, by all means please add it in a comment below.]


This is the second time that I’ve heard Peter Quinn (the first time was when I interviewed him and others in connection with the September issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin, which was dedicated to the ODF battle in Massachusetts, and he is one impressive guy. He has a dry sense of humor and considerable drive and vision. And while he may lead the IT department of a small state, that still means that he is responsible for keeping the systems running for an organization that is the equivalent of a Fortune 60 corporation. If I were the CEO of such a corporation, he’d be the type of guy I’d like to have as my CIO.


Quinn gave a whirlwind tour through the history of the Commonwealth’s IT department and its requirements, as well as a play by play account of the events that led up to the creation of the Information Technology Department (ITD)’s Enterprise Technical Requirements Model (ETRM) in general, and to the recent inclusion of the format restrictions announced in September.


Central to Quinn’s vision of the avenue to transition a vast, “one of everything” IT infrastructure to a streamlined, efficient model for the future is the realization that the CIOs of today too often focus on treating the symptom (the need to upgrade) rather than the disease (dependency on a single vendor that can tax you by forcing the upgrades to begin with). In his view, we have all become “habituated” (in one of his frequent medical analogies) to the system that has ruled our lives for some twenty years now. Quinn wants to break that dependency and lower costs by attacking the disease – and ODF is one of the “silver bullets” he sees as instrumental to achieving such a cure.


One reason that he feels confident that he’s on to something is that he has surveyed how state employees use their desktops, and what he sees is a great deal of document review but not much document creation; lots of browser use; and heavy email dependency, particularly as regards accessing and using documents. In short, the typical Commonwealth employee has very little need for most features of a high-priced product like Microsoft Office. Given open formats and more choices, there should be lower cost solutions that would be more than adequate, and which would not perpetuate current dependencies.


While some have tried to portray Quinn as unduly smitten with open source, that is wide of the mark: it’s open standards that he’s locked on, with open source being preferred when it makes sense, and proprietary solutions acceptable when no open source alternative is available. And he is serious: every purchase by the ITD must support open standards. And any new software purchase must be open source, unless he signs a “variance” to approve it – not because every purchase must or should be open source, but because he wants to make sure that any available open source options have been properly evaluated. In short, he’s one determined guy, who is going to do what it takes to get his department out of the past and into the future.


Regarding the process of amending the ETRM, he realizes that he didn’t do all that he needed to in order to address accessibility concerns the right way, and is doing everything he can to rectify that situation (in fact, those advocates of the disabled community who gave testimony at Monday’s hearing called by Secretary Pacheco were complimentary of his recent efforts, although they were critical of his late start in addressing their concerns). Specifically, he said that he thought that he had spoken to those in the disabled community that needed to be contacted, and that “he was wrong.” [You can read my rough transcript of that hearing here]


He also firmly believes that he operated consistently with applicable law, and that this conviction will eventually be borne out. He believes that serious constitutional issues are at stake, and that it is therefore important that his department’s position be vindicated.


As to what will happen next, he says that if the current amendment offered in the Senate is adopted by that body, the focus for action should be the conference committee that will be formed to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill. Presumably, that will happen soon, as there will be a 45 day recess of the Massachusetts legislature that will begin before Thanksgiving.


Unless there is additional breaking news, I will likely focus on the technical discussions and recommendations from the OTD Summit in my next blog entry, so stay tuned.

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