Two significant events occurred this week that have relevance to the implementation of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) by Massachusetts, one of which was little noticed, and one of which was duly noted in the press. The question is whether or not these two dots are connected - and whether there's a back story that no one has yet noticed at all. (Here's a hint on the back story: it's harder to connect dots, when they can be removed from the public eye.)
The event that was much remarked upon was the announcement by Microsoft that it would make a very substantial donation of its software - with a market value of at least $30 million - to Massachusetts high schools and universities. Mass is a small state, and that amounts to something like $800 per student, and $2,400 per college student - a princely sum to be sure, and a very significant boost to local education budgets.
The less (as in "not") noticed event relates to the passage of an important economic stimulus bill that for months had been stalled while Beacon Hill legislators debated a universal health coverage bill with a higher priority. The passage of the bill, of course, was widely reported. What wasn't noted (except by IBM's Bob Sutor at his blog and few, if any, others) is the fact that a certain amendment that had been added to the Senate version of the same bill last fall did not survive the final reconciliation of the Senate and House versions of the legislation. That amendment, if approved, would have dramatically curtailed the power of the State CIO to set IT standards policies (or any other IT or CT policy, for that matter). You can read all about that saga in this and a number of later entries in the OpenDocument blog entry folder.
Not surprisingly, some commentators connected the first event to the ongoing (and far from completed) implementation of the Massachusetts ODF policy. But if there are dots to connect, have we found all of them? Let's see.
First, let’s put the Microsoft grant in context. There is nothing unique about such an action by Microsoft, and many of its competitors make similar donations (here are some examples of programs maintained by IBM and Sun). The generic reason is that today’s students are tomorrow’s life-long potential customers, and a relatively small marketing investment by way of an educational grant at this stage can reap decades of benefits from future product sales. The rewards for acquiring an adherent to an operating system or core applications such as Windows and Office (or Solaris and StarOffice) are particularly great, due to the tendency to stick with what you know, and to buy further products compatible with what you have. Not surprisingly, Microsoft’s charitable programs for educational institutions, libraries and other non-profits are particularly extensive.
To be fair, the commitment of Bill Gates (at least) to education is sincere, as evidenced by the fact that one of the two foci of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is learning (the other is health), and by his announcement this week that the work of the Foundation will become his major challenge in the future. It’s a classic case of doing good while doing well, and can be an important source of technology for worthy and chronically under-funded institutions.
Still, as they say, timing is everything. There are, after all, 50 states to choose among on any given day when granting such largesse, and Microsoft is doubtless mindful of the fact that opponents Sun and IBM each has thousands of (voting) employees in Massachusetts, while Microsoft employs orders of magnitude fewer. It’s also interesting to note by way of comparison that (as the AP reports) the total cash and software contributions made by Microsoft to Massachusetts educational and all other worthy types of organizations combined totaled approximately $40 million over the last five years.
So is this an effort to influence legislative behavior in an election year? And if it is, how does that square with the passage of the economic stimulus bill sans amendment? Why reward a state that failed to rein in an Information Technology Division whose policy on office formats Microsoft had by all accounts lobbied very aggressively against?
Here’s where the back story comes into play. I am told by an informed source that the amendment lives on – but now as an attachment to the Senate version of the current fiscal budget (you may recall that the Chairman of the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee had put then-CIO Peter Quinn through the wringer at a hearing held on October 31 of last year). In other words, the game isn’t over, and the ITC task force initiative may yet come to a vote.
And, of course, the current administration will leave office in only a few months, leaving the top job up for grabs, and the usual large proportion of state legislators is also coming up for election. All of those at-risk legislators and their hopeful challengers will be out on the stump stating their beliefs, and answering voter questions. Many of those voters doubtless have read the press coverage of the grant, and the state teachers union will presumably also be mindful of the spanking new technology that can be obtained from Microsoft without the expenditure of a single dollar of local property taxes.
What can we definitively make of this? At this point, no more than that a compromise was reached to pull the amendment in order permit passage of an obviously attractive (and, incidentally, pork-packed) bill in an election year, while reserving the ability to resume battle on the same amendment, attached to a different bill, at a later day.
And perhaps with less public scrutiny as well.
How’s that? First, I’m not aware of any public report (beyond this blog entry) of the switch, so how would anyone have known that the amendment had not simply died? Second, I’d like to provide a link to the new bill, so that we could all see how the amendment now reads. Unfortunately, the appropriate page of the Massachusetts State Website was last updated…on October 18 2005. Perhaps I’ll be able to obtain a copy through a public record request.
All of which illustrates once again the sad and opaque state of politics as usual on Beacon Hill, where transparency in public affairs is not deemed to be desirable, and where dots can easily disappear from public pages, only to find a new home on others that are invisible to the public eye, perhaps remaining so until after it’s too late to matter.
For further blog entries on ODF, click here