The Minnesota Open Formats Bill: Bandwagon or Babel?

It is perhaps no surprise that Minnesota, a blue state like Massachusetts and heir to the political traditions of the Prairie Populists, should be the situs of a bill to require "open data formats."    In spirit, this is a good thing, as it indicates a broadening appeal for open document format standards that, if missing, would be worrisome. But is the bill as submitted an encouraging signal that a bandwagon effect is taking hold, or a step towards standards Babel, and a leap backwards? The question is a serious one for a variety of reasons, and cuts to the heart of why standards exist.

Clearly, the definition of an "open standard" contained in the Minnesota bill includes many of the attributes that make a standard useful, such as requirements intended to prevent "lock-in" by a single proprietary vendor. But inherent in the concept of a standard is wide acceptance - and if everyone comes up with their own definition of what an "open standard" means, then there is no "standard" for what a "standard" is. If that happens, then the whole economic basis for standardization collapses, because the incentive for a vendor to support a standard is to reach and sell to a large potential customer base with a single, uniform product. Unless each customer specifies the same standards requirements, then the vendor can expect no return on its investment. Moreover, the citizenry suffers as well, because the software that someone needs to exchange a document with her state congressman in St. Paul may not be what's required to communicate with her senator in Washington.

Does this make the Massachusetts policy bad as well?

The answer is no, because there is one crucial distinction between the Massachusetts policy, and the bill filed in Minnesota. That difference is that the Massachusetts bill refers to whether or not a specification has been approved by a recognized standards body, while the Minnesota bill (thus far) does not. In doing so, Massachusetts is doing several productive things:

  • First, it is piggybacking on the good work that has already been done elsewhere, through recognized and respected standards organizations, in creating “open” standards for specific purposes.
  • Second, it spares the State the burden of evaluating every product on its own, rather than being able to rely on evaluations (and sometimes certifications) that are already available in the marketplace for standards-compliant products.
  • Third, it is taking advantage of the appeal to vendors that a recognized standard provides – that there will likely be many customers that will include compliance to the standard in their purchasing requirements. This means that there will be likely to be many more products offered, with more attractive and varied features, and with greater price competition.
  • Finally, the products purchased will be likely to be interoperable with far more products outside the state, enhancing the utility and efficiency of the software purchased.

By omitting reference to recognized standards, the sponsors of the Minnesota bill are actually taking a step backwards in the area of government purchasing. Ten years ago, the federal government abandoned the costly procedure of commonly using “government unique” standards – the kind that led to the infamous $200 toilet seat, and other exorbitantly expensive purchases by federal agencies. Under the Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, the federal agencies were instructed to use public standards whenever possible, to report to Congress on their progress in making the conversion to such standards, and even to participate in the activities of standards organizations.  In consequence, government procurement left the world of “government unique,” and entered the more competitive, varied world of “COTS” (commercial off the shelf software).

The lesson, then, is clear. When legislatures and IT divisions of governmental entities wish to move towards open standards – a commendable goal – they should not create their own definition of what open standards are, but make use of the sdefinitions of tandards – and the products that meet those standards – that already exist.

This does not mean abandoning the ability to choose among standards. For example, a government could state preferences as among various standards. For example, a law could state that a standard that prohibits proprietary extensions would be used over one that doesn’t.  This would permit current purchasing from the field of standards and products that exist, while signaling the way to get more business in the future from the adoption of tighter standards.

There is also a second moral to the story: it is (in my view) very appropriate and desirable for governmental agencies (such as IT departments) to restrict purchasing to products that support open standards, wherever possible. It may even be useful for legislatures to require this – but only if those that craft the bills get the language right, and if that language survives floor debate and the reconciliation of drafts, which is not so easy to manage in the rough and tumble of the legislative process.  A flawed bill, once passed, may needlessly restrict purchasing in a way that may cause long term harm.

Hopefully, the Minnesota legislature will add in references to established standards if the bill moves forward. Hopefully, too, this will become the norm in any other states that decide to walk down the same road.

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Comments (5)

  1. …federal government abandoned the costly procedure of commonly using “government unique” standards

    I don’t disagree with this but wanted to mention one exception.

    Back in the 1980s, the feds wanted to reduce its dependence on
    proprietary networking protocols (think SNA and LU6.2). This was fine
    with the non-IBM part of the industry. One result of all this was gov’t
    support for OSI protocols, shown in the Gov’t OSI Procurement spec
    (GOSIP). The phrase “FIPS 100” comes to mind but I may be conflating 2

    What actually gained wide acceptance, though, was networking gear
    based on RFC-791 and -793, which I believe are very close to some
    MIL-STD protocols whose numbers escape me at the moment. TCP-IP,
    invented under sponsorship of DARPA, constitute the dominant networking
    protocols on the planet. I believe their use overwhelms the use of OSI
    network, transport, session etc. worldwide. This seems to be an
    exception — when gov’t sponsored protocols actually became dominant
    and lower-cost than internationally-developed protocols with wide
    industry participation (OSI network, transport, session, presentation,
    ACSE, etc. all fit that description)

    • An interesting example; thanks.

      Another interesting question is, “what happened to all of those government unique MilSpecs?”

      The answer in some cases is that the government turned many of them over to accredited standard setting organizations for ongoing maintenance, all of which made good sense.  However, in a few cases (i.e., in aerospace), the specifications were simply reformatted and then offered for sale – at prices of up to $100,000, without any scheduled updating for five years.


  2. The irony of the posting title caught
    my attention almost immediately. Babel? Didn’t the problem there
    center around the fact that the entire world had settled on a common
    objective, a ‘blue print’, a shard vision, only to find out
    afterwards that the standards committee had gotten it wrong?

    The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they
    have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be
    impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language
    so they will not understand each other.”

    Perhaps Minnesota doesn’t have all its
    ducks in a row. And in truth the remarks in the original posting are
    well founded in many regards. That said, isn’t it a legitimate model
    to establish a baseline of expectations and then allow for whatever
    implementations best suit a given situation or context?

    The bill’s mandates do not preclude
    pre-existing standards by any stretch of the imagination. They also
    do not prescribe what governance process or system best serves the
    requirements set forth. Perhaps at their peril. Perhaps not.

    The reasoning, in my mind, goes
    something like this: in the absence of a clear and measurable market
    failure or an a priori understanding of which standards development
    organizations most approximate ‘infallible’, it is not critical, nor
    reasonable, for the bill to specify what form of governance manages
    the core requirements of accessibility so long as they are understood
    and respected by all.

    To a large extent this is because the
    struggle between what is and what should be, the descriptive versus
    the prescriptive, the de facto versus the de jure, free market
    versus not, is never ending and taking sides seldom guarantees that
    history will deem anything as having provided the most good for the
    most people.

  3. Andrew,

    My sources in Minnesota tell me that the Minnesota initiative is not a serious one.

    They said:
    “The three authors are all Democrats in a
    Republican-controlled House and a Republican administration.  There is
    no Senate companion bill, and no action has been taken on the House
    bill.  Committee deadlines have passed requiring passage in both houses
    for a bill to be considered further.  Of course, someone with enough
    influence can get around that.  But this chief author is a very junior
    member of the minority and not even on the Governmental Operations
    committee to which the bill was referred.  It looks more like a
    political slap at Microsoft than a serious effort to establish a
    direction for the state.”

    Bill Allan
    Disability Policy Consortium

  4. That points of order have their place
    in deciding public policy is clear. What is not so clear is their use
    as a way to measure the merit or seriousness of a movement. In an
    opposite read to the one offered, the number of points of order
    invoked could also reflect the fear/contempt in those arrayed against
    the bill. Essentially, if there’s a lot of smoke there’s probably a
    fire. But again, this is why points of order and procedure can’t be
    used to evaluate much, least of which the seriousness of an effort.

    As to the bill being seen as
    anti-Microsoft, Microsoft has around 93% of the desktop market. In
    these conditions buying milk can be construed as a swipe at


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