The Other Side of the ODF Coin: an interview with Mass. Supervisor of Records Alan Cote

One of the most vocal opponents of the Massachusetts ODF policy has been Supervisor of Records Alan N. Cote. Last week, Alan suggested that we have a chat, and here's what he had to say.

Over the last six months I’ve received email from all manner of folks from all over the world relating to ODF. In virtually all instances, the senders were ODF proponents, many asking how they can help, or offering their personal experiences or thoughts. I’ve also received email from, and gotten to know, many of the other journalists and bloggers following the issue, as well as the principal vendor advocates, and some of the community of the disabled that have voiced concern, as well.

Early last week, I received an email from closer to home, with a “subject” line that read, “Maybe it’s time we talkâ₦.” I was happy to get the email, because the sender was none other than Alan Cote, the Massachusetts Supervisor of Records.

Alan is one of the individuals who has been in the center of the ODF policy debate, and has testified twice in opposition to the Information Technology Division (ITD) policy that mandates use by the Executive Agencies of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) on January 1, 2007. The first time was at the October 31, 2005 hearing convened by the Senate Post Audit Committee Chairman, Senator Marc Pacheco, and the second was at the open meeting held on December 14, 2005 at the State House in Boston.

Alan’s role in the ODF debate arises from the fact that he is the Supervisor of Records in the Public Records Division, which is part of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth (the current Secretary is William Francis Galvin, which explains in part why his name has come up so often as the debate unfolded âₓ and why you see his face at the top of so many Webpages with addresses that end with

In both times that I’ve heard Alan speak, he has made no secret of the fact that he is not a believer in the implementation of ODF. I’ve wondered why that would be so each time that I’ve heard him, because the way that the Public Records Division currently archives records is quite laborious. In consequence, I would have expected Alan to be ready to welcome, not challenge, the ITD’s policy.

Alan and I spoke by telephone at length on Thursday, and we had quite an interesting discussion. He also agreed to let me send him a long email interview, which I’ll include in the February issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin, which will focus on the many “standards wars” that are currently in process, but I wanted to share some of the things he said at this time as a counterpoint to the long list of entries that I’ve posted previously that have largely presented the ODF camp’s side of the Massachusetts story.

The first thing worth noting, although it is no surprise at this point, is that Alan, as well as some other members of the State government, felt that they were entitled to have been consulted by the ITD far more frequently, and at an earlier date, then in fact they were. I have heard and read the rationale for the ITD’s decisions and the basis for its authority in acting as it did (all of which sound convincing to me), but the result was nevertheless that enemies were made along the way as a result of not having pursued a more collaborative process.

Part of the reason that others in government felt entitled to greater participation may have arisen in part due to what might be considered a “generational” shift (the generations to which I refer are technological, rather than human). This became apparent from one revealing comment that Alan made about the ITD: “They aren’t really an information office âₓ they’re just about technology.” Quite an intriguing statement, because for those of us that live primarily in the world of technology, “information” today is by nature electronic.

But, not surprisingly, to the Public Records Division, still with millions of archived paper documents, “information” isn’t bytes of data, but specific records that are important for what they represent âₓ birth certificates, investigative reports, and so on, that have specific purposes, are subject to public records requests, and will be utilized by historians.

Of course, that last point is precisely what ODF and the ITD’s policy is all about. But at minimum there’s a convergence of turf here, and when one part of a government’s authority begins to overlap with another, pursuing even a collaborative approach is apt to be challenging.

Another thing that was apparent in speaking with Alan is that he is passionate about what he does, and thinks that he has a very good handle on how to go about doing it well. As I spoke with him, another disconnect between the way he looks at the issues and the way that Peter Quinn saw the future also became clear.

That disconnect is this: Alan is living in the present, and the ITD policy addresses the future. That became apparent when I asked Alan my Big Question: Why isn’t he the biggest fan of ODF in state government? The answer, I think, is that Alan really doesn’t believe that ODF will deliver on the promises of its proponents, or at least isn’t going to rely on that result until its been proven. He believes that after the policy goes into effect, he will still need to save every document in several formats on several types of media, and a few years later, do exactly the same thing again.

In truth, one does have to buy into the vision of ODF in order to bank on it. If multiple vendors don’t decide to support ODF in their products, then not much will have been gained (of course, not much will have been lost, either, at least for Alan’s office, which is already saving documents in multiple, proprietary formats). Ultimately, you have to believe that ODF will be successful before you decide to take the leap, or at least think that it’s worth taking the chance. More evangelism in advance would have been a smart move in this regard as well, since Alan is concerned (at minimum) about how he will need to work with Executive Agency documents that arrive at his office after January 1, 2007.

So who was right at those hearings and open meetings – Alan Cote, with his concern for the present, or Peter Quinn, with his belief in the future? One answer to that question is this: in order for everyone today to enjoy the convenience of telecommunications, someone had to buy the first telephone.

Some would counter this question with another: “But should that someone be the government?” Personally, I don’t think that this is inappropriate, because the government has a responsibility to preserve the records of the people, and that job will stay Herculean unless something like ODF becomes ubiquitous. Since private companies may be hesitant to buy that first telephone, then why not the government? Otherwise, whoever is sitting in Alan’s office fifty years from now will still be re-saving documents in three different formats, on three types of media, every five years – forever.

Alan and I covered quite a bit of additional ground, including the still-pending proposed amendment to the ITD’s authority, and the role of his office in how it is worded. All of this will be addressed in much greater detail in the email interview. But for now, I was pleased to hear some of the other side of the story direct from the source, and I hope that perhaps Alan also got some additional perspective on the promise of ODF from our call as well.

Alan, I thank you for your time, and look forward to continuing our dialogue in the future.


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