The broader media usually take little interest in public policy debates about technology, but they’re missing a big story in Massachusetts.
The technology trades, blogs and industry are buzzing about a monumental policy shift in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Officials in the state have proposed a new policy that mandates that every state technology system use only applications designed around OpenDocument file formats (search).
Such a policy might seem like something that should concern only a small group of technology professionals, but in fact the implications are staggering and far-reaching. The policy promises to burden taxpayers with new costs and to disrupt how state agencies interact with citizens, businesses and organizations.
Worse, the policy represents an attack on market-based competition, which in turn will hurt innovation. The state has a disaster in the making.
Until now, Massachusetts’ citizens and government agencies have been well served by a competitive, merit-based procurement process for technology services. Agencies can turn to the marketplace—often to small state-based systems integrators—and receive bids for the best solutions at the best price to meet specific needs. The proposed policy throws out this system, and instead makes the blind pre-determined selection of applications using the largely immature, rarely deployed OpenDocument technology.
For many needs, such applications do not exist and will have to be built from the ground up. In other cases, the OpenDocument solution may cost more and provide less, but agencies and citizens will have to pay the price and make do.
Many technology writers, in fact, have cast a skeptical eye on OpenDocument and applications that support the format. George Ou, writing on ZDNet, recently compared the new Open Office Calc product to Microsoft Excel and found it lacking, writing, “[i]f someone from Open Office can explain why it takes more than 100 times longer to create and load spreadsheet documents and why it uses up several more times memory that Microsoft Excel to work with the same data, I’d love to hear it.”
He added that he hoped the government of Massachusetts knows what it’s in for with its proposed new policy.
In another commentary, David Coursey, a columnist for eWeek, expressed concern about moving the state to OpenDocument formats.
“I am concerned that by requiring OpenDocument that Mr. Quinn [state CIO] may be aligning Massachusetts with what becomes a second-rate file format as Microsoft keeps expanding into XML and metadata and OpenDocument may have trouble keeping up.”
It may be that an array of exceptional, low-cost OpenDocument applications will emerge in the coming years. Such innovation would be welcome by anyone, but these applications should have to compete on merit and cost. They should not be given an arbitrary leg up that shuts out other vendors and forces government agencies to settle on under-performing technologies.
But for now, the policy simply promises enormous and unnecessary migration costs to Massachusetts’ taxpayers. The mandate forces the entire state government to acquire new technologies, train personnel, and contract for new services and support.
In many cases, new technologies will have to be purchased even when current systems are fully functional. In other words, taxpayers will be paying duplicative costs.
The burden, however, reaches well beyond simple taxpayer costs. Businesses, organizations and citizens who interact with the state will also be forced to support Massachusetts’ mandated technologies. Law firms that file electronically, businesses that regularly share information with agencies via electronic files, even citizens who want to take advantage of online services will potentially have to purchase, install and learn new software to comply with the policy. These added costs would be substantial.
The policy also fails to consider accessibility by citizens and state employees with disabilities who rely on assistive technologies (search). Several such technologies, including screen readers and speech recognition, are not readily supported by applications that use OpenDocument formats. In commentary submitted to the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (search), the Bay State Council of the Blind and individuals with vision impairments strongly opposed the proposed policy.
State employee Sharon Strzalkowski wrote, “We have worked long and hard to get the computer access we now enjoy, and it would cause much harm to go to this new and inaccessible system.”
Some have suggested that the policy would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (search).
Others in the public sector have also voiced strong concerns about the policy. The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association (MDAA) raised practical and legal questions about the plan. At the most fundamental level, the MDAA questioned why district attorneys’ offices would be forced to switch away from technology that meets their needs:
“The main advantage to using Microsoft products in an office environment is that, in large measure, these products provide very reliable interoperability and rich functionality. Since most of our users are not IT experts, such interoperability and functionality are critical to the day to day operation of our offices…. We are unaware of any organizations with which we exchange documents that use products such as OpenOffice or StarOffice.”
The proposed policy is also puzzling and arbitrary in its approach to Adobe’s PDF format (search). The policy acknowledges that PDF falls outside the “open” format mandate, but grants PDF an exception so that agencies can continue to use it. The exception essentially underscores the weakness of establishing fixed formats in the first place. Adobe may be happy to find a special place carved out for its format, but the company should be wary nevertheless. How confident can Adobe and others be that the government won’t later change their minds and suddenly deny the exemption?
A number of taxpayer and government waste groups have weighed in to express their concern about the impact that this policy change will have on taxpayers and the efficiency of government. In a letter to Governor Mitt Romney about the policy, Citizens Against Government Waste righlty pointed out that, “Not only will this mandate undermine free market competition and drive up costs, it will also curtail the ability of the people and government of Massachusetts to benefit from future innovation.”
Government is not directly in the business of innovation, but it should support policies that drive innovation. Massachusetts drafted its proposed policy to improve document management and archival access, which is a worthy goal. But there is no certainty that OpenDocument file formats will become a standard supported by future applications. Instead, the state might be stuck with old technology, even as the rest of the world benefits from future innovations.
Worse still, Massachusetts likes to think of itself as a bellwether state, a maverick for other states to follow. But this policy would establish a very bad precedent. We’ve seen government operate at its most efficient when it promotes competition. The Massachusetts policy would instead direct contracts to just a few technology providers, while many would be locked out.
In the end, the Massachusetts plan represents poor public policy and terrible technology policy.
Jim Prendergast is executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership, a coalition of technology professionals, companies and organizations that supports limited government regulation of technology. An earlier version of this column failed to disclose that Microsoft Corporation is a founding member of ATL. Other founding members include Staples, Inc., CompUSA and Citizens Against Government Waste.