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Mass. officials criticize OpenDocument decision

Records supervisor, state senators probe Massachusetts' decision to standardize office applications on the document format.

BOSTON--Massachusetts state officials have criticized a decision to adopt OpenDocument as a standard, casting doubt over a closely watched initiative.

Marc Pacheco, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, on Monday held a hearing to probe into the process that led to a mandate to make OpenDocument the standard document format for all commonwealth agencies in the executive branch as of 2007.

Pacheco
Marc Pacheco,
state senator,
Massachusetts

The policy, finalized in September, was developed by the Information Technology Division, which is part of Massachusetts' Office of Administration and Finance.

The IT Division said OpenDocument-based products will improve interoperability between systems and ensure long-term archiving of official documents. The specification is developed at standards group OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards).

There are commercial products that support or will support OpenDocument, including Sun Microsystems StarOffice, IBM's Workplace and the open-source product OpenOffice.

But the IT Division's policy effectively shuts out Microsoft Office because the dominant supplier of productivity software does not support OpenDocument at this point.

During the hearing, Pacheco voiced a number of concerns regarding the IT Division's decision. He called into question the IT Division's authority in setting policy, saying the IT Division acted "unilaterally," and he expressed concern over the cost of walking away from Microsoft Office. He also contended that OpenDocument does not sufficiently address the needs of people with disabilities.

During questioning, the IT Division's chief information officer, Peter Quinn, and General Counsel Linda Hamel defended the decision, arguing that the move to OpenDocument would be in the commonwealth's best interest. Quinn said a standard, "open" format, rather than Microsoft's "proprietary XML" format, will ensure that electronic documents can be read hundreds of years from now.

Pacheco then called on Alan Cote, the state's supervisor of public records, as a witness. Secretary of State William Galvin has responsibility for public records.

Cote sharply criticized the IT Department's decision, urging that its policy be rejected. He warned that a decision to go ahead with OpenDocument as a standard could result in the loss of electronic records.

"The rigid policy, such as the initiative before you that excludes any vendor or any process and relies on questionable, untested and unreliable practices or tools, does not suit the commonwealth well," Cote said in prepared remarks. "It may very well result in many electronic records being lost or destroyed."

Cote added that the state's records management system renders what format a document is saved in as moot.

In earlier comments, the IT Division counsel Hamel said the organization has become the de facto archivist of electronic records for executive agencies, keeping track of data such as payroll.

"The problem of how to solve (records management) has fallen into the lap of the IT Division and the secretary of finance and administration," Hamel said.

One government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Cote's harsh rebuke of the policy reflected a turf war between Secretary of State Galvin and the Secretary of Administration and Finance Thomas Trimarco. With the rise of electronic archives over traditional records, "(Galvin's) power is being eroded," the official said.

Pacheco said Cote's remarks echo the concerns of many other high-ranking state politicians.

"It verified what I've been hearing and my concerns, quite frankly," Pacheco said, adding that the IT Division has not operated in a "collaborative" fashion with other state agencies involved in setting IT policy.

He said he feared that the current situation has become a "stalemate" between the executive branch and legislature over how to set IT policy for the state.

Pacheco called on Quinn and Hamel to do a more thorough cost/benefit analysis and to submit a written analysis to explain the legal basis for the IT Division's policy.

Quinn said OpenDocument-based products do need to be improved to address people with disabilities. He noted that IBM and Sun in the coming weeks intend to launch an effort within OASIS to improve the standard in regards to accessibility.

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