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Mass. bill endangers OpenDocument decision

Senate bill proposes creation of task force to approve state technical policy, calling into question OpenDocument decision.

The Massachusetts Senate has introduced a provision to an economic stimulus bill that endangers a state decision to standardize on the OpenDocument format.

An amendment to Senate bill 2256, published on Wednesday, proposes the creation of a four-person information technology task force to approve technical standards in the state. The Senate is scheduled on Thursday to discuss the bill, known as the Commonwealth Investment Act.

The introduction of the amendment follows a hearing on Monday during which the chair of a state Senate watchdog committee, Marc Pacheco, criticized a decision by the IT Division of Massachusetts to standardize on OpenDocument, a document format for desktop productivity applications.

In a closely watched move, the IT Division of Massachusetts finalized a policy last month that mandates that products used by agencies in the executive branch comply with the OpenDocument standard, which is also called the Open Document Format for Office Applications, or ODF.

By using the OpenDocument standard, the IT Division said that state documents will be readable hundreds of years from now. The chief information officer, Peter Quinn, also said that a move to OpenDocument-based products will save the state money.

Sun Microsystems' StarOffice suite complies with the OpenDocument format and many other companies, including IBM, Novell, Adobe and smaller firms, have voiced their interest in the format. Microsoft, by contrast, said it does not intend to support OpenDocument natively in its dominant Office suite.

At the hearing on Monday, Pacheco criticized the process behind IT Division's decision. He questioned the division's authority to set state policy on technical standards.

Also at the hearing, the state supervisor of public records, Alan Cote, condemned the move, claiming it could result in lost electronic records.

The general counsel of the IT Division, Linda Hamel, argued at the Monday hearing that the division has authority to set standards and that the CIO's office has sought to work with other state agencies to set its overall policies.

Some observers said that the IT Division's decision has caused a stir in part because of Massachusetts politics. One government official on Monday said there is a turf war over electronic records between the IT Division, which reports to the Secretary of Administration and Finance, and the public records office, which reports to the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

The bill, if adopted, would impose an added approval step to state policy decisions.

"An executive agency or department shall not adopt or implement a policy, practice or standard concerning information technology standards or systems or the procurement or use of hardware, software, and cellular phones and other electronic devices, without the affirmative approval of the task force by majority vote," the bill states.

The four task force members would be appointed by the governor and at least two of them will be representatives from the business community.