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Report blasts Mass. OpenDocument policy

An oversight committee criticizes standard-setting process as closed, unlawful and insensitive to people with disabilities.

BOSTON--A Massachusetts state senator blasted the state's high-profile decision to adopt OpenDocument as a digital document standard, calling it unlawful and insensitive to the needs of people with disabilities.

Marc Pacheco, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, on Tuesday released a report at the Massachusetts State House, the result of a several months-long inquiry.

The report stems from a decision by the state's Information Technology Division (ITD) last September to standardize on the OpenDocument format for executive branch state agencies by January 2007.

The move has been criticized by state politicians, including the state's director of public records. It also has attracted worldwide attention as a landmark decision among governments seeking more control over storage of public information.

Microsoft, the dominant supplier of desktop applications, does not intend to support OpenDocument in Office 2007, the company has said. It has submitted the document formats to Office 2007 to standards bodies Ecma International and the International Standards Organization.

In the report, titled "Open Standards, Closed Government: the ITD's Deliberate Disregard for Public Process," Pacheco contends that the ITD issued a technical architecture without sufficient input from interested parties or a realistic cost-benefit analysis. In addition, he said that the ITD did not have the legal authority to set a standard.

Pacheco also criticized the ITD for not taking into account the needs of people with disabilities when choosing OpenDocument.

"The principles of open standards may offer the benefits of decreased costs and interoperability of documents, but the ITD did not pursue the policy in an open, collaborative or lawful manner," he said at a press conference here in the Massachusetts State House.

Pacheco said he expects the executive branch to address the issues raised, adding that he recommends the January 2007 implementation deadline be postponed unless the needs of people with disabilities can be met.

He indicated that he has had constructive conversations with Thomas Trimarco, the Secretary of Administration and Finance, and Louis Gutierrez, the chief information officer of the ITD, neither of whom were involved in the OpenDocument decision.

In response, the office of Governor Mitt Romney issued a statement on Tuesday, saying that the executive branch would continue with the standards implementation plan.

"Senator Pacheco is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law. We are committed to an open-standards approach that fully takes into account all accessibility, cost and statutory requirements," said Felix Browne, an administration spokesman.

At the press conference on Tuesday, a disabilities advocate echoed Pacheco's criticism of the process, saying the concerns of people with disabilities were not sufficiently addressed before the ITD issued its technical architecture document.

"We need the ITD to take a step back and wait until we can verify the accessibility" of OpenDocument-based products, said John Winske, chairman of the Disability Policy Consortium, a Boston-based advocacy group. OpenDocument is currently supported in products from IBM, Novell, Sun Microsystems and the open-source OpenOffice suites.

Microsoft Office has built-in help for people with disabilities, such as voice synthesizers, special screen readers and enlargers, Winske said. But he said OpenDocument-based products do not yet.

Pacheco's findings echo his comments made at a public hearing last November, when he said the ITD acted "unilaterally" and without the proper authority. In addition, he said that the IT Division's then-CIO Peter Quinn and general counsel Linda Hamel did not do a sufficient cost analysis.

On Tuesday, Pacheco said that the process running up to the ITD's decision last fall was closed and dictated by Quinn and former Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss.

"The process, quite frankly, was driven by one individual in a very powerful position (Kriss) issuing a memo to an individual in a less powerful position (Quinn). Then he was told to get it done and forget about any obstacles," Pacheco said.

Although OpenDocument is not yet widely used, other government entities, including Belgium, have expressed interest in OpenDocument as a standard as well.