Massachusetts was supposed to be the first domino.

In 2005, the state announced a new policy stipulating that all files created by state agencies be based on formats that adhere to open standards so the files could be read by any piece of software on any piece of hardware, now and in the future. Massachusetts selected the OpenDocument Format (ODF) for agency-created files, but the state's policy left room for any other formats that met the state's definition of "open."

The policy decision made headlines around the globe, as pundits breathlessly predicted that after Massachusetts said "no" to proprietary file formats, more states would line up behind the state to nix the formats in their own government enterprises.

Though six other states did start a line as legislators introduced bills in 2006 and 2007 to push state government to open formats, the bills didn't get far, partly because of heavy lobbying against them by a company that could lose a significant revenue stream if the bills passed - Microsoft.

These statehouse skirmishes got lots of ink, as news stories detailed lobbyists' apparent victories in quashing the bills' progress in several state legislatures. After reading some open-format coverage, replete with phrases such as "resounding victory" and bills being "shot down," one would be tempted to conclude that the war is already won.

Has the battle to put ODF into play in the public sector stalled out, just begun, or is it taking the usual time to gain traction on the political gridiron? The answer depends on who you ask.

 

Building Momentum
Though the bills stalled in state legislatures, supporters expressed confidence in open formats' future in government.

"One year ago, a bill was introduced in just one state, Minnesota, during the 2006 legislative sessions," noted Marino Marcich, managing director of the ODF Alliance, an organization formed in March 2006 to promote ODF adoption. Members of the alliance include local governments from the United States and abroad, universities and IT companies big and small, including IBM, Google and Sun Microsystems.

"One year later, five states introduced bills, which really exceeded our expectations, and I expect many more bills to be introduced in 2008," Marcich predicted, explaining that he's basing that prediction on the origin of the 2007 crop of open-format bills.

Until now, support for open formats came from the executive branch or IT officials, but the justification for states adopting open formats is now catching the attention of the legislative branch.

"The fact that the issue is resonating with legislators is a significant development," he explained. "Some of the legislators had seen what has happened in other states. I think they see it as their duty to ensure that public documents are accessible now and in the future."

Legislators are beginning to take responsibility for public access to government information contained in public records by questioning whether technical restrictions, such as proprietary formats, might impede that access.

"The fact the legislators have joined the fray, and not just the IT departments, really underscores the momentum behind open formats. Whether we're a party to it or not, bills will be introduced and the issues discussed," Marcich said, adding that it would be a topic for discussion at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) annual meeting in August 2007, which had yet to happen at the time he was interviewed.

"I think that's an indication that the issue, far from going away, is really at the - if I put it in baseball terms - we're probably in the second or third inning here," he said, adding that he would be presenting at the meeting at the NCSL's request. "I think that invitation is a reflection of the growing interest at the state level in the bills and the controversy over the bills."

Marcich and three other presenters, including a state representative from Texas who introduced an open-formats bill in the Texas Legislature, received invitations from the National Association of Legislative Information Technology (NALIT), a network of legislative IT staff in state governments.

NALIT's executive committee chose the open-formats discussion topic as a way to inform NALIT's members about issues that legislative IT staff confront in their work, said Pam Greenberg, who serves as the NCSL's liaison to NALIT.

Committee members convened the session, Greenberg said, to answer questions about the ODF/open source movement in general, why it is important to know about ODF/open source and whether states should consider adopting ODF as a standard.

 

Over the Line
Microsoft's involvement in the issue isn't about squashing open formats, said Stuart McKee, national technology officer of Microsoft's U.S. Public Sector business unit.

"Governments standing up and saying, 'We need to make sure public records are saved in formats that are available to members of the public now and in the future, regardless of what programs created those records is certainly something government can, and should, do. Government is the protector of public records," said McKee, former CIO of Washington state.

"But when governments take a step beyond that, and specific formats for public records are mandated by executive order or legislation," he continued, "that's when we get concerned."

A decree of a specific format for state files would do more harm than good, McKee explained, because such a decree ignores the availability of other open formats, such as Microsoft's Open XML and Adobe's Portable Document Format, and will make it more difficult, not less, for public-sector CIOs to serve their constituencies and manage archived documents.

"An ODF procurement preference would also drive up governments' costs and impede competition and innovation in the IT ecosystem," McKee continued. "Because governments need different technologies to accomplish various tasks, it's important to foster innovation and choice through neutral and competitive procurement policies."

To date, the only state to specify a file format for state records is Massachusetts. McKee said one reason he testified in Texas was because of the language of the bill introduced there.

"It was very clear to us that the legislation, as originally proposed, would have mandated a particular format, ODF," he explained.

Like any business that sees a threat from a potential competitor, Microsoft is taking action to protect its position. It's at the juncture of policymaking and cold, hard capitalism that the open-format fight gets a little more complicated.

ODF proponents argue that the fight is not about dollars and cents; the fight is about government's right to choose formats for government-created documents. In theory, the argument is valid.

ODF detractors counter that the fight is about dollars and cents. Desktop productivity suites are a billion-dollar market, McKee said, and Microsoft absolutely sees a commercial challenge to the Office suite of applications.

ODF didn't begin life as ODF, he said, the format is based on an XML format created by OpenOffice - itself a suite of office applications based on Sun Microsystem's StarOffice. The fact that heavyweights such as IBM and Sun consistently back ODF in testimony before state legislatures, he added, highlights the commercial undertones to the fight.

Still, McKee said he believes there's room for ODF and Open XML in the government enterprise, and that there's no reason for both formats not to be used.

"The reality is that many file formats exist to satisfy the incredible diversity of needs in software applications," he said, noting that some document formats present a fixed representation of information so that it can't ever be changed.

"Other formats are designed to maximize the ability to edit documents, and formats for spreadsheets or designing page layouts to suit the specific needs of software applications and systems.

"Since each of these features can be necessary given the goals of a specific project, locking in a single file format standard simply makes no sense," McKee said. "Choice among overlapping and even competing file format standards best enables governments to meet their needs, today and into the future, and ensures the efficient use of government resources and taxpayer monies."

 

Thin Testimony
Despite the initial failure of an open-format bill in Texas during the 2007 legislative session, state sources said the issue is far from settled, and another version of the bill will be introduced at the start of the next legislative session.

Though media coverage painted the bill's death as a Microsoft victory over open formats, the term "victory" might be misleading. The bill failed to get enough votes for two simple reasons, said Jonathan Mathers, clerk of the Texas House of Representatives' Committee on Government Reform, where the bill was heard.

First, the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) told committee members that moving Texas to open formats wouldn't necessarily need legislation, Mathers said, because the DIR has sufficient statutory authority to orchestrate such a move.

Still, Mathers acknowledged the political reality of the DIR perhaps wanting specific legislation passed on open formats before making a move.

"I understand their concerns," he said. "They don't want to drastically change the direction of the state's technology without some legislative input. The committee was concerned from a practical standpoint - 'Do we have to pass this bill today? Or is this something we can wait on and research?'

"The other reason was that both sides had expressed points of view and information privately to committee staff that they then were unable, or unwilling, to verify in open testimony in committee," he said.

This is where things get interesting.

Mathers recalled when Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice, visited him in committee offices to lobby against ODF and informed him that to the best of her knowledge, only 27 computers in Massachusetts use applications that create files in ODF.

"She got up and she testified to that," Mathers said. "This is where the ODF people I think, unfortunately, get a black eye. If you watch the public hearing, you can see me walk off the stand a couple of times.

"What I'm doing is going to the ODF people and saying, 'OK, would you please come up to the podium and tell the committee what you've been telling me, which is different than what the Initiative for Software Choice is saying,'" he recalled. "They were unwilling, or unable, to come to the podium."

In all fairness, he added, the Initiative for Software Choice informed him that testimony from the group would be limited to the 27 computers.

"They got up and that's all they testified to, and then they stepped down," he said.

Though it's certainly not the first time a committee has seen a source suddenly decide to not testify under oath, Mathers said committee members grew cautious in this circumstance because they didn't believe they had enough information to make a sound policy decision.

"This is not the first time this has happened, but it is rare," Mathers said. "It's a quick way to kill a bill. Most lobbyists and public-interest groups know that, especially in Texas, if you don't want to wait another two years, you pretty much come with full disclosure."

Marcich noted that Massachusetts officials would have been the only people who could verify this statement, and they weren't in the room. "That being said, there is a simple response to this claim," he said. "The commonwealth's policy was to implement ODF using Sun translator technology plugged in to Microsoft Office in a group of early adopter agencies. So the policy was to implement ODF though the plug-in, not through ODF supporting applications."

 

Second Time Around
Texas State Rep. Marc Veasey introduced the original bill, HB 1794, which landed in the Committee on Government Reform. Because of the limited testimony before the committee, the bill lacked sufficient votes to make it out of committee and proceed to a vote on the House floor.

Mathers said he expects the committee to give its staff an "interim charge" to research the open-formats issue, among other issues of interest to the committee. Because Texas' Legislature meets only in odd-number years, and in 140-day sessions, the committee won't meet again until January 2009.

This gives staff 18 months to conduct research on interim charges, Mathers explained, and committee staff will release a report containing a chapter on open formats in late 2008.

"We're already beginning to research the issue," he said, adding that he would attend the session on open formats at NCSL's annual meeting, and speak to the Massachusetts CIO and other government officials. "It's not that the committee didn't feel that is an important issue, and it's not that Microsoft somehow got one over on the opponent and was able to rip the rug from under IBM and Sun Microsystems."

Mathers said he believes Veasey's office will refile the bill during the next legislative session, and when that happens, the committee will be fully prepared to discuss the bill's merits.

When it comes to shepherding bills dealing with complicated issues through the legislative process, success is sometimes measured in baby steps - steps that might require years to take. Such is the case in Minnesota.

Minnesota State Rep. Paul Thissen introduced an open-formats bill in early 2006, but the bill didn't get passed out of committee. Thissen said at the time that he wasn't disappointed by the bill not passing go.

Part of the plan was to get the idea out there and circulating, he told Government Technology in a 2006 interview: "It usually takes a little time for these things to germinate and come to fruition. Next year, we'll make a much bigger effort, and we'll try to educate folks during the off session here."

Thissen did try again in 2007. His bill made it past a House committee vote, was referred to the state Senate for additional committee hearings and landed in the Finance Committee.

Luckily for Thissen, the chair of the Finance Committee, State Sen. Don Betzold, isn't a stranger to the open-formats issue. Betzold introduced his own open-formats bill, very similar to Thissen's, in the Senate. Because the legislators sponsored essentially the same bill, the bills were merged.

Though the bill's future suddenly appeared brighter, clouds gathered, and the open-format "bill" that emerged from the legislative process was a much-thinned version of the original.

As committee discussions proceeded on the new open-formats bill, Thissen recalled, it became clear that the two legislators were not in a position to force the state's Office of Enterprise Technology (OET) to begin a conversion to open formats.

"The [OET] was very resistant to having the Legislature impose a particular course of conduct on it," Thissen said. "They want to have the flexibility to decide what's best for the agency, from their perspective."

Through the committee discussions, Thissen and Betzold settled on a compromise "study bill" that turned into Section 77 of the state's omnibus budget bill. Under the terms of the section, the CIO, in consultation with the state archivist and legislative reference librarian, "shall study how electronic documents and the mechanisms and processes for accessing and reading electronic data can be created, maintained, exchanged and preserved by the state in a manner that encourages appropriate government control, access, choice and interoperability."

The CIO will have to report the study's results to the Legislature in January 2008, and the study will examine other governments' open-formats policies, state archives' management guidelines pertaining to electronic documents, public access to information, electronic documents' expected storage life, implementation costs for software capable of reading and creating documents based on open formats, and potential savings from using such software.

Section 77 also directs the CIO to seek comments from government entities, such as Minnesota State Services for the Blind, the legislative auditor, attorney general and state librarians, as well as outside groups, such as the Minnesota Historical Society, other historians, the media and members of the public.

 

Open Question Still Open
In July, Massachusetts released a draft of a new policy that would support Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) as a document format for the government's agencies. The about-face by the state infuriated ODF supporters, pleased backers of OOXML and left unclear the question of whether state governments are the right environment for settling these kinds of arguments.

Former Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn launched the ODF debate several years ago in large part because he believed technology costs for government had become unsustainable. Unfortunately government - with its unique blend of politics, special interest groups and the media - turned Quinn's idealistic initiative into a raw battle that quickly claimed the CIO as its first victim. As a result, most CIOs have steered clear of the controversy, despite the ongoing legislative efforts in Texas, Minnesota and a handful of other states.

Meanwhile, CIOs in federal government have just begun to explore open-document formats. As is often the case in other areas of IT, the federal sector has moved more slowly than the states as far as adopting open formats. Some have suggested that a coordinated effort between different levels of government to adopt open formats could strengthen the movement. Yet no group has stepped forward to initiate such a collaboration.

However, others wonder if organizations, such as the ODF Alliance, are wasting their time trying to move their agenda forward through government. As technology analyst Jim Rapoza put it in an Aug. 27, 2007, article published in eWeek, "Governments are typically not the place one expects to see groundbreaking uses of new technologies. But if that's the case, why do open-standards bodies work so hard to woo governments?"

Whatever their reason, the tug of war between opponents and proponents of ODF continues in state legislatures. Because open, accessible documents and records is a fundamental underpinning of democracy, the issue of what is open and what is not, will continue to resonate in the halls of government.

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor