• United States
by Carol Sliwa

Q&A: Massachusetts CIO offers update on ODF plans

Apr 13, 200614 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsMicrosoftOffice Suites

Louis Gutierrez, CIO of the Information Technology Division (ITD) of Massachusetts, said this week that he doesn’t envision a “full-scale, completed implementation” of the state’s controversial Open Document Format (ODF) policy by a January 2007 deadline, based on “what still needs to be resolved in terms of accessibility issues and implementation planning.”

But in his first in-depth interview since moving into the new job on Feb. 6, Gutierrez added that he doesn’t foresee the state taking a “wait position” with respect to its ODF policy, which applies to the state’s executive branch. “There’s no reason for us to stall in the planning or the working towards a standard for any reason,” he said. Gutierrez noted that Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration plans a formal midyear statement on policy status and implementation timing.

Gutierrez, a 2002 Computerworld Premier 100 honoree, left a position as chief technology strategist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to fill the CIO post that had been vacant since Peter Quinn resigned in January. No stranger to government, he served as the state’s first CIO from 1996 to 1998 and returned in 2003 as CIO of its executive office of Health and Human Services (HHS), where he worked through June 2004. Excerpts from his interview with Computerworld follow:

How committed are you to the Enterprise Technical Reference Model that the ITD announced in September and to the ODF policy that’s part of it?

One of the reasons that I was glad to take up the assignment to come back to ITD is that I do believe in the technical reference model objective, and I very much believe in the important role that the [division] has in promoting standards. I’m proud and grateful to promote and defend a standard like this.

Do you think your predecessors made a sound decision with respect to ODF?

I do think that this was a far-seeing and very thoughtful objective that’s embedded in the policy, and I think that’s one reason it’s resonated the way it has. It has captured the essence of an important notion about openness, about standards, about the way documents are used and will be used. I’ve signed up to do the execution, and I have a lot of work to do on implementation planning and on figuring out the right kinds of phasing for this and of addressing concerns of accessibility advocates. But I do think this is the right direction to be going.

Is that based on a desire not to tie up documents in proprietary formats for the long haul?

I would add a different angle on this. In the world of government work, we think of these documents as being somehow memos that individuals save to disk, and somehow we want those records to live a long time, and there might be a long thread of arguments around that. But truly the records management topic is the prerogative of records management people, and I want to focus on the benefits to an executive department of state government. The world that we’re entering is one of much more workflow of structured documents — structured information, XML-based information — and knowing in great detail and controlling your document formats, their structures, their nature over time. Open-standard document formats are absolutely the future of where things are heading.

Does ODF seem like a rock-solid standard to you, and is that another reason why you feel so committed to the policy?

This particular standard is one section of a much larger body, the Enterprise Technical Reference Model, the balance of which is almost never discussed with this kind of interest and energy. Enterprise technical reference modeling is crucial when you have a large enterprise like ours trying to orchestrate system investments so you don’t end up with a bunch of disparate parts and stovepipe applications.

Who has been exerting the most pressure on you about the ODF decision?

When you do government policy and you weigh a lot of things, the pressure comes from trying to stay true to what government is about. In this case, I think there’s a very principled standard that the administration has put forward with regard to open document formats and every manner of interest that come into a debate. There is a lot of pressure in this situation, but the thing that I need to stay true to are the policy objectives, recalling that government is a purchaser. Government sometimes sets requirements for new product or new capability. And government really has an obligation to make itself open both to its citizens and to fair competition.

Microsoft does not support ODF and has raised objections about the policy. Have you been trying to work out a compromise with Microsoft?

We’re not talking about a compromise to the policy if Microsoft were able to work with ODF. One benefit of an open-standards policy is to allow much greater competition among office suites on the desktop. And furthermore, there are circumstances where low-cost and open-source office suites are the right solution and other circumstances where Microsoft Office, were it to comply with the policy, would be appropriate as well.

Have you been trying to impress upon Microsoft the need for an ODF converter?

We’ve been trying to impress upon them that our policy is not an anti-Microsoft policy, that we would be very interested in ODF converter capabilities for a number of reasons. It simplifies and makes less costly some of the implementation we would need to do. And it addresses our policy directly, and it avoids months of question marks over whether Microsoft Office products will ultimately qualify under the policy.

Have you tried to get third-party converters to install yourself?

We are more deeply exploring that avenue as we speak.

How open are you down the road to including Microsoft’s Office Open XML file format as part of the policy, should their submission to the Ecma International become a standard?

We are looking for document standards that are set by standards authorities that are clear and documented; that are easily available under the right licensing and covenant not-to-sue terms for any other developers to work with and to develop with; and that are maintained by standards bodies, not individual vendors. We have not said that the policy will be restricted to only one standard over time. But we care very much that our policy objectives are met by whatever standard is looked at.

As to the moves that Microsoft has been making with regard to its own open XML format, I think there has been progress. The move from legacy formats to XML formats, improved licensing and covenant not-to-sue provisions that apply to these formats, the submission of the format to a standards body, the incorporation of a “save to PDF” — these truly are positive movements. We are very encouraged by these things, and when a standardization process is complete, we’ll look forward to evaluating the situation to see if it meets the policy requirements.

What about Adobe’s PDF, which is controlled by a single vendor but Massachusetts has listed as an acceptable format?

That’s the point that Microsoft has raised with us, and it is simply the case that sometimes you accept a standard in an area that’s important for which all criteria may not be met. So, for instance, when you’re looking at visual fidelity of documents, the PDF standard, even if it does not meet all those criteria, is really the one that we felt was most appropriate for the purpose.

The major Office applications that currently can save documents to ODF are StarOffice, OpenOffice and IBM Workplace. What’s happening with respect to the implementation plan in order for you to meet the January 2007 deadline?

The secretary has made it clear that we will not force compliance prior to accessibility concerns being addressed. That having been said, what we are focusing most on now is looking at options for compliance.

Switching from Microsoft Office to anything else will take a lot of planning. What’s happening in that regard?

I do think a deadline is a good thing, even if there’s flexibility to address it for accessibility reasons. A deadline in the context of a lot of uncertainty really helps people to focus on what’s needed. What I would like to do starting now is really be thinking thoughtfully about how we arrange transitions and implementation. It’s an important factor to understand timing of important events. Would Microsoft have an ODF converter or not, and if so, by when? What is the timeframe under which we could consider the standards input from Ecma?

But all of this aside, you’re right. It won’t be any kind of overnight thing, and it strikes me that it would be addressed as part of a prioritized implementation plan that would look at certain categories of uses, certain departments and certain opportunities to fold it in with new PC deployments. There is a lot of implementation planning that needs to be done, and it needs to be done with a real thoughtfulness for our taxpayer concerns.

Do you think you really have a chance to make the January 2007 implementation date?

I do believe it’s a question of degree, and I think that a full-scale completed implementation by Jan. 1 is not something that I see, with what still needs to be resolved in terms of accessibility issues and implementation planning. But neither do I see a wait position that would have us waiting a long time before we get started on a policy of this sort. So I think there will be a middle ground.

There’s no reason for us to stall in the planning or the working towards a standard for any reason. On my forecast of hitting the date or not, my preference would be that instead of sending mixed signals, we really do allow a process to lead us up to a midsummer reassessment of where we stand. But I think to be fair, there is quite a distance to go on accessibility and quite a lot of work to go on the implementation and transition planning.

To what degree is ITD itself now using applications that support ODF?

We have three products that we’re piloting within the agency right now in parallel with Microsoft Office. We have OpenOffice, StarOffice and IBM Workplace, and they’re in different floors and locations. Part of the pilot is just to examine the effects of interoperating with multiple ODF supporting products, just to see what fidelity glitches occur, like when you transfer a presentation file between StarOffice and OpenOffice, or StarOffice and OpenOffice and Microsoft.

Is there any early feedback on how that’s going?

There are minor translation glitches between differing products, but I think what may be more surprising than that is just how well these things do work together. There’s a brief learning curve to pick up one of these products but then they’re very capable.

Is there a mass deployment or even mass deployment plan in place at this point?

Not yet. No.

When do you expect to do that?

For much of the last two months, I’ve been looking at the implementation options. The secretary had said that by midyear we would announce our thoughts on policy implementation following their review of the accessibility issues, but we will also have some of the cost modeling input. It’s at that time when we should really have in hand the full range of deployment options and what our preferred approaches are.

What are the main impediments on the accessibility issue?

It’s a question of seamless error-free operation with screen readers and other assistive tools, and there’s great promise. But there are quite a number of deficiencies and rough edges. It’s ironic, but we find ourselves kind of where we found ourselves 10 years ago with Microsoft graphical user interfaces. There’s a ways to go for the maturation of some of the open-source products.

The Information Technology Division will be setting up its own accessibility testing lab as part of a lot of things we’re trying to do to be more responsive on the accessibility issue. We’ve posted for a hiring into it and are working to outfit it.

When do you expect to have that up and running?

I would expect by May.

Will the lab be testing screen readers with products that support ODF?

It’s what I call a locus of accessibility organizing and expertise. We have several agencies in state government — the Commission for the Blind, Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the Mass. Rehab Commission — all of whom have specialized knowledge and intelligence in the area of accessibilities. ITD would like to create a locus in the middle for organizing these efforts, understanding how they apply to new systems initiatives generally — not just ODF — but also just to provide real hands-on test experience and expertise and, yes, to actually test some of these assistive devices.

What’s going to happen with respect to public access of ODF documents, since most people use Microsoft Office and will not be able to open them?

First of all, the documents are more transparent in their very essence. They’re not tied up in legacy, binary formats. Second of all, options start to emerge where citizens don’t have to buy things to work with government documents. And third, over time, interesting things do happen with standards. I think we’re seeing the very beginning of a long future of document standards that are maintained by standards bodies and may work over time on the reconciliation of standards. I know there’s an immediate market-share concern, but I think this path is one that won’t be ending.

But what happens with Microsoft Office users who can’t open ODF documents?

We do not intend, for instance, to force business partners, cities and towns, constituents to speak a not-very-much-used Esperanto to work with this. The policy itself applies to the executive departments and not to the way in which we transact business with all of our constituents and business partners and cities and towns. So, for instance, other parts of the [ETRM] standard make very clear that the use of HTML or PDF or other very common and accessible formats are appropriate for their own uses. When we look at the portal site, the emphasis there is going to be on these other standards — on highly accessible HTML, on these mechanisms for providing documents to the public that are easy for them to use. The standard doesn’t dictate that we force problems on others, but it does set us on a course to really promoting the use of standardized and open-form documents.

Will executive department employees save in ODF but also save in alternative formats or do format conversions when they know they’re making documents available to people who don’t have an ODF-compatible office application?

When you think about it, that’s essentially what happens now. The proportion of documents that are pushed out to the public are a relatively small proportion of things that are operated on here. And when they are pushed out, they’re often saved in multiple formats — a PDF format, an HTML format. That won’t change. The root document, instead of being a legacy form like .doc, would be .odf.

When you look back at this whole process — and granted some of these decisions were made before you were there — what would you change?

I admire the perception that went into the policy objective. But I think in government it’s always really important, usually essential, to infer that you’ve got a full stakeholder buy-in. And I think what I’ve been hired to do is to really focus on some of the implementation issues that are really the result of the stated policy objective.