On Wednesday April 9, the Texas House of Representatives Government Reform Committee will be hearing testimony regarding electronic documents.

The notice for the hearing states that the committee is looking to hear about:

Research, investigate, and make recommendations on how electronic documents can be created, maintained, exchanged, and preserved by the state in a manner that encourages appropriate government control, access, choice, interoperability, and vendor neutrality. The committee shall consider, but not be limited to, public access to information, expected storage life of electronic documents, costs of implementation, and savings.

Following last year's multi-state lobbying campaign to enact hard procurement preferences through legislation of mandates for ODF, I am expecting that the same tune will be sung by IBM, Sun, Red Hat, and Google. If they choose to go down the same path of advocating a single format (ODF) rather than taking the time to listen to their customers, it will be a reminder of their single-minded drive to use document formats as a competitive wedge for their products rather than for meeting their customers' needs.

In every single state where there was a hard preference discussion, governments opted to look for first principles appropriate for codification in statute rather than using their legislative powers as a means to pick winners in the marketplace. MA, TX, MN, CT, CA, OR...and not just in the US. This was true all over the world.

First Principles:

The most basic frame for the discussion of electronic documents is simply that all states are seeking to accomplish the provision of services through the use of technology while obtaining the greatest value for money. Within that context the State wants to address the needs of communication with constituents, transacting government business, implementing effective archival policies…all based on the efficient use of resources (people & dollars).

A) Within the context of document formats, constituents want to communicate with the State using many formats – older binary formats, newer XML-based formats, non-modifiable formats, web formats, specialized industry formats (e.g. insurance, healthcare, financial services, etc.), etc. etc. The State will not mandate what products or formats their citizens use.

The best option for the State is to apply a first principles approach that focuses on the top-level goals while leaving maximum room for innovation and competition. For document formats, this would mean establishing statute that says any procured solution must provide effective support of document formats that enable communication with constituents. The State does this today by making information available and receiving information in PDF, DOC, HTML, ODF, Open XML, etc. etc. – any advocacy for going to a single format preference seems to counter the first principle for communications.

B) Transacting government business is based upon applications…not document formats. The apps are the tools used to solve business problems such as the production of complex documents, the manipulation and calculation of information in those documents, etc. This is the crux of business competition from the vendors represented in the hearings on Wednesday. The State should desire greater competition among the vendors to drive innovation and value in the solutions available to them. In fact, this is the exact argument that IBM, Sun, Adobe and others are suggesting - but their approach is flawed when they seek to accomplish this by limiting choice rather than promoting it. (Check out Enderle's post - good points by him on this front.)

If the State were to legislate a single format, they are effectively creating an innovation dead zone by limiting the features / functionality of the applications to the capabilities of a single format. Would IBM and Sun suggest that no state support DAISY? Or the National Library of Medicine formats for research papers? Or PDF for posting of public document for public viewing? ODF (using the generic here on purpose) itself has already progressed beyond the 1.0 ISO version because of the need for the format to represent the innovations in the products that use it. The State of Massachusetts looked carefully at this issue and decided the best path was to set policy at the first principles level and focus on open standards, not on picking one standard over another. This leaves the CIO(s) of the State open to make choices based on value, functionality, and whether or not the products purchased meet the first principles rather than meeting an arbitrary technology mandate.

C) Archival continues to be a critical discussion for governments. If there is any place where first principles are crucial - this is it. The first principle for the State should be one of saying that any solution chosen for office automation technology should provide support of the State’s archival policies and procedures (already defined elsewhere). This includes preservation, access of the data independent of any application, translate-ability of the data from the original format into another, scheduled destruction of the data based on statute, the ability to set custom schema within the context of open standard specification, etc. Then, the CIO's office should be evaluating all solutions against these principles and making the best value for money decision to achieve the stated goals. If done properly, this is an example of using first principles in statute to enable the maximum amount of competition and choice between solutions.

Interoperability:

The last thing I want to point out is that the committee hearing is really about interoperability - JUST LIKE Massachusetts ultimately focused on in their ETRM policy. The marketplace reality is one of multiple document formats. So the question is about translation, it is about building a bridge between formats. It is about dealing not only with the different formats, but about the multiple implementations of the different formats.

If I were in the hearings, I would inform the committee of the work that DIN (the German national standards body) kicked off with the Fraunhofer Institute and their SC 34 mirror. If I am not mistaken, this is also part of the SC 34 committee meeting discussion in Oslo where they are thinking about interop between Open XML and ODF as well. At the international standards level, the issue of interoperability is being pursued. Moreover, there are now hundreds of implementations of Open XML, there are similarly numerous implementations of ODF, PDF (at least in output) is supported broadly...so interop is really the name of the game.

Many of the states who were considering mandates last legislative session ultimately decided to kick off study projects to further consider this issue. I do hope that these studies take a long-look at what really matters, where the value is, and how interoperability will work in a multi-format world. The single format argument is a red herring argument.