Doc Formats and the State of Minnesota

Last summer, I spent an enjoyable day with a wide range of people in Minneapolis. There were a few weeks there where Microsoft, IBM, Adobe and others had quite a few subject matter experts to talk about document formats. At the time, a piece of legislation was being considered to put a procurement preference in place for ODF.

This week the Chief Information Officer of the State of MN MN LOGOsubmitted a report to the legislature titled: "Preserving the Present: Creating, accessing and maintaining Minnesota's electronic documents." 

My first comment is - great work. I think the report is balanced, considered, and concise in its appraisal of the document format discussion.

This report does not recommend the adoption of a particular format standard. The dynamic nature of technology innovation and change make adoption of a single standard problematic...the choice or use of a standard must not be to adopt a standard for the sake of adopting a standard. Any choice must be in the context of what value such a decision adds to government.

I have stated over and over again how important it is to consider the document format discussion from a value context. The value is not in the standard - it is the applications that implement the standard. Governments, like any organization, are looking to use technology to accomplish tasks in the most cost-efficient manner while maximizing the functionality of a given solution.

As for Open XML or ODF - neither meets all of the State's needs. Both offer compelling solutions for different purposes.

Here is my condensing of the key conclusions. I think they are useful for any State seeking to make a decision about document formats. I am not going to list them all - go read the report - but I will hit on a few that I think are really important.

  • Don't adopt any standard in statute. That is the role of the State CIO, "to promulgate information technology standards." This gives the CIO the ability to seek the best value for money for solutions being produced in a rapidly evolving marketplace.
  • Conversion to single format would be costly and would end up with many exclusions and special cases because no currently available standard does everything that the State needs.
  • States should take an interest (and even participate) in standardization committees if they feel it is of value to do so. But the report warns that, "becoming overly involved in marketplace conflicts is not the function of the state's procurement process..." (This is a huge point for me. I have often advocated that neutral procurement policies are best - and putting forward a hard mandate for a specific standard is dangerous for many reasons.)

I think this is a very cogent document and to be applauded for its approach and conclusions.