It was on the front page of the Boston Globe newspaper today, and the
lead article on their web site–an investigation that normally would
be buried in the City & Region section of the paper. So you can’t
miss it: IT manager Peter Quinn of the Massachusetts state government
is criticized for not fully reporting trips he took during his
promotion of the OpenDocument format.
Microsoft, after a late start (like most technology companies) has
poured millions into lobbying over the past decade. Rumors even
suggest that several government IT managers who dared to consider
open-source alternatives to Microsoft heard promptly from both the
company and their own bosses to pull back. So it would be highly
gratifying to Microsoft and those trying to maintain the status quo if
someone could turn the tables and try to smear the proponents of open
source and open standards with similar influence.
Because the whole thrust of choosing an open document standard is to
improve transparency in government, one could hardly find a cleverer
complaint than to accuse the proponents of lack of transparency.
A nice side effect of the controversy is to intimidate government
staff and punish them for doing what they should be doing: going out
into public forums and exchanging ideas with the communities affected
by their decisions. Especially in a major paradigm shift, and
especially when dealing with open standards that have far-flung
People opposing change have claimed that moving to an open standard would raise
costs, playing up the obvious observation that any investment in the
future requires a temporary increase in short-term expenditures. Then
representatives for the disabled raised the concern that tools
providing the OpenDocument format don’t support all the accessibility
options that Microsoft Office contains; this gap is being addressed
Pamela Jones of groklaw pointed out that representatives for the
disabled were demonstrating an unseemly helplessness in raising their
complaint. Because several open-source tools support OpenDocument,
anyone who wants accessibility added can pay someone to do the job
rather than complaining about it.
So they’re running out of FUD, and it became time to shoot the
messenger. The Boston Globe article is short on details–suggesting
that there isn’t much legal basis for the whole complaint to start
with–but the argument goes like this; state officials have to receive
written authorization for trips paid by outsiders, and have to give a
detailed estimate of the costs of travel. Quinn, as director of IT for
the state government, made a dozen trips during the last two years,
receiving written authorization for some. It is not clear whether he
received verbal authorization or written authorization for the others.
He paid for some trips himself and accepted payment from the
conference sponsors, duly reporting these payments.
Now someone in state government is claiming Quinn should have listed
all the companies that sponsored the conferences, to allay fears that
these companies were trying to gain underhanded influence. By this
standard, a speaker who gets free admission to a conference such as
LinuxWorld Expo or O’Reilly’s Open Source conference would have to
list that his trip was paid for by Intel, Sun, Dell, and any other of
the one or two dozen companies listed as sponsors–even Microsoft!
Yes, companies are involved in open source. Contrary to the critics,
open source does create markets, and companies will rush in to make
money there. So the publicity around this investigation may
inadvertently weaken another form of anti-open source FUD.
Attending a conference, however, does not necessarily mean one comes
in contact with a company representative. Usually, to actually
interact with that company, an attendee has to take the deliberate
step of arranging a meeting; otherwise he’s unlikely even to get a
demo at a booth. A speaker at a conference is likely to come in,
deliver a speech, and leave without ever seeing a company
I managed to reach Quinn’s former boss, Eric Kriss, which the Globe
did not. (Choosing to break a story over Thanksgiving weekend, when
protagonists are on vacation and government offices that could answer
questions are closed, definitely does not contribute to clarity.)
Kriss, whom I know because he’s contacted me with a book idea earlier,
pointed out that:
Most of Quinn’s trips occurred after Massachusetts made the decision
to adopt OpenDocument. There is no possibility that the trips would
influence the decision that had already been made.
While some two-way communication occurs at any conference–and is
beneficial to the public–the primary purpose of the trips were to let
Massachusetts government tell the rest of the world what it was doing.
Far from being junkets, these trips were normally squeezed in on
weekends around his normal duties and represented a contribution of
his free time to the community.
I’m not going to express an opinion on the law, which is none of my
business, particularly because I err on the side of supporting more
information rather than less. Lapses in authorization and reporting
should be investigated by the state, and the Globe should report the
investigations. But it seems that their fundamental misunderstanding of
the dynamics of technical conferences has threatened to create an
unwarranted hysteria. Sponsorship of a technical conference does not
mean the sponsor is paying the speakers, or has any influence over
What we’re left seeing is a lot of scurrying to transform an important
issue of government documentation into a spurious issue of staff
documentation, with publicity flourishes to warn that anyone trying to
open up government has to be ready for every kind of backlash.