FOSS case study — Commonwealth of Massachusetts

by P

Some rough/unedited notes from a presentation by Peter Quinn, ex CIO commonwealth of Massachusetts, who reports on the his state’s decision to use an open standard document format for office productivity documents and the implications of that decision.

20 January 2006, Cologne City Hall, UNU-MERIT FLOSSPOLS workshop

Presentation starts with some numbers on the state of MA: it has 90000 employees and spends 700m US$ on IT per year. Think of it as the 60th of the Fortune 500 companies.

Background / Motivation

Peter found himself in a particular situation in 2002, which he refers to as “the perfect storm.” It combined a difficult fiscal environment, an IT commission in a position to change the current systems [NOTE: not sure I fully caught the remarks regarding the role of the commission correctly], and a new administration. For some this would be reason for concern, but Peter saw that these three together presented a tremendous opportunity to truly transform the outdated IT environment the state was using.

What was the overall aim of the new strategy?
* Preserve history
* in a format that is accessible to all
* in a format that is not technically restricted
Some of the details to consider in making a massive IT change:
* MA was suffering from a budget crisis at the end of 2002 (and it was clear that health care costs would continue to present budget pressures)
* Demographics of state employees 40-60 years old, which means high expected turnover in the next few years.
* Massive legacy systems. “If someone made one and someone sold one, we bought it”
* 95% of IT employees unionised.
* 60,000 desktops

MA was driven entirely by the best value they could achieve for the public administration of Massachusetts. No “Anything But Microsoft” or anti-trust motivated actions.

A warning to the listeners (all of which are working towards increasing the use of FOSS in public administrations): “You should know that when you are trying to move towards ‘open’ (in an environment like this), there are people who will do everything they can to stop you.” The examples provided are a disgrace and include slander and massive political behind the scenes wrangling, which effectively attempts to side-step the systems of accountability and governance.


Started sharing development costs of software with other states. Government Open Code Collaboration

Things really started in September 2003, when Peter and the Auditor General released a memo that specified the use of open document/open standards by the state. This was to be reflected in FY04, FY05 fiscal and capital budgets. The same day, the Associated Press called and the news got picked up nationally and internationally from there.

December 2003 – Senate oversight committee hearing that he was going to socialise and ruin the entire IT landscape in Massachusetts. Peter described it as a gruelling experience, but “nobody died and a year from now nobody will remember.”

For 18 months they were trying to figure out a way to deal with the variety of formats. Brought together the leading experts (including MSFT) to determine which formats would allow MA to capture and preserve history over time and accessible to all.

Public comment on OASIS August 29 2005
157 comments, all positive, with the exception of MSFT.

Policy comes into effect 1 January 2007. As of now, until MSFT goes through the ECMA process, they cannot participate in providing IT solutions to the state of MA.

Lessons learned

Some of the things MA learned in the process:
* FOSS provides an opportunity to innovate and increase collaboration in ways that were not possible before.
* Important to link with strong Universities when implementing FOSS at such large scale
* FOSS makes people accountable for what they do and solves the problem of lacking ownership/responsibility in public administration
* Governments are in fact able to lead technical revolutions
* TCO is a real issue
* The “lack of support” concern is not based on reality in the environment of a large public administration in the US. Internal employees solve almost all of the problems themselves, the vendor only helps with the top-5 most frequently occuring errors.

Peter’s take on the future of IT (in public administrations):
* Substantive browser as main access point to content
* Email and calendaring applications
* Readers for a number of file and media formats

That might lead to the big question: Is the “office suite” dead? If it is, then maybe we are making much too big a deal over which office system to use.

Final words

Peter finished with a number of beautiful quotes — including a beautiful one by Mark Twain about setting our sails and sailing out of the safe harbour to explore. I will try to dig the quote out.

He then concluded that:

* MA was the first state of the US with a public school
* MA was the first state with a public library
* Now MA is becoming the first state with an open document policy … a development that is just as compelling as the other two