Tech State or State Tech?


John Palfrey, Executive Director of Harvard's Berkman Center, made some remarks a few days ago on the proper role of government with respect to open standards. He did so in the context of Microsoft trying to use the Massachusetts Legislature to do an end run around the Massachusetts CIO on the issue of adopting open standards. John talks about the proper role of Government in this struggle:

That job is not to choose between competing technology vendors, circa 2005, in a fast-changing marketplace. The elephant in the room is the struggle between Microsoft on the one hand and IBM and Sun on the other. But that struggle is not, and cannot be, the real story on open standards policy. It's essential to bear in mind the state's proper role vis-a-vis this marketplace -- a marketplace which may in fact establish, and re-establish, other open standards over time, all plausibly based off of the same concept of XML. Consider, for instance, the "web 2.0" version of this discussion and witness the dramatic changes in the syndicated technologies space -- with RSS, Atom, OPML, the MetaWeblog API, and their ilk over the past few years -- which, to all but a few visionaries, were unthinkable as possible "open document formats" a short while ago. The key is to ensure enough flexibility in the process so that those who know the technologies and the implications of any changes can help the state to adjust its approach on the fly as progress, inevitably, marches on -- and such that citizens, or users, are not the ones left behind in the long-run.
From John Palfrey :
Referenced Fri Dec 16 2005 08:43:02 GMT-0700 (MST)

There's an interesting tension here between a legislative process that typically takes years and numerous iterations to come up with solutions to tough and vexing problems and a technology landscape that shift dramatically over the course of a single legislative session.

Legislators are big believers in democracy (duh!) and in their zeal sometimes try to apply the slow deliberative process to problems where it may not be the best choice. I think technology choices are an example of that. Legislatures should set establish broad legal frameworks and then appoint and empower the executive branch to run more flexible public policy processes to set actual rules.

As far as I can tell, that was what was happening in Massachusetts until Microsoft found a few legislators who they could rile up on the issue. If the legislature jumps in and changes the decision that the public policy process developed, I think it will be a big mistake. The public policy process made a decision to use open standards, a decision that is in the citizen's best interest. In overturning that, the Massachusetts Legislature will be making a decision against the interests of its citizens and in favor of a single, large company.

John concludes:

Information technologies are increasingly important to our democracy. A policy that seeks to ensure a citizen's access to information and a citizen's ability to transform data with as few constraints by those who make technology as possible is a worthy one. These goals should not be pursued by the state without the active involvement of the technical community; the legislator needs to get to know the technology developer, and those who set technology standards, much more intimately if the state is going to play in this game.

The question before the Commonwealth today is not whether to strive for such lofty goals, but rather how to meet the challenge of crafting and implementing a policy that will in fact achieve them over the long run. If the Commonwealth gets this policy right, others will follow. If the Commonwealth gets this right, it will be good not only for our state's economy but also for our democracy.
From John Palfrey :
Referenced Fri Dec 16 2005 08:57:33 GMT-0700 (MST)

Amen.