Why Are a Microsoft Lobbyist and a Google Sales Executive Helping Cambridge Set Technology Policy?

Why Are a Microsoft Lobbyist and a Google Sales Executive Helping Cambridge Set Technology Policy?

When City Councilor Kenneth Reeves spoke at last week's Information Technology World Cafe to thank the City's staff and Community Representatives to the new E-Gov Steering committee, he spoke humorously of his lunches with Brian Burke, one of those Community Representatives. Burke, he said, keeps reminding him that, if Cambridge just adopted all the solutions offered by his employer, Microsoft, the Cambridge technology environment would be much improved. While City Councilors can't effect purchasing decisions, a Microsoft lobbyist's participation in technology strategy development raises the question of what a major City vendor is doing advising the city on issues that affect his employer.

And Microsoft is not the only vendor participating in strategy development. Google, who the School Department is turning to as it adopts "Google Apps for Education" as a key part of its technology, is represented by Tarun Rathnam.

Neither Burke nor Rathnam, both Cambridge residents, are employed in technical roles. Burke, the Northeast Director for State Government Affairs for Microsoft, was formerly registered with the Commonwealth as a lobbyist. Currently, he is listed with the Massachusetts Secretary of State as "Authorizing Officer" for Microsoft's lobbying expenditures. Rathnam is Google's "Head of Industry - Software and Sales," part of Googles sales and marketing team. Defended as citizen volunteers, for senior sales, marketing and lobbying executives of multinational software corporations, influencing technology strategy is not volunteer work. It's part of their job description.

Burke is no stranger to controversy. In 2006, the Chief Information Officer of Massachusetts said in an email disclosed by Computerworld in 2006 "[..]Brian will never be welcome in my office". Burke, CIO Louis Guiterrez had discovered, was lobbying for legislation that would have stripped the state's Information Technology Division (ITD) of its policy setting powers. At the time, ITD was considering setting an Open Source standard for state documents, a standard that would have been harmful to Microsoft's business and set a precedent for government adoption of open standards.

Cambridge's Information Technology Department has adopted Microsoft software as a standard, and one of its current goals is to maintain a standard desktop for city staff, ensuring a continuing purchase of Microsoft products. The city also notes as accomplishments upgrades of Microsoft software on existing desktops, another source of continuing purchase of Microsoft products. And the City's lack of support for only computers using Microsoft's Windows operating system has resulted in public complaints by Councilors who use their own Macintosh computers to conduct City business.

Cambridge Staff using Microsoft Tablet
Cambridge staff using Microsoft Tablet
during the IT World Cafe

The process Cambridge used to seek Community Representatives is not clear. No call for applications, a common city practice in filling other advisory roles, can be found on the city web site. This writer has been told by a City Councilor that he had been considered as a Community Representative but was not selected due to his service on the Central Square Advisory Committee.

When asked to comment on the issues raised by vendor participation in setting strategy, City Councilor Leland Cheung said the tone of these questions would be "destructive" to a productive relationship to the City. He strenuously defended the City, citing its "unflinching fairness" and "resolute observance" of Massachusetts law in procurement decisions. Further, Cheung, an advocate for greater inclusiveness and transparency in IT policy, stated that the "insinuation that Microsoft and Google employees volunteering their time to help the city think about its IT strategy may lead to a conflict of interest in Cambridge's procurement processes is insulting to all parties."

City CIO Mary Hart and Deputy City Manager Richard Rossi did not respond to questions about the process used to select Community Representatives. When provided with a draft of this article, Rossi, writing on behalf of himself and Hart, said:

Many City staff and E-Gov Committee members are working hard to produce a plan that will be beneficial and responsive to members of the public and businesses who want to interact with the City through technology in new and different ways. Our efforts are in earnest and it appears that you are more interested in an ongoing negative dialogue concerning the City's efforts. The staff disagrees with many of your opinions and we will not continue to engage in this back and forth. Our record will be judged by what we produce for the City, its residents and its businesses.

Neither Cheung nor Rossi responded to a suggestion that Burke and Rathnam should recuse themselves when issues related to their employers arose.

Councilor Kenneth Reeves declined comment for this article.

Both Microsoft and Google have figured in contentious Cambridge issues. In 2010, the Cambridge sign ordinance, approved by the City Council but rescinded after a controversial petition campaign, was seen by its opponents as an effort by Microsoft to place a building identification sign on One Memorial Drive. This spring, Microsoft received approval from the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority to place its sign (pictured above) on One Broadway during an extended period where the City had failed to fill board seats. Out of concern that the City might lose Google, the City Council modified open space covenants allowing Google's landlord to decrease the size of a rooftop park in order to meet Google's space needs.

Disclaimer: This author, a retired volunteer, has offered verbal and written testimony to the City Council highly critical of the city's IT strategy and has advocated for bringing citizen expertise to bear on the city's IT issues. This author's written testimony to the Council's Finance Committee regarding the IT budget is below. This author has also spoken in oppostion to the process used to approve the modifications of the open space covenants related to Google's continued presence in Kendall Square.

Updated 5/17/2012 to clarify a miscommunication regarding the intent of Leland Cheung's use of the word destructive.

Information Technology Budget