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UK Government Mandates Open Document Format! A Brave or Foolhardy Decision?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 28 July 2014

UK Government Policy Announcement on Office Standards

UK Goverment policy on ODF

Image from Computer Weekly (http://www.computerworlduk.com/)

Back in October 2012 in a post entitled Good News From the UK Government: Launch of the Open Standards Principles which described how the UK government had published a series of document which outlined the government’s plans for use of open standards across government departments.

Last week the government made its first significant policy decision about one standards area: as described in a Computer Weekly article: UK government adopts ODF as standard document format.

Further Details

On 22 July 2014 in a blog post entitled Making things open, making things better posted on the UK’s Government Data Service blog Mike Bracken announced the UK Government’s policy on open standards for document formats. As described in a document entitled Viewing government documents the open standards mandated for viewing Government documents are:

  • HTML5 (either the HTML or XML formulation) must be used for all new services that produce documents for viewing online through a browser
  • PDF/A must be used for static versions of documents produced for download and archiving that are not intended for editing.

Where editable information is required the approach must be as set out in the sharing and collaborating on government documents standards profile which mandates ODF 1.2 as the standards which must be used.

A document on Open formats for documents: what publishers to GOV.UK need to know summarises the policies:

Documents for ‘viewing’ must be available in one or both of the following formats:

  • HTML5
  • PDF/AA separate set of standards applies to documents that users will want to edit. This type of document must be published in Open Document Format (ODF). The most common examples of this are:

For documents designed for sharing or collaborating:

A separate set of standards applies to documents that users will want to edit. This type of document must be published in Open Document Format (ODF). The most common examples of this are:

  • .odt (OpenDocument Text) for word-processing (text) documents
  • .ods (OpenDocument Spreadsheet) for spreadsheets
  • .odp (OpenDocument Presentation) for presentations. Once open publishing standards are adopted in full by your organisation, no documents should be published in proprietary formats.

The document goes on to explicitly state that:

Where editable information is required the approach must be as set out in the sharing and collaborating on government documents standards profile which mandates ODF 1.2 as the standards which must be used.

Discussion

Initial Skirmishes

It seems the initial battles regarding the government’s approaches to open standards took place in 2012. I commented on the initial skirmishes in May 2012 in a post on Oh What A Lovely War! and followed this in October 2012 in a post “Standards are voluntarily adopted and success is determined by the market” which described the approaches being taken by Open Stand: “five leading global organizations jointly signed an agreement to affirm and adhere to a set of Principles in support of The Modern Paradigm for Standards; an open and collectively empowering model that will help radically improve the way people around the world develop new technologies and innovate for humanity“.

The signatories affirmed that:

We embrace a modern paradigm for standards where the economics of global markets, fueled by technological advancements, drive global deployment of standards regardless of their formal status.

In this paradigm, standards support interoperability, foster global competition, are developed through an open participatory process, and are voluntarily adopted globally. These voluntary standards serve as building blocks for products and services targeted at meeting the needs of the market and consumer, thereby driving innovation. Innovation in turn contributes to the creation of new markets and the growth and expansion of existing markets.

It should be noted that the five leading global organizations which were supporting “the economics of global markets” were not IT companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google but IETF, Internet Society, IAB, W3C and IETF.

The Government Rejects Microsoft’s Lobbying!

The Computer Weekly article entitled UK government adopts ODF as standard document format had a sub-heading “Cabinet Office resists extensive lobbying by Microsoft to adopt open standards“.

I must admit that following the Open Stand announcement I had expected those formulating national policies in the western world to take a similar approach in supporting “the economics of global markets“. The UK Government’s decision to reject Microsoft’s call for inclusion of OOXML (Open Office XML), which is an ISO standard,  appears surprising. But perhaps this provides an unusual opportunity to praise the government!

Challenges to be Faced

In making a bold decision it should be expected that there will be challenges to be faced in implementing the decision.  In this case some of the challenges to be faced may include:

Implications for use of OOXML: The document on Open formats for documents: what publishers to GOV.UK need to know states that “Once open publishing standards are adopted in full by your organisation, no documents should be published in proprietary formats“. But a government department which makes extensive use of Microsoft tool could legitimately point out that it uses OOXML, an ISO standard. There will be a need to clarify that the policy decision is concerned with specific open standards rather than open versus proprietary standards.  It may be more appropriate to say that the government is mandating particular open standards for which open source tools which provide rich support are readily available.

Financial implications: The policy decision will be seen as a move from Microsoft Office to Open Office software which will bring significant financial savings due to the licence costs of Microsoft software. But what of the costs in migrating to new office tools and new workflow processes? It might be argued that there is a need to make a change at some point and there is no point in continuing to defer such a change (indeed, it can be argued that the Labour government should have made this decision which there was more money available). But since the Government seems to be prioritising financial issues in policy decisions there will be a need for the costs of this change to be monitored.

Implications for users: The policy decisions will be seen as a move from Microsoft Office to Open Office software which will bring significant financial savings due to the licence costs of Microsoft software. But what of the

Exporting to ODF: It should be noted that the decision appears to relate to document formats when these are to be shared with others. Will be see existing Microsoft Office tools continue to be used but files exported in ODF format?

Scope of the policy: This policy would appear to apply to central government services. I would be interested to hear if its scope will go beyond this and apply to local government and, of particular interest to me, the higher and further education sectors and associated educational funding bodies and agencies. Will, for example, documents submitted by educational institutions to government departments, funding agencies, etc. be expected to be in ODF format?

Use of Cloud services: We are seeing moves to Cloud services for office applications including but not limited to Google Docs and Office 365. It seems that documents hosted on Google Drive can be exported to ODF format, although I am unclear as to whether similar functionality is available for Office 365 [Note as described in a comment, Office 365 does allow ODT documents to be created].  However if government bodies have chosen to migrate their office environment to the Cloud it will be interesting to see how this will be affected by the policy on file formats. It should be noted that there does not appear to be a mature Cloud environment which is tightly coupled with Open Office.

Your Thoughts

I suspect that many readers for this blog would feel that the UK coalition government does not have a good track record of making evidence-based policy decisions which have been widely acknowledged to have provided benefits to those living in the UK.

But might this be a decision which should be welcomed? Are the challenges I’ve listed (and there will be others I haven’t described) simply issues which will be addressed, whilst the benefits of the decision will quickly become apparent?

I’d welcome your thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment or respond to the poll.


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3 Responses to “UK Government Mandates Open Document Format! A Brave or Foolhardy Decision?”

  1. Note that @Alticamelus posted a comment on Twitter which alerted me to an article entitled “Government opts for open standard document format” which described how:

    Office 365 remains the only business productivity suite on the UK government’s G-Cloud that is accredited to the government’s own security classification of “Official” and which also supports ODF. Office Online, or the Office Web Apps Server, allows users to open, edit and save ODF files in a browser.

  2. […] UK Government Policy Announcement on Office Standards Image from Computer Weekly (http://www.computerworlduk.com/) Back in October 2012 in a post entitled Good News From the UK Government: Launch of the Open Standards Principles which described how…  […]

  3. John Chapman said

    Brian – your readers may be interested to know that Becta attempted to get schools and FE institutions to adopt ODF for office productivity file formats almost a decade ago by their inclusion in the Becta Technical Specification: Institutional Infrastructure. The original spec was published in 2005 and the one available from the National Archives was published in 2007: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20090608182316/http://industry.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?resID=14615

    The typical response from schools at the time was along the lines of “Why can’t we just use .doc as we all have Word anyway…”

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