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UK government confirms ODF as standard document format, rejecting Microsoft proposals

Bryan Glick

The government has confirmed plans to standardise document formats across the public sector – and has resisted extensive lobbying by Microsoft by rejecting the software giant’s preferred standard.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude announced today that the Open Document Format (ODF) will be the standard for sharing or collaborating on government documents, with PDF or HTML also approved for viewing documents.

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The decision follows a long and often controversial process that first started in 2011, and led to a consultation that concluded in February.

The move goes against heavy lobbying from Microsoft, which urged the government to include Open XML (OOXML) – the standard used for its Word documents, but which critics say is not a truly open, vendor-independent format.

Computer Weekly sources suggested that the announcement of ODF as the chosen format was delayed by further lobbying from the software giant.

Nonetheless, the dominant system in government is Microsoft Word, and Whitehall IT chiefs hope that by adopting ODF other products will be also used, reducing the dependence on a single supplier.

Just last week, the Labour Party published Microsoft’s submission to its Digital Government Review, in which the supplier urged Labour not to adopt a single document format standard. The company has consistently said it supports ODF, but wanted the government to also include OOXML.

“We have listened to those who told us that open standards will reduce their costs and make it easier to work with government,” said Maude.

Responses to the consultation on document formats were overwhelmingly in favour of ODF as the standard.

Mike Bracken, executive director of the Government Digital Service, said: “The feedback made it clear just how important choosing the right way of publishing documents is. Using an open standard will mean people won’t have costs imposed on them just to view or work with information from government. It’s a big step forward, and I’m delighted we’re taking it.”

The government said that the benefits of the new approach include:

  • Citizens, businesses and voluntary organisations will no longer need specialist software to open or work with government documents.
  • People working in government will be able to share and work with documents in the same format, reducing problems when they move between formats.
  • Government organisations will be able to choose the most suitable and cost effective applications, knowing their documents will work for people inside and outside of government.

The new standards come into effect immediately for all new purchases in government. The guidelines for the policy state that new or edited documents should now use ODF.

"Documents that are newly created or edited in offline applications must be saved in ODF. There is no requirement to transfer existing information, unless it is newly requested by a user and shared for the purpose of editing and collaborating. However, if departments identify a user need and operational benefit in converting files they should be converted into the format specified in this standards profile," said the policy paper


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