Departments lack common targets for implementing open-document standards

Whitehall departments have begun publishing plans on implementing the government’s open-document standards policy

Whitehall departments have begun to publish their plans on how to implement the government’s open-document standards policy – but so far, each appears to be working to very different timescales. One department – the Treasury – has stated it won’t see full implementation until as late as 2018.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) and the Treasury have published their plans so far. The Treasury said it will not be fully implementing the mandated open-document standard until February 2018, three years after other departments.

The standard called the Open Document Format (ODF) was chosen by the government in July 2014 to standardise document formats across the public sector, with PDF and HTML also approved for viewing files.

In September 2014, government departments were told to publish their implementation plans, which are expected to trickle through over the coming month.

Instead of the Cabinet Office publishing a single plan for all of the government, it seems to be the case individual departments will follow their own plans without any common targets.

Computer Weekly asked the Cabinet Office about timescales and was told because each department is responsible for procuring its own IT and services, each may have its own reason for its implementation timings.

The Treasury intends to complete the implementation of HTML by 31 November 2014, while PDF will be completed by 28 February 2015. However, ODF won’t be implemented until 28 February 2018, with plans to be reviewed in 2016 to assess if it can be completed sooner.

A spokesperson for the Treasury told Computer Weekly while the department can generate documents in the ODF format already, it was allowing time for its stakeholders to put in place the tools to open, edit and save Treasury documents.

“The Treasury is proud of its record, leading government in delivering modern and flexible ICT services,” said the Treasury spokesperson. “All our staff have access to the latest Windows 8.1 mobile technology with Office 2013 and are able to work with open document formats. Today we are able to generate documents in the latest ODF format, 1.2 but are conscious that many external organisations and citizens cannot read ODF 1.2 documents.

“We hope that many stakeholders will have tools in place by 2016 and will review a mandatory implementation again then. We anticipate 2018 to be the latest date when the majority of our stakeholders will have access to ODF 1.2 documents. In the meantime we’ll be running an internal departmental Alpha with the ODF 1.2 standard to fully understand the impact on our users, suppliers, partners and citizens.”

In comparison, DCLG’s published timeline of implementation will end in July 2015.

“DCLG will be progressively moving to the use of open formats that will ensure citizens and people working in the government can use the applications that best meet their needs when they are viewing or working on documents together,” the department said.

By the end of July 2015, the DCLG stated it will have reviewed departmental templates to ensure they are interoperable between Microsoft Office and ODF, and the department will also consider a move to Microsoft Office 2013 to meet the latest ODF standard. The department will also have reviewed any applications that need integration with Microsoft Office to see whether they can handle ODF.

Meanwhile, Defra aims to ensure its teams which publish on Gov.uk are aware of the new requirements and provide guidance over the next three months. It also plans to review its publishing governance processes to embed best practices.

Over the next six months it will extend the new policy to external agencies who do not currently publish on Gov.uk. This is in addition to reworking the department’s use of internal and external forms, as well as the development of web-based forms.

As for a full implementation of ODF, Computer Weekly was told by a Defra spokesperson the department couldn’t commit to any timescales until the investigative work has been carried out.

Microsoft against ODF

The decision to move towards ODF was lobbied extensively by Microsoft, which urged the government to include Office Open XML (OOXML) – the standard used for its Word documents, but which critics say is not a truly open, supplier-independent format.

A 2012 consultation on the definition of open standards was delayed after it transpired an independent facilitator in the process was being paid by Microsoft

Even before that consultation, the supplier had been pressuring the Cabinet Office for changes to its open-standards policy, backed up by industry group the Business Software Alliance, which represents the interests of many proprietary software providers.

In February 2014, Microsoft rallied its network of partners to try to overturn plans to adopt ODF as the government standard for document sharing, in favour of the default format used by its Office products. 

That attempt proved unsuccessful and Microsoft was openly critical of the move, telling Computer Weekly at the time it was “unproven and unclear how UK citizens will benefit from the government’s decision”.

 

This article was updated at 11.30 on November 5 to include comment from the Treasury

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