OFT asks to observe government selection of open standards for documents

The Office of Fair Trading asked the government if it could observe the sensitive process of selecting open standards for document formats

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) asked the government if it could observe the potentially sensitive process of selecting open standards for document formats across Whitehall, Computer Weekly has learned.

The OFT asked to be involved as an observer in the consultation for choosing open standards formats that should be used for documents in the public sector, which commenced earlier this month.

Computer Weekly sources confirmed the OFT was interested in watching the ongoing consultation, although nothing has been formally agreed. A spokesman for the OFT said it was “aware of the project”.

Back in October, the watchdog began a separate investigation into the market for supplying IT and communications to the public sector. The OFT intends to “examine whether competition in this sector could work better and the reasons why it may not be working as well as it could”.

The OFT’s interest in the latest consultation demonstrates the sensitivity around the decision to adopt an open format for documents.

The government’s desire to introduce open standards has proved controversial over the past couple of years and it has been forced to change direction on a number of occasions.

By far the most common format for documents used across Whitehall is Microsoft’s proprietary Word format. Any decision to opt for an open format would be likely to face resistance from Microsoft, which has previously heavily lobbied government over other aspects of open source and open standards policy.

In early 2012, the government withdrew its initial open standards policy after lobbying from Microsoft.

And a previous exercise in April 2012 to help define open standards for government IT had to be restarted after Computer Weekly revealed that the consultation’s independent facilitator was also being paid by Microsoft, which was at the time lobbying against UK policy.  

Earlier this year, the Australian government decided to adopt Open Document Format (ODF) as its standard. Its chief technology officer John Sheridan wrote in a blog post that, “Standardising on a format supported by a wide range of office suites provides for the greatest possible degree of interoperability without mandating the use of a specific product, as well as providing the best basis for reliable interchange of information between agencies deploying differing office productivity suites”.

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