Government announces preferred open standards for documents

The government has announced a set of open standards which it hopes will be used for documents across government

The government has announced a set of open standards which it hopes will be used for documents across government.

After gathering feedback from users in government, the preferred open standards selected are PDF and HTML for viewing documents and ODF, CSV, TXT and HTML for using and sharing documents.

To ensure transparency about the selection process, the standards have been published on the Standards Hub, where further feedback can be gathered.

“People have views on it, and will express those views, and we’re really keen to get the right answer,” government CTO Liam Maxwell told Computer Weekly.

The standards will now be formally taken to the Open Standards Board to continue the consultation process.

The government received 650 responses to a survey of users who viewed, downloaded or edited government documents available online. A third of these respondents said they experienced problems when viewing, downloading, opening, reading, editing or submitting government documents.

The respondents said that sometimes documents would not open, or some of the text would be missing or overlapping. A blog written by the Government Digital Service (GDS), said these problems were due to format incompatibility.

“Occasionally users have had to call, email or visit government offices to obtain the documents they need in a format they can access,” said the blog.

Providing open standards for documents is in line with the government’s aim to transform how IT is used internally. The Cabinet Office is currently in the process of transforming its internal IT with help from the GDS. 

Since the project began, new devices and applications have been placed in the hands of 50 Cabinet Office staff. These include Android, Mac and Windows 8.1, along with cloud-based email tools.

The open standards policy has been on a long journey to get to this point, and has received heavy lobbying from proprietary software suppliers such as Microsoft.

In February 2012, championed by cabinet minister Francis Maude, the government pushed through a policy of using open standards when purchasing technology. He also launched a consultation on the definition of open standards.

Maxwell said he has heard nothing directly from Microsoft about its opinion on recent developments. He said following the consultation in 2012, a lot of content was exchanged between himself, government and Microsoft, but that has not occurred on the same scale since.

He said Microsoft could lobby the government again: “It’s a free market, and all of our policy is based on competition.”

During the announcement at the government's Sprint 14 conference in London, Maude said: “It’s not about banning any one product or imposing an arbitrary list of standards. Our plan is, as you would expect, about going back to the user needs, setting down our preferences and making sure we choose the software that meets our requirements best."

The government’s digital policy is to encourage small and medium enterprises to offer services to government to increase competition and innovation, and it has done so through frameworks such as G-Cloud.

Maxwell said, “I sometimes get annoyed when people say I’m an open source junkie or that I go on about SMEs all the time – what I’m really going on about is competition. Because with pure competition we’ll find the solutions that our users need and it makes the process more effective for us.”

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