UK Government Crosses the Rubicon with Open Document Formats

Last week (July 22nd 2014), the UK Government announced the open document formats to be used by government: PDF/A, HTML, and ODF. This is the second tranche of open standards that have been adopted following open consultation, detailed work by technical panels, and recommendation by the Open Standards Board. The first tranche, which I wrote about in October 2013, was rather prosaic in dealing with HTTP, URL, Unicode, and UTF-8, and these do not really affect people outside government, whether citizens or suppliers. Document formats – both for viewing documents and 2-way exchanges – are an entirely different matter, and particularly with ODF, I have a real sense of government crossing the Rubicon of open standards.

This is a move that is likely to affect what we all do with documents in five years time, and to affect procurement of software and services inside and outside government. It will take some time for this policy, which is described in the policy paper “Sharing or collaborating with government documents“, to work its way through and the transition will require care and support, but the signs are that this has been well thought through and that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has both the plans and expertise to see through the transition. They are not, for example, naive about the practicalities of achieving interoperability across different pieces of software, and GDS is publically-committed to the idea of citizens and businesses having choice in the software they use (the ODF move, for example, is not a “LibreOffice by the back door” tactic).

Microsoft, naturally enough,  have been critical, as reported in Computer Weekly, but an article in CIO online magazine (strapline “Informing the UK’s business technology leaders”) is quite neutral in tone, and I hope that this is more reflective of the wider IT community. Actually, I perceive that Microsoft has been improving its ODF support for several years, and I doubt that this announcement will have much business impact for them; the writing has been on the wall for a while and there is a sales opportunity for product updates that help government departments meet their obligations while continuing to use MS Office products. And yet, things will not be the same… and we might even get practically-useful levels of interoperability between LibreOffice and MS Office.


Two members of Cetis have contributed to the process that informed this policy: Wilbert Kraan is a member of the Technical Standards Panel, and I am a member of the Open Standards Board.

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