Readers with good memories may remember various key fights over the years that were largely about ODF and OOXML. The first round culminated in the extraordinarily shoddy fast-tracking of OOXML through the ISO standards process. Then we had a big battle over open standards in general, which also involved ODF and OOXML, where the UK government performed a dizzying series of U-turns.
That was over two years ago, and it struck me that after years of sound and fury, and all the work the open source community put into supporting ODF and open standards, we have recently heard nothing about the use of ODF by the UK government. That is, OOXML seems to have won be default. Indeed, it is striking that practically every document from the UK government is in OOXML format: for a while, there was an attempt to offer ODF formats too, but clearly people in UK government have given up even pretending to be fair here.
But now, it seems, we are to have another chance to persuade the UK government to provide a level playing field for open standards, open source and ODF:
The government has begun the process of selecting open standards for document formats.
As well as making it easier for citizens to access and work with the information that government publishes, open document formats will enable users in government departments to operate more efficiently by sharing documents and working on them together.
The document format challenges – descriptions of problems faced by users trying to read or work on documents – have been published today on the government's Standards Hub. Ideas are invited on possible open standards based approaches to the challenges, from which one or more proposals will be developed.
These proposals will also be open for comment before a recommendation is made by the Open Standards Board.
Here are the two "document format challenges". The first involves sharing or collaborating with the UK government:
Citizens, businesses and delivery partners, such as charities and voluntary groups, need to be able to interact with government officials, sharing editable documents. Officials within government departments also need to work efficiently, sharing and collaborating with documents.
Users must not have costs imposed upon them due to the document format in which editable government documents are shared or requested.
Users in this challenge include citizens, businesses and delivery partners who need to share information with government using editable documents. Users are also officials within government departments who need to share and work on documents together.
Users need to:
Submit editable documents to officials or government services
Open editable documents from officials or government services
Edit documents and be confident that the information in their documents remains usable and editable when it is shared with other users
The other concerns simply viewing UK government documents:
Citizens, businesses and government officials need to be able to access and read government documents on their own devices.
Users must not have costs imposed upon them, or be digitally excluded, due to the document format in which government documents are provided.
Users in this challenge are people inside and outside of government who need to access and read information produced by government officials or government services.
These users need to be able to view government documents on their device of choice, for example a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop, without the need to pay for any additional software.
Here's what the Government's Chief Operating Officer, Stephen Kelly, is quoted as saying about the challenges in a blog post:
"These challenges will really make us sit up and focus on putting the needs of our users first. The only way we can make the right decision is if people get involved and tell us what works best. Then we'll be able to take out some of the frustration and inefficiency, making it easier for people to do their jobs or use our services. I'm in listening mode – trying to get a better picture of what people need."
We shall see. The challenges are open until 15th January. I'll be putting together my own submissions, and posting them here in due course. Response is through the Standards Hub, which requires registration, but is not too intrusive.
In the meantime, you might find it useful to read this article in the International Free and Open Source Software Law Review (always worth dipping into), entitled "Free and Open Source Software Across the EU." It's about the use of such software in public administrations across Europe, and is written by Gijs Hillenius, who knows this area better than anyone.