Huge Win for ODF in UK: Let's Not Mess it up

Back in January, I alerted people to a hugely-significant consultation being run by the Cabinet Office on the subject of document standards. This was so critical, that I banged on about several times more, urging readers to submit their...


Back in January, I alerted people to a hugely-significant consultation being run by the Cabinet Office on the subject of document standards. This was so critical, that I banged on about several times more, urging readers to submit their comments. I must confess that I was not optimistic: we have been through this exercise so many times, and been so close to obtaining support for open formats, only to be thwarted by machinations, that I assumed the same would happen here. That’s partly why I put in a Freedom of Information request, in an attempt to head that off, if possible, and if not, at least to document what happened. The fact that I still have not received an answer to my adjusted request only seemed to confirm my fears.

And yet something extraordinary has happened, as revealed by this Cabinet Office press release from yesterday:

The open standards selected for sharing and viewing government documents have been announced by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude.

The standards set out the document file formats that are expected to be used across all government bodies. Government will begin using open formats that will ensure that citizens and people working in government can use the applications that best meet their needs when they are viewing or working on documents together.

When departments have adopted these open standards:

citizens, businesses and voluntary organisations will no longer need specialist software to open or work with government documents

people working in government will be able to share and work with documents in the same format, reducing problems when they move between formats

government organisations will be able to choose the most suitable and cost effective applications, knowing their documents will work for people inside and outside of government

The selected standards, which are compatible with commonly used document applications, are:

PDF/A or HTML for viewing government documents

Open Document Format (ODF) for sharing or collaborating on government documents

The move supports the government’s policy to create a level playing field for suppliers of all sizes, with its digital by default agenda on track to make cumulative savings of £1.2 billion in this Parliament for citizens, businesses and taxpayers.


The default format for saving government documents must be Open Document Format (ODF). Information should be shared in ODF version 1.2 (or later). ODF version 1.1 may be used for transition to the implementation of ODF 1.2. Where users need to calculate formulas in spreadsheets, ODF 1.2 (or later) is preferred for better interoperability. ODF includes filename extensions such as .odt for text, .ods for spreadsheets and .odp for presentations.

It must be possible for editable documents being created or worked on in a cloud environment to be exported in ODF.

Documents that are newly created or edited in offline applications must be saved in ODF. There is no requirement to transfer existing information, unless it is newly requested by a user and shared for the purpose of editing and collaborating. However, if departments identify a user need and operational benefit in converting files they should be converted into the format specified in this standards profile.

Yes, you read that correctly: ODF is the official format for sharing or collaborating on government documents – and only ODF. This is, of course, a huge win for open standards, and open source.

A post by Mike Bracken, Digital Director at the Cabinet Office, gives some more background on how this came about:

This isn’t a decision we’ve taken lightly. We’ve spent a lot of time recently asking for feedback from the people who are most likely to be affected. Responses on our Standards Hub (over 500 of them) were overwhelmingly positive. Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment.

Indeed, this is a splendid demonstration of the power of the public – and why I kept urging people to make a submission. It really can make a difference. Here’s what happens next:

This is a big step for government, and things won’t change overnight. We have to make sure that the switch is managed properly. We shall work with departments to make the transition as smooth as possible, and ensure that the burden stays with government and not users.

While celebrating this great news, I really want to emphasise Bracken’s point about managing the switch properly. We can be absolutely certain that Microsoft will fight this decision in every way possible. It will certainly seize on any problems that arise during the implementation as “proof” that it was the wrong choice. That makes it crucial that the open source community do everything in its power to aid the Cabinet Office here.

One particular area that concerns me is cross-compatibility. I’m hearing stories about difficulty in transferring ODF files from LibreOffice to Apache OpenOffice, with formatting of things like tables being messed up in the process. This is completely unacceptable: one of the benefits of adopting an open standard is the ability to swap in and out different applications. If that theory proves impossible in reality, we have a huge problem.

I would therefore like to entreat all the open source projects and communities that work on ODF to get together and sort this out. In the wake of the fantastic – and brave – move by the Cabinet Office, providing full interoperability among open source implementations must be a priority.

Yesterday’s news is truly a unique opportunity to show the power of open standards, to promote the benefits of open source, and to bring about its wider dissemination both in government, and among home users. The price of failure here would be extremely high: yet more years in the wilderness, as happened after the Massachusetts ODF fiasco a decade ago. So let’s not mess it up.

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