Is ODF Finally Coming to UK Government?

Back in December, I lamented the almost complete disappearance of ODF in discussions around office formats. I also pointed to a consultation being run by the UK government on the subject - or, rather "document format challenges" as it preferred...

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Back in December, I lamented the almost complete disappearance of ODF in discussions around office formats. I also pointed to a consultation being run by the UK government on the subject – or, rather “document format challenges” as it preferred to call it. Even though that only closed a couple of weeks ago, Francis Maude has just made a speech in which he discusses what’s happening there:

Today I can announce that we’ve set out the document formats that we propose should be adopted across government – and we’re asking you to tell us what you think about them.

It’s not about banning any one product or imposing an arbitrary list of standards. Our plan, as you would expect, is about going back to the user needs, setting down our preferences and making sure we can choose the software that meets our requirements best.

Technical standards for document formats may not set the pulse racing – it may not sound like the first shot in a revolution. But be in no doubt: the adoption of open standards in government threatens the power of lock-in to propriety vendors yet it will give departments the power to choose what is right for them and the citizens who use their services.

That sounds promising, but vague: open standards, escaping lock-in – we’ve heard all those before, with precious little to show for it. Will this time be any different? More details on the background to the UK government’s work here can be found in a blog post by Barbara Chicca:

As part of our parallel discovery project we have:

analysed feedback on using government documents that we received through GOV.UK customer support and transformation projects

interviewed people in government to understand what they use electronic documents for, how they work, and who they share with

carried out a survey of 650 citizens and businesses, to ask them about their experience when using documents produced by the government

Here’s some of what was learnt:

people working on policies, guidance documents, and publications in general, tend to work with multiple documents at a time; often needing to be able to exchange documents internally and to collate feedback from different sources.

Staff working on government statistics may need to release data to the public and export the data they manipulate within specialised software into more common formats that can be used by any audience.

When it comes to accessing, collating and sharing information, unfortunately these tasks don’t always go smoothly. Occasionally people can’t open files created by colleagues or by people outside government. Sometimes the content gets corrupted and can’t be read properly. Government users are telling us that when they do encounter these problems, they are mostly due to a lack of consistency in the formats used to save or export documents. This means people have to find alternative routes to read these documents or to get the correct formatting; a cause of delays and frustration.

The obvious solution to those problems is to employ truly open standards, and that is precisely what is being formally proposed by the Cabinet Office on the Standards Hub. Here’s the key section:

When dealing with citizens, information should be digital by default and therefore should be published online. Browser-based editing is the preferred option for collaborating on published government information. HTML (4.01 or higher e.g. HTML5) is therefore the default format for browser-based editable text. Other document formats specified in this proposal – ODF 1.1 (or higher e.g. ODF 1.2), plain text (TXT) or comma separated values (CSV) - should be provided in addition. ODF includes filename extensions such as .odt for text, .ods for spreadsheets and .odp for presentations.

For statistical or numerical information, CSV is the required format, preferably with a preview provided in HTML (4.01 or higher e.g. HTML5).

Forms and information exchanges should be digital by default where this is enabled, therefore use of office formats should not be encouraged for the completion of forms.

For information being collaborated on between departments, browser-based editing is preferable but often not currently available. Therefore, information should be shared in ODF (version 1.1 or higher e.g. ODF 1.2). The default format for saving government documents must be one of the formats described in this proposal.

To avoid lock-in to a particular provider, it must be possible for documents being created or worked on in a cloud environment to be exported in at least one of the editable document formats proposed.

Information that is newly created or edited should be saved in one of the formats described in this proposal. There is no requirement to transfer existing information, unless it is newly requested by a user and shared.

As you can see, that specifically mentions ODF, but no other office file format. Clearly, if this proposal is accepted, it will have an immense impact on the uptake of ODF in this country, and, by implication on free software tools that support it. That makes it really important for people to offer constructive comments on this proposal.

To do that, you need to register on the Cabinet Office site, but it’s very quick and easy. Although the consultation is open until 26 February, I would urge you to start submitting well before that to get things moving, and to help make the momentum behind true open standards unstoppable. After so many disappointments and false dawns, let’s make ODF in UK government happen this time.

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