UK government adopts ODF as standard document format

The UK government has announced the open standards it has chosen for sharing and viewing official documents.

The government has formally adopted the Open Document Format (ODF) as the standard for sharing and collaborating on documents and PDF/A or HTML as the standard for viewing documents. These standards are expected to be used across all government bodies.

The process to select the standards kicked off in 2012 and the government received over 500 public responses during the consultation process.

In particular, Microsoft has lobbied hard throughout the process for the government to include Open Office XML (OOXML), its proprietary file format, as one of the standards for documents.

For example, the company’s UK chief Michel Van der Bel wrote a letter to the firm’s partners in February urging them to contribute to the official consultation by asking for OOXML to be included on the list of approved standards.

The new standards will come into effect immediately for all new IT procurements and the Government Digital Service (GDS) will work with departments to produce guidance and implementation plans, according to a Cabinet Office statement.

These standards will mean that citizens, charities or businesses will no longer need specialist software to view or work with government documents.

It will also help to reduce problems for civil servants moving between formats when they share and collaborate on documents, the statement explained.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said: “We have listened to those who told us that open standards will reduce their costs and make it easier to work with government. This is a major step forward for our digital-by-default agenda which is helping save citizens, businesses and taxpayers £1.2 billion over this Parliament."

Government digital director Mike Bracken said: “We had a huge response to this proposal, both from the standards community and the public as a whole. I want to thank everyone who took the time to comment.

“Their feedback made it clear just how important choosing the right way of publishing documents is. Using an open standard will mean people won’t have costs imposed on them just to view or work with information from government. It’s a big step forward, and I’m delighted we’re taking it.”

Open source experts have welcomed the adoption of ODF by the UK government.

Steve Nice, CTO of open source consultants Reconnix said: “Adopting open standards is a step in the right direction, but a more important step will be the wholesale adoption of open source software across government. In the long run, open source not only save public money, but also a better user experience for civil servants and the public alike.

“There is currently a major cultural barrier to open source adoption in government, and those making the purchasing decisions need to break the habit of going straight to the traditional big suppliers.”

However, German software firm Open-Xchange’s CEO Rafael Laguna warned that it may take some time for the changes to come into effect.

He said: “Old habits die hard, and it may take some time for these guidelines to have an impact. The German Federal Government adopted ODF file formats in 2008, and the transition has been a slow one.

“As long as Microsoft Office has a home on government PCs, proprietary file formats will remain a fact of life.”

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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