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UK picks Open Document Format for all government files

Minister Francis Maude wants to break 'oligopoly' of software suppliers

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The UK Government has decided that Open Document Format, the OpenOffice-derived file format, is the best choice for all government documents.

The Cabinet Office's Standards Hub explained its thinking on the matter and published the recommendation this week, using the following language:

“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.”

CSV files are preferred for “statistical or numerical information … preferably with a preview provided in HTML.”

“For information being collaborated on between departments” it is suggested that “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).”

In-browser editing is preferred across the board, and “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.”

A second recommendation on the best file format for viewing government docments suggests “PDF/A should be used as the default for non-editable documents. PDF 1.7 should be used where more rich functionality is needed.”

Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude mentioned the release of standards proposals in a speech delivered yesterday.

That oration, published here, offers the following observations about the decision to chose ODF:

“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.”

Elsewhere in the speech Maude hints strongly at a desire to spend less money on software.

“Over the past few years we’ve moved away from a small oligopoly of IT suppliers to create a more open market,” he said yesterday. “And yet the software we use in government is still supplied by just a few large companies.”

“I want to see a greater range of software used, so people have access to the information they need and can get their work done without having to buy a particular propriety [sic] brand.”

Which brand might that be, Minister? Office 365 and Google Docs both allow saving files to ODF, so in-browser editing has at least two choices for government users to consider. On the desktop, Microsoft Office can do the business, too. So can free-to-acquire productivity suites.

Maude says broader software choice “should help departments to do something as simple as sharing documents with each other more easily” and will contribute to “making government more efficient and delivering simpler, clearer, faster services”. ®

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