Government opts for open standard document format

Published 23 July 2014

Microsoft criticises government switch to ODF and HTML file formats, citing "unproven" benefits for the public

Microsoft has criticised the government's decision to "restrict its support of the file formats it uses for sharing and collaboration to just open document format (ODF) and HTML," questioning the potential benefits of the policy for UK citizens.

The criticism follows the government's announcement this week of its intention to standardise the formats of all digital documentation using open standards as part of a continued effort to move away from proprietary software provided by major suppliers to shorter-term contracts with smaller businesses.

Responding to the strategy, Microsoft said:

"Microsoft notes the government's decision to restrict its support of the file formats it uses for sharing and collaboration to just ODF and HTML. The good news for Office users is that Office 365 and Office 2013 both have excellent support for the ODF file format, so their current and future investments in Office are safe. In fact, Office 365 remains the only business productivity suite on the UK government's G-Cloud that is accredited to the government's own security classification of "Official" and which also supports ODF. Office Online, or the Office Web Apps Server, allows users to open, edit and save ODF files in a browser. However, users of all sorts of popular modern productivity software may find the inability to use their default or preferred open format when communicating with the government confusing or restrictive.

"Microsoft believes it is unproven and unclear how UK citizens will benefit from the government's decision. We actively support a broad range of open standards, which is why (like Adobe has with the PDF file format) we now collaborate with many contributors to maintain the Open XML file format through independent and international standards bodies. We also believe that giving users a choice of standards is an important spur to improvement, competition and consequently, innovation. The government's stated and laudable strategy to be cloud-first in the provision of its services to citizens depends on nurturing, not constraining such innovation."

While seen as having a wide range of meanings, the thinking behind an open standard is to create something - in this case software - that is publicly available and has various rights relating to usage.

The Cabinet Office said that a switch to open standards would better allow it to meet wider objectives for more efficient digital governance.

"Word processor files will be saved with '.odt' suffixes, rather than '.doc'. It's a different format, but it does a similar job," wrote Government Digital Service (GDS) executive director Mike Bracken in a blogpost announcing the strategy.

"These formats are open in the sense that you don't need any specialist software to use them. If your existing software doesn't understand them, you can download software that does [the formats] for free."

Bracken said the decision to switch to using an open standard format to save and access files had not been taken lightly, with the Cabinet Office having received over 500 responses over the issue on its Standards Hub site.

The Cabinet Office has said the final decision was taken on the basis of meeting the following three key aims:

  • Proving users with a choice over which software they use to read government documents
  • Trying to ensure documents can be shared more easily between different government departments
  • Ensuring working with government was easier and cheaper by limiting the need for suppliers to own specialist software

Bracken added that the scale of the switch meant that format changes could not be enacted overnight, but GDS would be working with individual departments to ensure a "smooth" transition by working to keep any burden on government rather than users.

The decision to make greater use of open standards and open source software has been part of an ongoing debate for the UK public sector with Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude not being shy of promoting an agenda to move away from using proprietary software under the current government.

Back in January, Maude told delegates at the Sprint 14 cross government digital event in London that he would be 'unashamedly militant' in enforcing Whitehall's IT red lines. These red lines are regulations that prohibit contracts worth over £100m, automatic extensions and hosting contracts lasting more than two years in length.

Related articles:

Open source use may rise where proprietary systems cannot lower costs

Maude reiterates open standards and pro-SME buying campaign

Government endorses first set of open standards

European Commission: Open standards would save public sector almost £1bn a year

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