Unlocking government documents

Linda Humphries and Zaheda Bhorat
Linda Humphries and Zaheda Bhorat

Linda Humphries, Head of Open Standards in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, talks us through what the announcement about document formats means for Technology Leaders in government.

Yesterday's blog post from Mike Bracken explains why we've selected open standards for document formats for use across government. This isn't just a technology change.  It's a business change that will affect every civil servant and every document that the civil service produces - so many users outside of government will see a change too.

As Technology Leaders in government, we have to get this right.

What Technology Leaders will do now

From today, when government organisations source applications that create editable documents, they’ll ask for support for ODF 1.2 (Open Document Format). For cloud based services, they’ll be looking for editable documents that can be exported in ODF, even if the native format is something different. When they source applications that produce documents intended for viewing, they’ll be looking for HTML5 and PDF/A.

Now the Open Standards Board has selected these standards, Technology Leaders will be considering those changes they can bring about now to help their users, and those they need to plan for. They will be publishing information on when they will switch over.

I’ll be asking my colleagues in GDS and Technology Leaders across government to publish and openly share advice and blogs to help departments adopt these standards. We’ve published guidance for publishers so departments can prioritise moving to these formats on GOV.UK sooner rather than later.

Guidance and mutual support on making the change

We’re not underestimating what will be involved with making this change in departments. We'll be supporting Technology Leaders as they make the transition to help ensure the process is as smooth and as beneficial to users as possible. This will include fostering a shared repository of good practice and mutual support, informed by practical experience, across areas such as:

  • selecting tools for working with others to edit documents
  • setting default options and file associations
  • the effect of extensions on interoperability
  • validation tools
  • accessibility
  • handling macros
  • selecting fonts

Where to find more information

We’ve already discussed these open standards and their implications through our engagement with the Technology Leaders Network, including a workshop. We’ve also collected together some public links that you might find useful.

Open Document Format

Products that implement ODF

What's supported in a Word ODF document


List of compliant applications compiled by AIIM

List of compliant products listed by the PDF Association

Products for PDF/A conversion and validation - including tools which check compliance with PDF/A-1 and PDF/A-2

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  1. Comment by James Nomen posted on

    Do you have milestones for how much you will have transformed and by when?
    Otherwise this will be a paper policy and be ignored.

  2. Comment by Dr. Jerry Fishenden, Deputy Chief Technology Officer at GDS posted on

    Dear James, thanks for your comment. As Mike Bracken said in his post,, "this is a big step for government, and things won’t change overnight". We have tasked the Technology Leaders in government to come back with their implementation plans for publication and we'll share those plans via this blog in due course.

  3. Comment by David Read posted on

    What thought has been given to the impact this will have on those of us (most of us) who have grown up with Microsoft products at work and at home over the last 20 years as IT has been rolled out across HMG? Virtually everyone at home and most businesses use MS products and know how to use them. It seems only to be tech people and those who don't like MS who get excited about open source stuff - the majority of us don't understand the point. There will need to be a vast training programme, never mind change to how we do our work, to implement this internally, never mind anyone outside. For example, I've just looked at the link above about what is supported in a Word ODF document. A specific thing that isn't supported is tracked changes - that's a hugely important and valuable function when putting policy documents together, sharing and collaborating on them, and I've never come across anyone who can't use it. Why would we want to lose that capability (and there are no doubt countless others)? And is open source stuff as powerful as e.g. Excel for financial management or Powerpoint for presentations etc. etc.?

    I can understand the importance of not excluding people inadvertently from working with us - but I'm not sure that is so big a problem to lead to this kind of seismic shift in how we do our work. Isn't there a better way that balances the benefits and the costs more effectively?

  4. Comment by Dr. Jerry Fishenden, Deputy Chief Technology Officer at GDS posted on

    David, thanks for your comment.

    The adoption is of open document standards, and does not dictate to users which products they should use.

    The functionality of track changes is supported and defined in the open document format standard adopted for government use. Microsoft Office supports the open document format selected and therefore users are free to continue using it if it meets their needs. Obviously, with the increasing use of online collaboration environments - such as Office 365 and Google Apps - track changes is less relevant than in the past, since users can see all revisions made by all users in the same place rather than needing to reconcile and merge tracked (and potentially conflicting) changes from multiple separate documents.

    For those environments that continue to work in the old way of distributing and then manually reconciling multiple copies of the same document as part of a collaboration process, if track changes is a user requirement then users need to have access to products that meet that need and comply with the standard. This decision is not about the use of open source, which is a separate topic from that of open standards: open standards can be used by both proprietary and open source products.


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