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OGC open standards survey: Does your country need you?

Don’t forget to join the dots

The Cabinet Office has published a survey inviting us all to offer our views across many pages of standards. And we’ve got until 20 May to do it.

Notice that it is a survey not a consultation. Consultations are a formal engagement process and naturally enough, there is official guidance. It is worth a read not least for the section when to consult and the phrase:

    Clearly, if there is no scope for consultees to influence the policy, a formal consultation exercise should not be launched.

So, what are we to make of the fact that this is a survey and not a consultation?

First, it is important that the OGC survey is read in the light of the latest Govt ICT strategy published in March together with the procurement policy note published in January. We’ve commented already but in the light of some thoughtful coverage we wanted to go deeper

The original procurement note gave a good definition of open standards but as we’ve already said they were only to be implemented “wherever possible” whatever that means.

And, unfortunately “wherever possible” seems to have been defined in the ICT strategy as

    “The Government believes that citizens should be able to read government documents with the standardised document format reader of their choice. The first wave of compulsory open standards will determine, through open consultation, the relevant open standard for all government documents.”

There are many ways in which that statement is deficient, not least in that it undermines the whole standards process which the government funds BSI to deliver. OSC, one of many, participates in a number of UK committees including IST/41 which is part of a ongoing process with established rules and procedures leading ultimately to the publication of , for example IS 23600.

Also, “compulsory” is an interesting word. From time to time, iterations of Government IT strategies have talked about mandating stuff. For reasons too arcane to mention here, this “mandation” has to emanate from Treasury, and will include a phrase along the lines of “subject to value for money” because (obviously) they can’t mandate wasting money. And this is, of course, not mandation.

It’s worth looking at the survey. The front page merely states:

    “The results from this survey will be reviewed by the Chief Technology Officers Council and their conclusions will be published on the Cabinet Office website in the Autumn. Bear with us while we work through your suggestions and please understand that we’ll have to prioritise our responses.”

And this open-ended nature of the survey is reinforced here:

    Thank you for taking time to complete this survey. We’ll take your feedback on board and consider it in the development of a new Technical Standards Catalogue for the UK public sector.

Back to the discussion of document readers of one’s choice, to some controversy at the time, we got IS 29500.

IS 29500 is intimately linked with Microsoft Office and is also known as Office Open XML. Some wondered if this was an attempt to confuse it with Open Office which was the first application to support ODF, and like all the other options is free of charge and freely available.

Unfortunately any confusion is probably not helped by OGC renaming Office Open XML to Open Office XML. Also by leaving the reference undated, it creates an automatic ratchet as the standard is republished and new versions of the major implementor is offered for sale.

Updated Curiously, “.doc” is also in the list (I originally inaccurately described it as IS 29500 “transitional” but it is described here). It will become increasingly difficult to get an office suite that supports it (except one of the free ones). (Also, and just as curiously the survey includes “.nsf” an IBM format that is also undocumented).

In contrast the survey is less generous to ODF, restricting the choice to ISO 26300:2006 (ODF 1.0). Currently ODF 1.2 is out for public consultation leading ultimately to a new and improved IS 26300, not that you’d know any of this from the OGC survey which has regressed to asking if you agree with the Cabinet Office draft definition of an open standard.

By the way we still haven’t heard any more about our request for one simple thing but we’ve no plans on letting the matter drop.

— Gerry Gavigan, Chair, 8 April 2011, updated 11 April 2011

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