Despite opposition from noisy vested interests, the UK government's latest consultation on its Standards Hub tackles the vexed issue of open document formats - and how best to enable government, citizens, businesses, and voluntary groups to work more efficiently together.
In an age of "digital by default" public services it's unacceptable for any users to have costs or products imposed on them. Users should be able to freely access and use government information on any device or platform free of vendor bias. The proceedings of government and the civil service should be available in an open and inclusive way, one that avoids the patent troll "kerching" every time information is accessed or shared.
There's a frustrating irony in this latest drive towards open standards - the UK was amongst the earliest promoters of open, internet-based standards. In 2001, a Cabinet Office study highlighted the dangers of lock-in and over-dependence on proprietary standards from dominant suppliers, stating these could be overcome through the use of open data standards. The resulting government policy committed the UK Government to use only products that supported open standards and specifications in all future IT developments, and to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services.
In 2009, the policy was given another push, restating the commitment to "ensure that the government adopts open standards and uses these to communicate with citizens and businesses." The impact of these policies was about as effective as one hand clapping: they lacked any levers for their effective execution and implementation.
But effective information management is not a problem of technology alone. Information still does not generally flow well in and around the public sector for two self-reinforcing reasons: the arbitrary, bureaucratic silos of the out-dated, function-oriented management and organisational structures of the public sector; and the brittle, vertically integrated and hard-wired technology stacks built to support them.
The current consultation is ultimately about far more than just document formats. It's about the need to overcome these historic constraints and to re-design our public services with a new focus on citizens and frontline employees' needs. To succeed, it requires collaborative service design skills, strong leadership, and agile technical approaches able to meet changing policy and socio-economic demands in a timely, cost-effective and interoperable manner.
There's been enough production of worthy, but ultimately worthless, policy shelfware on "open" over the last few decades: it's time to move from wordsmithing into delivery. Now what counts is the practical impact of current work on open document standards. It needs to enable the UK to realise its long-standing vision and deliver the type of 21st century public sector outlined in Tim O'Reilly's influential "Open Government". That of "a new kind of public sector organisation government that opens its doors to the world; co-innovates with everyone, especially citizens; shares resources that were previously closely guarded; harnesses the power of mass collaboration; drives transparency throughout its operations; and behaves not as an isolated department or jurisdiction, but as something new - a truly integrated and networked organisation."