The Openness of the UK

The UK's fresh IT policy oozes of goodness in that the whole document is permeated by a strong commitment to open standards and a balanced, clear view on open source:

When used in conjunction with compulsory open standards, open source presents significant opportunities for the design and delivery of interoperable solutions. (p.9)

The UK government correctly believes that:

A common infrastructure based on open standards will allow for greater flexibility of policies and services delivered at lower cost and within a shorter timeframe. (p.15).

Under a headline entitled: "Interoperability enabled by open standards" we learn that:

The mandation of specific open standards will make ICT solutions fully interoperable to allow for reuse, sharing and scalability across organisational boundaries into local delivery chains. (p.9).

So, the approach includes mandatory open standards. The UK plans to impose compulsory open standards, starting with interoperability and security. What those standards are, is currently under discussion, and there is an open survey on 270 standards.

What the UK quickly will discover, of course, as they raise the stakes on what their interoperability framework means in practice, is that maintaining a list of such standards is not easy, that opinions on which ones should be included will differ, and that one government rarely decides for a global market, but must enter into dialogue and actively contribute to standardization where it occurs, not ex post in a government decree. There is indeed efficiency in having a single standard for each area of interoperability. However, in practice, the marketplace may embrace multiple and competing standards. Therefore, putting the priority on document exchange formats as a start seems to make sense:

The first wave of compulsory open standards will determine, through open consultation, the relevant open standard for all government documents. (p.15)

Mandating Open Document Format (ODF) in Government
In that camp, it is relatively straight forward. There is only one candidate. ODF is a special case where the "winner" can be clearly called. ODF is the only fully-open and widely used, editable document format. ODF is being adopted by governments around the world (Denmark, South Africa, The Netherlands, India, Russia, etc.).

ODF is implemented in many office programs, including ours. Based on the Open Document Format (ODF) and open web standards, Oracle Open Office enables users to share files on any system as it is compatible with both legacy Microsoft Office documents and de facto formats and Portable Document Format (PDF). For that reason, Oracle is engaged in standardization of ODF, the only truly open standard for office interoperability.

The UK and beyond
What will all this goodness from the UK mean for the future? Well, one thing is for certain, it is likely to be much more influential outside the UK than inside the UK. It is easier to get inspired by this policy than to practice it. We shall see. Government procurement announcements have immediate, forward-looking effect, because government users represent some of the largest customers in the world. Government authorities should adopt policies establishing clear preference for open standards. Other countries will do well in taking a look at the boldness of the UK policy. But the procurement decisions are made by individual civil servants writing tenders and the real impact is felt by IT managers running e-government projects. Both civil servants and IT managers, two categories that sometimes overlap, have in theory gained from the new policy. The proof will be in the follow-up. And this follow-up cannot be done by the UK alone.

One government cannot fully regulate a global marketplace for standards and should rather present requirements as a customer and user of standards. The UK strategic requirements are by now rather clear. What remains to be seen is what happens at the tactical level.

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Trond Undheim, Ph.D, Director of Standards Strategy and Policy at the Oracle Corporation, speaker, entrepreneur, blogger, and author, is one of the world’s leading experts on technology and society. LinkedIn profile

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