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Governments have a certain amount of power when it comes to setting IT standards. The bigger the government the more likely it wants things narrowed down. And the bigger they are the more muscle they can put behind their will — and the more vendors will push back because so much is at stake.

That’s what came to mind when I read this week that the British government has chosen the XML-based open document format (ODF) over Microsoft’s OOXML for saving editable electronic documents it receives and sends. PDF/A or HTML are the formats for non-editable documents.

ODF documents have their own file extensions: for example, odt and .fodt for word processing documents.

PCWorld’s report on the decision is here. The government’s news release and links to background material is here.

As the British government said in announcing the decision, choosing ODF — supported by many word processors and spreadsheets — means no one company’s software will have to be bought to open or work with government documents. Similarly, civil servants will be able to share documents no matter which ministry they work for.

In this country, a spokesman for the Treasury Board said in an email that Ottawa hasn’t set a document standard. “While government departments are expected to consider ease of access and use by both clients and government departments in the design and delivery of services, specific file formats are not mandated.”

Battles over document formats go back a long way. I can remember writing stories around 1998 when the Ontario government wanted to make a decision on standardizing IT software purchases because divisions within ministries were using Microsoft Word and WordPerfect, making document exchange difficult.

In the end the province decided each ministry had to standardize on one or the other — it didn’t matter if, for example, agriculture had Word and the attorney general had WordPerfect, but once the decision had been made everyone in the department used it.

Knowing how sensitive the issue is to vendors, Britain set up an open standards board for hearing arguments from all sides. Open document standards is a natural extension of an open data policy, which the federal government here is deeply committed to.

Eventually, Treasury Board will have to face the fact that setting a document saving format is needed to make open data work. It will be interesting to see if it follows the British way of handling it.

“Where Open Data is concerned,” the Treasury Board statement to me said,  “we aim to publish data in an open format and provide people with easy and reliable access to data.”

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