Before Washington, D.C., attorney John Mitchell argued a case in front of the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, he wanted to listen to the argument made in a similar case a few weeks earlier. He received sound files on a disc and was told he’d need proprietary software from an Australian firm to hear the testimony.
Being a Mac man, he couldn’t make the Windows software work. “Since I planned to listen to it on the train on my way to New York, I had to borrow someone else’s Windows laptop and ask someone else to play it through the speakers and record it into my iPhone,” Mitchell said.
Governments worldwide “should be as freely accessible to the people as possible,” Mitchell said. Clearly this episode didn’t pass the test.
Too often, government data can’t be shared from agency to agency, much less to ordinary citizens. Proprietary formats can make it virtually impossible to exchange documents, spreadsheets and databases between disparate systems.
But that may be changing. Many nations, most notably the United Kingdom, are adopting open format solutions, meant to enable the ready transfer of data regardless of software or systems.
The U.K. is on the verge of mandating OpenDocument Format (ODF) across all major government functions. (As of press time, a comment period was just coming to a close.) The use of a common format makes it possible to employ a broader range of software: A government office might tap into OpenOffice, for example, instead of a proprietary platform.
“I want to see a greater range of software used, so civil servants have access to the information they need and can get their work done without having to buy a particular brand of software,” Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told the British media.
Open format also would better serve the general population, according to a government statement. “Citizens, businesses and delivery partners, such as charities and voluntary groups, need to be able to interact with government officials, sharing and editing documents. … Users must not have costs imposed upon them due to the document format in which editable government information is shared or requested.”
The Danish Parliament implemented ODF for government in 2011; Portugal in 2012. In Slovakia, all materials from public authorities must be readable ODF. The Netherlands requires ODF format as the standard for reading, publishing and exchanging government information. Malaysia likewise requires the use of ODF in the public sector.
U.S. adoption has been slower. The standout example is Massachusetts, which took an early lead in moving to ODF in 2007.
To appreciate the shift to ODF, it’s important to distinguish between open format and open source, two concepts that often get conflated.
Open format, also known as open platform, refers to the bedrock upon which an IT system is constructed. Open source on the other hand describes software tools developed by collaborative communities and distributed for free. One is infrastructure, the other is an application.
It’s possible to have proprietary software run on an open platform (the data still will be fundamentally accessible by all ODF-based systems). You don’t need open source software, but in practice those who pursue ODF frequently turn to open source software in the spirit of openness and ready interoperability.
What exactly are the advantages of an open platform? Advocates point to a number of potential benefits.
Advocates of open format say this approach speaks directly to a fundamental mission shared by governments worldwide: citizen service. “If citizens are forced to use one company’s word processor to read the proceedings of a legislature, that creates barriers to participation and gives an awful lot of power to the owner of that tool,” said Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist at open source developer Red Hat.
That call for openness resonates with many inside government as well as those trying to access public data. “If you make a Freedom of Information Act request, you get boxes of paper. You can call that ‘open,’ but you can’t really say it is accessible,” said Deborah Bryant, a board member with the Open Source Initiative advocacy group and founder of the Bryant Group, an IT consulting practice in Portland, Ore.
“There are institutions, nonprofits, social advocates and businesses too that may have the tools to extract information, but only if it is made available,” she said. “If it is sitting in an Oracle database someplace, it becomes very difficult to access.”
By putting data in a commonly readable format, open platforms should make information more readily available to citizens.
Then there’s the matter of budgeting. Governments have an obligation to get the best value in their procurements, and platforms like ODF may bring an advantage by opening the doors of competition. “Open standards encourage a fair market by making the rules public and easy for everyone to follow,” Hellekson said. “A proprietary standard, on the other hand, distorts markets and reduces competition by putting one company or organization in charge of the rules.”
By leveling the playing field, open formats free end users to switch allegiances, if they become disenchanted with a vendor’s offerings. “If everyone is compliant with a standard, I can always just go to another supplier,” said Mark Driver, research vice president at Gartner. “So it becomes a buyer’s market rather than a seller’s market.”
In practical terms, open formats can help ensure that governments meet their longer-term objectives of preserving archives and records over time. “When you use something proprietary, you don’t know whether people are still going to be using that technology a dozen years from now,” said Driver. “The open document format is great for the need to have archived documents that don’t depend on a product.”
Certainly it’s hard to argue with openness, competition and interoperability. But that doesn’t make ODF a slam dunk.
On the one hand, having interchangeable choices should lead to financial savings. “In the civil service, there was a sense that if you hired a big multinational, who everyone knew the name of, you’d never be fired,” Maude told the British press. “We weren’t just missing out on innovation, we were paying top dollar for yesterday’s technology.”
If openness drives competition, that would seem an unadorned positive in the financial sense. “Budget pressures are real in every country in the world,” said Dave Lounsbury, CTO of The Open Group, a nonprofit industry standards consortium. “The ability to trade out a vendor, to trade out a component, that is what happens when you have moved to a standards strategy.”
Yet money is a bigger question mark than some might expect. Just as open source software is distributed literally for free, open format-based solutions are presumed to save money. By creating more choice in the marketplace and cutting users free from the dominant market players, ODF should bring down costs. Or so goes the theory.
In practice it’s a bit more complicated. “The costs of acquiring the technology may be lower, but there are still the costs of maintenance to consider,” Hellekson said. Open format systems still require upkeep, and agencies may not always have the skilled staff needed to work with these systems.
Conversion also can be problematic. “Agencies have documents that are in Microsoft Word format or IBM Lotus format, and you always have to look at the migration strategy to go from what you have now to this future vision of interoperability,” Lounsbury said. “There is going to be a transition cost.”
While it’s true that ODF may help a government agency break out from the chokehold of a few mega-vendors, that doesn’t mean the agency will be entirely without vendor support. Users don’t have to pair their open platform with an open source software solution and risk shouldering the entire burden of support. In fact, many software vendors actively develop their products on open platforms for global use.
“The proprietary solutions work fine and people continue to use them,” said Laurent Liscia, CEO of OASIS, which developed ODF. “It’s not like people suddenly stop using these solutions.”
Software that supports ODF includes Corel WordPerfect Office X6, IBM Lotus Symphony and Microsoft Office 2013. This last may seem ironic, given Microsoft’s stance on the pending U.K. mandate.
In an open letter, Microsoft’s area vice president for the U.K., Michel Van der Bel, said that while the company has no objection to ODF in principle, any mandate ought to also include OpenXML, the open platform developed by Microsoft.
The choice of ODF “shows the government risks increasing costs and reducing interoperability by ignoring the fact that the vast majority of citizens and businesses already use OpenXML as their preferred document format,” he wrote. “While including ODF is a choice that Microsoft supports, ignoring and omitting OpenXML will ensure that the very things the government is trying to avoid are actually more likely to happen.”
If there’s a whiff of ambivalence there, it’s not surprising. Vendors may fear open platforms for the flexibility and fluidity such formats offer to potential clients. At the same time, they may see opportunity here. “When it comes to the technology providers who support these standards, their best interest is to continue to have some exclusive relationship with their customer that affords them a way to do business long term,” Driver said.
Thus, while the fundamental open architecture may heat up competition, vendors can still add value in the realm of specialized products and services that, thanks to the open environment, would now become available to more broader users.
So, what are government IT leaders supposed to do about it all?
The first step is education, Bryant said. Because of the proximity of open source, there lingers the perception that open format is a no-man’s land where government IT managers are left to fend for themselves without the support of a paid vendor. Also, people may equate “open” with “not secure,” a universal concern for government agencies.
“There are still a lot of misconceptions floating around,” Bryant said.
Government leaders who opt for an open platform also should brace themselves for possibly having to rethink how new systems are brought into the shop. “Typically, procurements are written in a way that starts with the software the agency already knows, rather than describing the function that they need. So it becomes easiest to find an existing vendor and give them the technical specifications,” Bryant said. To adopt an alternative platform, IT managers likely will have to drive basic changes in the procurement process.
A key to success for government agencies looking to adopt ODF is engagement in the open standards community through organizations like the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission.
“Having governments in there to talk about technical requirements and procurement needs is gold to the vendors who want to help solve the problems,” Lounsbury said. “When the client can bring the problem, that is what enables the vendors to bring the solution.”
Just as with open source, the open platform agenda is one of transparency and collaboration. The greatest strength of an open platform, its universality, is best served when all interested parties share their input. “Community is the real secret behind any open format project. You are not doing it all by yourself,” said Driver.
When doing the pro-and-con analysis, global governments may well count user satisfaction among the upsides. In a very literal way, open formats support the growing trend of autonomy and bringing one’s own device to the workplace. Open platform applications that run on laptops and tablets will be readily accessible to an agency’s open platform systems. “This stuff opens up like a charm on anybody’s machine,” said Liscia.
And, he added, that’s just how it should be. “Governments need a format that allows them to pass data from one place to another transparently. If transparency is the essence of democracy, why would the tools we use not be as transparent as our system?”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.