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Sharing or collaborating with government documents: draft




Short description: 

Citizens, businesses and delivery partners, such as charities and voluntary groups, need to be able to interact with government officials, sharing and editing documents. Officials within government departments also need to work efficiently, sharing and collaborating with documents. Users must not have costs imposed upon them due to the format in which editable government information is shared or requested.

User need approach: 

Users in the context of this draft standards profile include citizens, businesses and delivery partners who need to share information with government in editable formats. Users are also officials within government departments who need to share and work on information together.

As technology progresses, government’s production of editable information in formats traditionally associated with documents will become less important for users.

Government services are being redesigned to make them more straightforward and easier to use by making them digital by default. This will diminish the use of traditional government document formatting even further as information is published or collected directly on the web.

This proposal recognises that changes in technology and service delivery will therefore mean that document formats become less important as collaborative editing and transactions increasingly become an online experience. However, documents formatted in office software are still prevalent amongst users of government information and the formats used by government should meet user needs.

Users need to:


  • Open, edit and save information online and offline

  • Submit information in response to a request, to perform a transaction or to access a service

  • Share information with specific people

  • Publish information online so that a wide audience can access and work with it

  • Edit information and be confident that it remains usable and editable when saved and shared with other users

  • Create a new document with the same style as documents previously created

  • Export the documents created in a non editable format so that they can share a document as they intend it to be presented

  • Export the documents they create in a format compatible with other software so that other people can use the information

  • Share information so that they can gather feedback

  • Share information so that they can respond to a request for information

  • View/edit the information shared with them so that they can read/act upon the content

  • Provide input on information created by someone else

  • Copy and paste content from one source to another so that they can quickly collate pieces of information in one place

  • Edit information created by an integrated system they work with so that they can add additional information

  • Gather feedback on information they have drafted so that they can apply other people’s recommendations to the content

  • See version updates so that they can be sure they’re working on the latest version of a document and to compare versions of documents

  • Access information from any appropriate place (for instance at home, on the move or in the office) so that they can get on with their work

  • Be able to work on their device of choice

  • Their devices not to be clogged up with downloads

  • Ensure integrity of specific documents, e.g. audit trail for editing, versioning

  • Use the information on the device and platform of their choice, for example laptop, tablet or smartphone

  • Be able to create accessible information and use accessibility tools with information in online and offline formats

  • Access historical or archive documents without the need to purchase or maintain older software

Achieving the expected benefits: 


  • Users are able to efficiently share and work on editable government information

  • Users are not required to buy new software to submit or work with government information

  • Users are able to re-use data and text, where licences permit

Functional needs: 

The format should support:

  • Characters associated with Unicode 6.2 for text based file formats (in accordance with the standards profile for cross-platform character encoding)

  • Digital continuity - having implementations that enable support for import of older formats

  • Use of metadata

  • Imports and exports to/from other applications

  • Fonts and graphics that are reusable in other formats

  • Creation of templates

  • The ability to share information securely and in line with regulatory requirements

Citizens, businesses and delivery partners must be able to interact with government officials and services, or those working on behalf of government, sharing appropriately formatted, editable information.

Documents should be editable on different devices without loss of integrity - the information should not become spoiled. Documents in this context include:

  • Word processed text

  • Spreadsheets

  • Presentations

When dealing with citizens, information should be digital by default and therefore should be published online. Browser-based editing is the preferred option for collaborating on published government information. HTML (4.01 or higher e.g. HTML5) is therefore the default format for browser-based editable text. ODF 1.1 (or higher e.g. ODF 1.2), plain text (TXT) or character separated values (CSV) documents must be used for providing offline editable documents. ODF includes filename extensions such as .odt for text, .ods for spreadsheets and .odp for presentations.

For statistical or numerical information, CSV is the required format, preferably with a preview provided in HTML (4.01 or higher e.g. HTML5).

Forms and information exchanges should be digital by default where this is enabled, therefore office productivity formats (including PDF) should not be used for the completion of forms.

For information being collaborated on between departments, browser-based editing is preferable but often not currently available. Therefore, information should be shared in ODF (version 1.1 or higher e.g. ODF 1.2). The default format for saving government documents must be one of the formats described in this draft standards profile.

To avoid lock-in to a particular provider, it must be possible for documents being created or worked on in a cloud environment to be exported in at least one of the editable document formats proposed.

Information that is newly created or edited must be saved in one of the formats described in this draft standards profile. There is no requirement to transfer existing information, unless it is newly requested by a user and shared for the purpose of editing and collaborating. However, if departments identify a user need and operational benefit in converting files they should be converted into one of the formats specified in this draft standards profile.

Other steps to achieving interoperability: 

  • A government body must not refuse to accept or supply a document in at least one of the open formats described in this draft standards profile

  • For a transitional period, documents may be shared in other formats but only in response to a specific request from a user

  • Work in progress documents should be converted to the formats specified in this draft standards profile if they are re-opened for editing or are newly shared

  • Government bodies should avoid bespoke implementations which may limit their ability to migrate information or to share it with other users

  • Macros should be avoided wherever possible, particularly when sharing documents. Government bodies using macros will need to consider issues relating to cross-platform interoperability.

  • Government officials should engage with interoperability testing initiatives for document formats

  • Government officials may engage with standards bodies associated with the maintenance of standards that are agreed for document formats for use in government

This draft standards profile, if agreed, would apply to information produced by or on behalf of central government departments, their agencies, non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) and any other bodies for which they are responsible. These government bodies would need implementation advice to give clarity about when to use particular formats, the user needs they meet and the interoperability that can be expected.

Out of scope for this draft standards profile


  • The conversion of existing, archived documents

  • A document metadata profile - this may be the subject of other challenges taken through the Standards Hub process

  • Assessment of tools that can be used for providing multiple formats from a single standardised format or for batch converting documents

Standards to be used: 

Other standards to be used: 

CSV - A general standard for the CSV file format does not exist, but RFC 4180 provides a de facto standard for some aspects. Character separated values (including comma separated and tab separated values) are widely adopted. TSV is easier to parse than CSV but it does not allow fields containing tabs or newlines.

TXT - A file format for files consisting of text usually containing very little formatting (e.g. no bold or italics). The precise definition of the .txt format is not specified.


Incorporated in: 


Standards Profile

Related meeting minutes: 

Profile status: