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Viewing government documents: proposal



Short description: 

Update: The time period for commenting on this proposal has been extended to 17:00 GMT on Friday 28 February.

Citizens, businesses and government officials need to be able to access and read government documents on their own devices.

Users must not have costs imposed upon them, or be digitally excluded, due to the document format in which government documents are provided.

User need approach: 

Users in the context of this proposal are people inside and outside of government who need to access and read information produced by government officials or government services.

These users need to be able to view government documents on their device of choice, for example a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop, without the need to pay for any additional software.

As technology progresses, government’s production of 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 directly on the web. 

This proposal recognises that changes in technology and service delivery will therefore mean that document formats become less important as for users accessing information and transactions increasingly becomes an online experience. However, documents formatted in office software are still prevalent amongst users of government information.

Users need to:

  • Access and read information
  • Store a local copy of the information they are viewing
  • Print a copy of the information they are viewing
  • Preserve information for archiving or as a record
  • Make sure that the information they are creating is able to be viewed in the way they were intending
  • Be able to use accessibility tools with information in online and offline formats
  • Access information on a device and platform of their choice, for example a laptop, tablet or smartphone
  • Be sure of the integrity of specific information
  • See previews of statistical information

Creators of government information should also consider the proposal on sharing or collaborating with government documents as the user may also need to edit the information being shared.

Achieving the expected benefits: 

  • Users are able to access and read government information
  • Users are not required to buy new software to access government information due to the format in which it is provided
  • 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)
  • Use of metadata
  • Implementation in software from a variety of suppliers
  • Citizens, businesses and delivery partners being able to view information using the device of their choice
  • Rendering that is appropriate for a user’s device

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

  • Word processed texts
  • Spreadsheets
  • Presentations

When dealing with citizens, information should be digital by default and therefore should be available online. HTML 4.01 (or higher e.g. HTML5) is the default format for browser-based documents, including for previews of CSV files.

For static versions of non-statistical data produced for download, archiving and authenticity, PDF/A should be used as the default for non-editable documents. PDF 1.7 should be used where more rich functionality is needed.  

For statistical data and in cases where editable information is required, refer to the standards in the proposal on sharing or collaborating with government documents.


Other steps to achieving interoperability: 

  • Information that is newly published should be provided in the formats described in this proposal
  • Unless requested by a user, there is no requirement to transfer existing information to these formats, although this would be desirable over time
  • Documents may be published in other formats only in addition to those described in this proposal
  • Government officials should engage with standards bodies associated with the maintenance of standards that are agreed for document formats for use in government

This proposal, 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 and the user needs they meet.

A document metadata profile is outside the scope of this proposal, although 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 are also outside the scope of this standards challenge.

Standards to be used: 

Incorporated in: 



Associated standard versions: 




1. although it is implied that accessibility (as human functioning, not only device access) is in scope, I wonder whether this would be worth calling out explicitly. In this respect, there are implications for the way information resources are planned and developed around user needs. i.e. maybe "other steps" should be broadened.

2. I am curious about HTML4.01 being included. If possible, a HTML5-based strategy would seem to be neater, more powerful, and more future-proof, although there are doubtless still plenty of users for whom a shim is needed. What was the GDS experience?

3. There are probably a large number of caveats around HTML, both profiling which parts of the standards should/not be used, and requiring good structural semantics. More other steps??


Cheers, Adam

You beat me to it.  epub2

You beat me to it.  epub2 would meet all of the criteria.  There are event freeware programmes such as sigil and calibre for creating and reading them on many platforms.  

I've never had to use them but I think there are specalist text to speech and text to braille systems out there that accept epubs as input.

A big advantage would be the ease with which html based documentation could be easily converted into epub because of the underlying technologies involved.  Epub3 could even provide the 'rich' functionality they want.

As just a humble citizen who

As just a humble citizen who happens to work in a small charity, I fully support the proposal to move to the ODF. It is not very often that I support Govenment proposals, but this is one that seems very sensible and reduces dependance upon a format that is used by Microsoft to maintain rrliasnce upon their software.


"PDF/A should be used as the

"PDF/A should be used as the default for non-editable documents. PDF 1.7 should be used where more rich functionality is needed."

PDF/A generally seems the best option all round. 

I am not convinced that PDF 1.7 and rich functionality is a good idea.  For "viewing" documents, additional features beyond PDF/A shouldn't be needed.  Where features such as form-filling are needed, I would strongly prefer ODF (cf. your other proposal at  The reason for this is that the more features are used, the more likely some area of incompatibility or non-interoperability will be encountered.  The final test should be "is there freely available software for a wide range of platforms that will properly render this document?"

Standardisation on ODF for

Standardisation on ODF for downloadable, editable and storable documents along with PDF for non-editable downloads and HTML for content that is only for online viewing rather than downloading seems eminently sensible to me. I do not use proprietary operating systems on any computers that I would use to view, discuss and respond to Government proposals. Consequently, I do not want to receive Government documents which contain proprietary formats, especially something as ill-defined and subject to arbitrary changes as Microsoft's Office formats. In my opinion none of the MS Office formats, which include OOXML, are sufficiently well-defined to serve as a standard. 





Generally this is an

Generally this is an excellent idea and should be encouraged. There is direct benefit as described above. There is also the indirect benefit that if a major customer and IT user like UK Gov moves to this system, there will be great pressure on others to do the same, and on all suppliers to really support these formats 100%. Much of the FUD about these formats arises from minor or niche features not transferring properly, but that can be fixed if they go properly mainstream.

Your real challenge will be to allow the list of standards to increase (e.g. where there is an XML or other format which is entirely relevant and mainstream) whilst keeping out things which are nominally "standards" but which are actually minor, or very difficult to comply with, which have been pushed into an ISO process by an interested manufacturer. We know that some formats have "standard" status, but due to the complexity and poor support are never implemented properly. The manufacturers involved will be pushing hard to get "their" standard in, and they are canny players to identifying the factor which makes a "proprietary standard" different to a "real standard" will be difficult.

There are few documents

There are few documents nowadays that won't require the ability for later editing or searching. So these requirements should be added.

PDF is not really the best format, except at present for sending to a printer. Other formats (e.g. ODF) would be theoretically better, except that there has beenn little effort in the industry to validate software conformance to generated print layout. PDF's main success has been due to Adobe's insistance on effectively being a single standard reference for output format. Additionally the cost of the standards documents (CHF 122/140) is a deterrant to occasional use by software developers. So effort should also be put into output (print) format validation of software packages, not dependant on a single company's implementation.

If it is decided to use PDF, I wish to suggest the use of a "hybrid PDF" format, as can be generated by OpenOffice or Libre Office. This format acts just like a PDF, can be displayed by standard PDF viewers, but in addition includes the original source document in ODF format. Hence it can be re-edited, searched, passed to screen reader for visually impaired, etc.

When document integrity is a requirement, this should be done properly, such as by digital signatures. It should not depend on the false assumption that integrity is guaranteed because most citizens don't posess the software to edit the document.

In order to achieve stated

In order to achieve stated objectives specific to accessibility in final-form documents, ISO 14289 (PDF/UA) should be included in the list of standards to be used.


NOTE: These opinions are my own and not representative of the ISO 14289 committee.


On growing upon TXT CSV and

On growing upon TXT CSV and HTML please allow me to suggest to your honorable consideration the extremely simple and beautiful FictionBook and the extremely friendly and powerful EPUB; without adittional DRM modules. Such beloved formats are here for the centuries.

While I am not a UK citizen I

While I am not a UK citizen I feel that my comments may be useful.

I am a small business owner, To save on expenses I have chosen not to use proprietary products for our computing and software needs, really they are unnecessary for what we do. We instead prefer to use Free Open Source Software where ever possible, this includes using a Free Open Source Office suite for all our documents and spreadsheets.

In general the use of this Free Open Source Software has reduced our running expenses to approximately 20% of what we calculated businesses of similar size spend on Computers and software (we were able to use older refurbished hardware, and we have kept it longer). The one fly in the ointment, so to speak, is that recently we have had to purchase a computer specifically to run Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office, simply because a small number of Documents from both our Government and some larger businesses are formatted in a proprietary document format that our Free Open Source Office Suite is unable to render perfectly. This was an unplanned expense that left us out of pocket for other items we wished to purchase (we are a very small business).

What I urge you do do is mandate the use of fully open document standards such as ODF. As I believe the problem we have is one that is shared by many small businesses like ours, world wide. Where in order to utilise modern technology they are required to over spend on the computing side of the equation just simply to be able to render documents correctly on their office computers.

If the UK government does indeed mandate open standards many other governments, including my own, may well be forced to follow.

I am writing to confirm our

I am writing to confirm our strong support for the efforts of the UK Government to promote open standards and open source for the Public Sector through its latest step to assure the highest degree of access for citizens who seek out or are presented with government documents.  Mandating the use of these standards will not only provide greater freedom and efficiency for citizens when interacting with their government, but will also serve to promote full compliance with the UK Government's 'Open Standards Principles" and be a positive example for public administrations throughout the United Kingdom.

Unsurprisingly, for an

Unsurprisingly, for an organisation that supports openness, and for those who have read OpenForum Europe's detailed Response, OFE strongly supports the proposals made for both Challenges. They recognise not only the practicality of the market as it slowly moves to a digital on-line way of working, but also that they don't ignore the need for a smooth transition from the past. OFE would refer the UK Government to its full Response in detailing specific points in the Proposal.

However, on OOXML, the

However, on OOXML, the promoters have to offer aceptable Open Licences for the Basic Profiles. And the Office Interface have to have clear and inmediate access to Save As... on All of these Basic Profiles. Failing to acomplish this in the two main and most used implementations will terminate the Government Support.

My main concern about

My main concern about accessibility has already been made.

However, I am concerned that the examples given for "Access information on a device and platform of their choice", namely laptop, tablet or smartphone are too IT focused and may mislead some people in their thinking about how users may display, interact and consume HMG documents. Many people will be using consumer devices such as eReaders, TV's and Consoles.