The UK government has published a set of Open Standards Principles to which all central government departments must adhere.
Although they fall short of explicitly mandating the use of open standards, the principles assert that "the [IT] product choice made by a government body must not force other users, delivery partners or government bodies, to buy the same product".
"Government bodies must not impose undue cost on citizens and businesses due to the standards choices made in government IT specifications [and] must not specify particular brands or products," the principles say.
"At present, the data gathered by the public sector is not always readily accessible," the standards document explains. "A lack of common standards is a barrier that can make it difficult for users to scrutinise activity or generate added value."
"Selecting open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats in government IT specifications removes the potential for unintended barriers to digital participation."
It also asserts that open standards should be royalty free: " Rights essential to implementation of the standard, and for interfacing with other implementations which have adopted that same standard, are licensed on a royalty free basis".
This clears up a dispute over whether a software company call a standard 'open' if it charges users for the right to use it.
The full principles are as follows:
- We place the needs of our users at the heart of our standards choices
- Our selected open standards will enable suppliers to compete on a level playing field
- Our standards choices support flexibility and change
- We adopt open standards that support sustainable cost
- Our decisions about standards selection are well informed
- We select open standards using fair and transparent processes
- We are fair and transparent in the specification and implementation of open standards
"The publication of the Open Standards Principles is a fundamental step towards achieving a level playing field for open source and proprietary software and breaking our IT into smaller, more manageable components," said Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in his introduction to the principles.
The policy only applies to central government departments, but the Cabinet Office said that it will "work to promote the open standards principles for software interoperability, data and document formats with all public bodies in the UK."
The decision follows a lengthy consultation with the IT industry, in which stakeholders were invited to submit their views on open standards. In a survey, 72% of respondents said that mandating open standards in government would improve value for money in government IT, and 68% said it would improve competition between suppliers by "levelling the playing field".
Just over half of respondents (58%) said that mandating open standards would not lead to cheaper software. However, the government hopes that the policy will encourage reuse of software across departments, and perhaps lead to single shared systems for particular functions.