UK government implements ODF standard

Published on: 16/10/2015
Last update: 09/10/2017

The UK government has selected ODF as the standard for editable office documents to be used across government in July 2014. The standard now needs to be implemented. The Cabinet Office of the UK government has published a comprehensive guidance in March 2015, and adoption plans are being rolled-out across the government bodies. 

The approach for overcoming the challenge of change is the splitting of the implementation into phases that are manageable and measurable.  

Based on experience at the Cabinet Office coordinating the initiative, the efficiency of adoption relies on agreed implementation plans and agreed timetables in the different departments.  There are other success factors just as important. These include proper guidance, communication on benefits of the standard and strong political support.  

A number of departments are publishing their implementation plans, including the Home Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government, HM Treasury, and HM Revenue and Customs. This case provides an overview of two of these plans – from the Home Office and HMRC - and lessons learned.

Policy Context

The Open Standards principles are the UK government’s policy on open standards to make government IT more open, cheaper and better connected. The policy is part of the central government efficiency policy developed by the Cabinet Office.  

The Open Standards Board is working to choose a small set of core standards that will be applied consistently across the UK government to make services better for users and keep government IT costs sustainable.The Standards Hub platform is a transparent selection process for selecting open standards in government IT. 

ODF is the selected standard for sharing or collaborating on government documents. The move supports the government’s policy to create a level playing field for suppliers of all sizes, with its digital by default agenda on track to make cumulative savings of £1.2 billion in this Parliament for citizens, businesses and taxpayers. 

Description of the way to implement the initiative

Provide comprehensive guidance

A comprehensive set of documents provide detailed guidance on the implementation of the ODF standard.  

The introduction document explains why the UK government has selected ODF as the standard for editable office documents. Main reasons include that ODF is compatible with a wide range of software and is a reliable long-term solution for storing and accessing information.

The section on procurement gives an overview of steps to take when procuring applications or services dealing with editable documents, to ensure they comply with the ODF standard. The section also provides sample text for ODF procurement specification and information on using free open source software based on ODF. 

A third section explains how to find the best ODF-compliant document solution for an organisation by understanding users' needs.

The guidance also provides an overview of how validators and testing can ensure that applications dealing with editable documents are ODF-compliant, an overview of the platforms and devices that work with ODF, as well as security, privacy and accessibility considerations when using ODF documents. Other sections explains why macros shouldn't be used in documents and what alternatives ODF can offer, how to integrate ODF with enterprise tools and dealing with extensions and custom solutions’ compliancy with ODF. 

The document details aspects related to functionality, such as collaboration on documents and change tracking in ODF.

Support and training options are presented, as well as an overview of productivity software implementing ODF. 

Last but not least, the guideline provides information for building a business case for moving to ODF.

Publish and control

Controls need to be in place to enforce the policy. This includes for example the checking of procurement of solutions dealing with documents and if they mention compatibility with ODF 1.2. Another example is the checking of the format of editable documents available on the government websites.

Control is more efficient if the policy which is monitored is published clearly. This provides a reference easily pointed to. The publishing of the ODF policy started at an early stage of its definition, allowing comments at every stage and including experts and implementers.  

Tailored implementation plans

The implementation plans are split in different phases which are manageable and measurable.

Generally, the implementation follows three phases:

  • Phase 1: all new editable documents on the GOV.UK website are in ODF. The number of editable documents on the site is relatively low. 
  • Phase 2: all docs created or edited are in the appropriate format. This implies that users need to access to a software ODF compatible. At this stage, there is no change in legacy documents. 
  • Phase 3: all in line of business applications consume and produce documents are in the appropriate format. This phase presents a large amount of work, and implies having to deal with documents using macros, such as converting them into APIs or online web forms. There is no listing of these documents with macros. 

The different government departments started the phases together, but end separately, following their own specific implementation plan. Results from easily implemented stages are publicised.


A first example of implementation plan is the document from the Revenue and Customs department (HMRC) published in February 2015. It describes how and when HMRC will implement open formats for publishing documents and for creating, editing and saving documents in its office productivity tools. It covers ODF 1.2, as well as PDF/A and HTML5. The document also explains what has been achieved so far and what is currently being implemented.  

Phase 1 – publishing in open format – follows three steps. 

A first step ensured that all new documents for publication on GOV.UK complied with, or were converted to, open standards, all new PDF publications on GOV.UK were in PDF/A format and historic documents were made available in open formats by request. 

In a second step, the digital teams are able to generate and publish documents in ODF 1.2 and PDF/A formats. HMRC is increasing the use of online services, both internal and external, reducing the requirement for these file types. 

A third step addresses the publishing processes, the update of guidelines and governance processes for content owners in the department and for informing third party suppliers. 

Exceptions exist: documents for machine readable purposes (financial data exchange) will remain unchanged.

Phase 2 - office productivity tools and ODF – covers the roll out of ODF 1.2 compatible software. This allows to save all new documents in ODF. The roll-out is followed by training and support. A 3 to 6 month project tests the integration of the Office suite of the speech recognition, screen reading, literacy, accessibility and dyslexia software used at the HMRC.

Phase 3 – open document formats for integrated tools – addresses the compatibility of the in house ‘Business Developed Applications’ (BDAs) and their integration with the office productivity tools. The review will assess their compatibility with ODF. HMRC will decommission or update these BDAs on a rolling opportunistic basis to support the move to full ODF. This phase also seeks an appropriate point in the technology or contract lifecycle to enable transition for current applications that don’t support the use of ODF formatted documents (eg some reporting tools). Training is provided on the use of ODF in productivity suites.

A second example of implementation plan is the Home Office ODF adoption plan, published in September 2015. The five adoption phases are described as following milestones based on benefits for the users and the organisation. 

During Phase 0, incoming documents in ODF are not rejected, and Home Office ceases creating new systems that require editable documents but do not support ODF documents. ODF adoption in phase 0 benefits the user because it imposes no unnecessary software costs, and it benefits the organisation because it increases familiarity with ODF.

The objectives of Phase 1 are to ensure that all editable documents published or sent to citizens and businesses will be in ODF 1.2 format and that incoming ODF documents will be accepted from citizens and businesses into new automated technology systems. ODF adoption in phase 1 benefits the user because it further extends benefits, enables broader technology choice and avoids unnecessary costs to users and businesses who need to use Home Office services supported by automated systems. ODF adoption benefits for the organisation in phase 1 include starting technology or process changes needed to support ODF and starting to embed culture of open standards. 

Phase 2 addresses the use of ODF with other government departments.  All editable documents outgoing to other departments will be available in ODF format. Home Office continues to support other formats if other departments are at different stages in their implementation or if there is a preferred alternative agreed bi-laterally. In this phase, ODF is accepted from other government departments, including into new automated technology systems.

Benefits of ODF adoption in phase 2 benefits the users in other government departments who need to use Home Office services supported by automated systems, by avoiding unnecessary costs. 

One of the ODF adoption benefits for the organisation in phase 2 is that interactions with other government departments can carry more valuable information in larger volumes, and often into automated technology systems. 

Phase 3 covers the wider public sector. All editable documents flowing between the Home Office and the wider public sector are in ODF, including automated technology systems.

The adoption of ODF during phase 3 benefits the user because it makes the benefits of wider technology choice available to them and avoids unnecessary costs to users across the wider public sector. The adoption of ODF during phase 3 benefits the organisation because the internal transformation will be complete, central government will lead on encouraging the wider public sector to adopt ODF and Home Office leadership on open standards will be established.

A section of the plan relates to technology and document legacy. Legacy technology systems will be contained, and typically no work will be undertaken to modernise them. This means the ability to work with open formats such as ODF and PDF/A will not be applied to those legacy applications. It also means their use of proprietary document formats will not be allowed to extend further than their current reach. The historic body of documents will not be transcoded to ODF.

Technology solution

Technology choice: Standards-based technology

Main results, benefits and impacts

The introduction document on ODF lists the benefits of using the standard. These are summarized below.

Interoperability and user needs

ODF allows users to send, view and share office documents regardless of what software they have and what device they are using. ODF is not tied to a single supplier and could be used by any supplier in any product. ODF is built on another common standard called XML (Extensible Markup Language), a well-known web standard for structured data created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This has helped make a versatile standard that has been quickly adopted in the marketplace. ODF specifications reuse quite a few other W3C standards, such as RDF metadata, Synchronised Multimedia and digital signatures.

Users need software and technology to work together seamlessly, because the output from one organisation is the input of the next. ODF helps provide the interoperability that will allow everyone to choose the tool that best meets their needs.

ODF is flexible, versatile and lowers IT costs

ODF shares technological building blocks between web and office applications, because there are many common traits between the 2. For example, many office applications offer access to online editing environments through a web browser. This shared technology:

  • lowers the cost for implementing ODF
  • creates an economy of scale
  • increases the product’s robustness

This shared technology allows users to benefit from the availability of Linked Data and to become part of it. Combining ODF with other XML data means that the structured information inside can be reused or consumed in ODF.

As ODF isn’t tied to a single supplier, different suppliers can offer additional solutions that should be compatible with an existing ODF applications. The potential for healthy competition can help keep costs down.

The document also explains how ODF allows to store and access information over the long term and keeps an organisation’s data more secure.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Lessons learnt

Challenges and considerations from HMRC

HMRC explains that the following items were identified and will be investigated and addressed as appropriate during the implementation phases:

  • some internal ‘business developed applications’ will have compatibility issues with VBA code/certain formulae in ODF documents, HMRC aims to drastically reduce the number of these applications
  • whilst recognising that there is no requirement in the standards profile to convert legacy documents, HMRC will review these with the aim of ensuring that when items are refreshed or replaced, the new standards are adhered to
  • cost of change: the requirement to integrate use of ODF into business applications may be costly for some legacy applications
  • technology alternatives: there will be an ongoing review of tools and services in the market to see if they can be used to better meet user needs
  • training: all training packages to be reviewed and re-designed to emphasise digital by default processes and use of open formats (ODF and PDF/A) only. 

Adoption principles of the Home Office

The Home Office has based their approach to implementing open standards on a set of adoption principles that focus on user benefits. Home Office has developed these principles by learning from other organisations having moved to ODF already. 

This adoption plan focuses on ODF adoption because of the unique challenges in fixing historic issues, like documents locking or not working on different systems. Home Office also explains that this ODF adoption plan should be considered in the wider context of other open standards for information, and the ambition to make services digital by default, accessible entirely through a web browser. This means that the first preference is to avoid documents wherever possible, moving information for reading, collaboration and transactions online using HTML5 as the open standard. This should be possible for a large majority of user needs. Where there is a residual need for standalone documents, the right format should be selected. Digital by default is the first principle. 

The other principles are:

  • Business leadership. Sponsorship for adopting ODF must come from the top of the organisation, from a visible business leader. Change must not be led by technology.
  • Phased change. A big bang approach is effectively an unwise bet that many factors will turn out perfectly at the first attempt. A phased plan stands a better chance of succeeding because it allows time for unexpected obstacles to be addressed, and for people to become accustomed to change in manageable chunks. A measured pace also allows for feedback to inform any changes needed.
  • Support people. Ultimately change doesn’t work if it doesn’t work for people. Support doesn’t have to mean impersonal or expensive training, and in fact peer support through a network of local champions often works better.
  • Engage early. Home Office will communicate and prepare for changes with enough time for people and technology to adjust. This is particularly true for different departments to coordinate their adoption of ODF. There will be no surprises for users, civil servants or other partners.
  • Never reject the Open Document Format. Asking someone to resend a document in a closed proprietary format is akin to bad manners. Establishing this etiquette is a good start for changing culture.

The Home Office adoption plan also lists a series of known barriers together with the remedies. Obstacles will emerge as the adoption plan is implemented. The adoption principles ensure the pacing of adoption allows sufficient time to understand and work through the inevitable challenges.

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.   

Scope: National


Type of document
General case study