Many governments all over the world have begun to realize the importance of open technologies and technical specifications, and the ability to participate in the development of these technologies and specifications. In parallel to this, they have also taken notice of FOSS and the benefits that it can bring to a nation. As a result, in many countries, the government has come out with policies and/or initiatives which advocate and favour open standards in order to bring about increased independence from specific vendors and technologies and at the same time to accommodate both FOSS and proprietary software. This is especially true for most e-government projects and initiatives all over the world.
Embracing open standards can also assist FOSS to flourish in a country. In the Introduction, it was mentioned that open standards helped to popularize FOSS to a large extent. FOSS can interoperate well with established proprietary software and technologies with the aid of open standards, thereby making its implementation more feasible. As such, countries that are looking to FOSS should also look at specifying open standards too.
Open Standards Favoured by Governments
e-Government initiatives as well as many government agencies now favour the use of open standards where possible. Some open standards that are frequently specified are:
Networking protocols - TCP/IP
Document exchange - XML and XML-based specifications
Database - SQL
Internationalization - UNICODE
Some Government Open Standards Policies and InitiativesEdit
This section will list out some of the government policies and initiatives of several countries with respect to open standards.
The European UnionEdit
The European Union (EU) comprises many nation states with many diverse cultures and languages at varying states of technology/technical development. For it to be able to function effectively, especially in the area of information exchange, the governments concerned have to establish a proper interoperability framework and standards on data interchange. The development of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), a framework for the e-government services of the member states to facilitate the interoperability of these services at pan-European level, is taking place under the European Commission's Interoperable Delivery of European eGovernment services to public Administrations, Business and Citizens (IDABC) Programme. The EIF version 1.0 recommends the use of open standards for maximum interoperability among e-government services. It defines the minimal characteristics for open standards as the following:
- the standard is adopted and maintained by a not-for-profit organization;
- the development of the standard occurs using an open decision-making process and does not preclude any party from it;
- the standard is published and is available either free of charge or for a nominal fee;
- the published standard must be available for all to copy and distribute, either free of charge or for a nominal fee; and
- any patents present in the standard are to be irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis.
The definition above has attracted controversy even though the area of validity is confined to panEuropean projects carried out in the context of the IDABC Programme. FOSS groups and advocates have welcomed it but other groups, including ANSI, BSA and EICTA, have criticized it, particularly with respect to the last two criteria. These parties point out that they are inconsistent with the approach taken by other standards development organizations that acknowledge the right of patent holders to charge reasonable royalties and to place reasonable restrictions on the licensing of their essential technology covering an open standard.
The European Commission's IDA expert group on open document formats has recommended that the European Union's public sector use open formats in their electronic documents. For revisable documents, XML-based formats like the Open Document format from OASIS and Microsoft's new XMLbased MS Office formats are recommended.
The United Kingdom's e-government initiative places a lot of emphasis on open technical standards to achieve seamless information flow across the public sector and to provide citizens and business with better access to government services. Its e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF) defines the technical policies and specifications governing information flows across government and the public sector. Complying with e-GIF at the highest level includes the use of open standards like XML as the primary means for data integration and the implementation of Internet and WWW standards.
The Danish e-Government Interoperability Framework includes recommendations and status assessments for more than 450 selected standards, specifications and technologies used in its e-government solutions. In general, the Framework recommends the use of open standards and centrally agreed XML schemas (which may be provided free of charge throughout the public sector) for data interchange.
As part of the Interoperability Framework, the policy on data and document exchange specifies that documents should be published in generally available formats for which free readers exist and the use of proprietary word processing formats such as MS Word or formats that do not have widely available readers should be avoided for publicly available documents.
The Netherlands has its OSOSS - the programme for Open Standards and Open Source Software in government. This programme encourages the use of open standards and provides information on open-source software. The Dutch ICTU, the organization for ICT and government programme, runs OSOSS. While the programme targets the public sector, its results will be available for the private sector and individuals too. The programme provides information and advice to the public sector on open standards. It has set up a catalogue of recommended open standards for use in the public sector.
The Norwegian Government has declared that proprietary formats will no longer be acceptable in communication between citizens and government. As part of its "eNorge 2009 - the digital leap" master plan for IT - all public sector bodies in Norway are to have in place a plan for the use of open source software and open standards by the end of 2006.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, USA, has announced an IT Policy that emphasizes the importance of open standards compliance for IT investments in Massachusetts. The Policy states that all prospective IT investments will have to comply with open standards referenced in the current version of the Enterprise Technology Reference Model (ETRM) of the Commonwealth. It further says that existing IT systems will be reviewed for open standards compatibility and will be enhanced to achieve open standards compatibility where appropriate. In addition, open standards solutions will be selected when existing systems are retired off or need major enhancements.
As part of its e-government vision, New Zealand has come up with a supporting Information Systems (IS) Policies and Standards document. The guiding principles state that the IS Policies and Standards are to be based on open standards, wherever possible. New Zealand also has an e-Government Interoperability Framework (NZ e-GIF) which lists the mandatory use of many open standards for compliance.
The Malaysian Government Interoperability Framework (MyGIF) defines the minimum set of IT standards and technical specifications for use in government ministries, agencies and departments. These cover the areas of interconnection, data integration, information access, security and meta-data. Instead of creating new standards or specifications, MyGIF adopts internationally recognized open and de facto IT standards and specifications for all the interoperability areas mentioned.
The Government of Chile, in 2004, issued Decree 81 whereby all public agencies and services are required to format documents in XML. A three phase roll-out deployment plan is being implemented with the final stage scheduled for completion by 2009.
The Government of India has started its eBiz initiative - a project to build a framework for Government to Business (G2B) services where services from the federal, state and local government agencies will be made available through a single portal. The eBiz architecture is to be built on the principles of interoperability and open standards.
Many other countries, e.g. South Africa, Viet Nam, Brazil and Peru, have started initiatives and/or policies to address the digital divide and to improve their government's IT implementations by leveraging FOSS and open standards together
Challenges in Implementing Open Standards in Government Procurement PoliciesEdit
In line with their national IT policies favouring open standards, many government IT software procurement policies have specified that products and solutions should support and implement open standards before they can be considered. However, there are several challenges to overcome if this is to be put into practice. The reality is that, sometimes, open standards may not be available or are not mature enough for a required technology. Also, in some cases, the usage of a de facto standard is so entrenched that it is not practical to ignore it.
One way to overcome some of the problems highlighted above is to recommend, in cases where open standards are either not available or mature enough, some other specification (e.g., a de facto standard) for use in the meantime. This interim specification should be chosen with care. It should be one that is widely used and, as far as possible, the specification should be publicly published and available for implementation so that software that can support it is available from different sources or vendors. Examples of these include the zip data compression file format and the PDF format for office documents and brochures.
It is important that these points are considered to minimize the possibility of a lock-in by using a proprietary specification when an open one is not available or practical. The organizations and/or vendors responsible for the specification should be encouraged to submit it to an open standards body for adoption/adaptation as a standard. An example of this line of approach are the developments,  leading to the adoption of the OpenDocument format as the standard for document exchange by the EC's IDABC Programme.
In environments where the usage of a proprietary standard is so widespread and ingrained that it is not practical to ignore it or replace it immediately, in the interim, some means of interoperability and/or file format conversions may have to be found so that the proprietary standard can interoperate with installations using open standards. A careful implementation and operation plan has to be worked out to ensure adequate interoperability. It may also be necessary to implement the applications using the open standard in phases, so as to allow adequate time to phase out the older applications of the proprietary standard.
As can be seen from the discussion above, most of the world's governments are asking for the adoption of open standards and specifications as much as possible in their country's IT usage and/or e-government projects and initiatives. This is a good move since, if more and more countries are to insist on open standards, more software vendors (both FOSS and proprietary software) will be forced to open up their file formats and technology specifications, and adhere to open standards in their products as much as possible, thereby, further enhancing the interoperability of disparate products and systems.
- European Interoperability Framework for pan-European eGovernment services http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/2319/5644
- Documentation on the Promotion of Open Document Exchange Format http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/3439/5585
- "Schemas and Standards" http://www.govtalk.gov.uk/interoperability/schemasstandards.asp
- e-Government Interoperability Framework Version 6.1 http://www.govtalk.gov.uk/schemasstandards/egif_document.asp?docnum=949
- Danish e-Government Interoperability Framework http://standarder.oio.dk/English/
- The Interoperability Framework: Technical Standards: Document and data exchange http://standarder.oio.dk/English/Tekniske_standarder/Dokument-_og_dataudveksling/index.html
- Programme for Open Standards and Open Source Software in Government http://www.ososs.nl/index.jsp?alias=english
- The Dutch Government Open Standards Catalogue http://www.ososs.nl/matrix/matrix.jsp?id=10927
- Commonwealth of Massachusetts - Enterprise Open Standards Policy http://www.mass.gov/Aitd/docs/policies_standards/openstandards.pdf
- New Zealand Government Information Systems Policies and Standards http://www.e-government.govt.nz/docs/is%2Dpolicies%2Dstandards/
- New Zealand E-government Interoperability Framework (NZ e-GIF) http://www.e-government.govt.nz/docs/e-gif-v-2-1/index.html
- Standards, Policies and Guidelines - Malaysian Government Interoperability Framework (MyGIF) http://www.mampu.gov.my/mampu/bm/program/ICT/ISPlan/ispdoc/Interoperability%20Framework.pdf
- Cristian Andres Fuenzalida Miranda, "E-Government in Chile and the adoption of XML as standard: Experiences, Challenges and Perspectives" http://www.dcc.uchile.cl/~cfuenzal/recursos/chileXML.pdf
- Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Government of India, "eBiz - a G2B Portal for Govt. of India" http://www.nisg.org/ebiz_docs/poc/Approach%20Paper%20on%20PoC%20-22%20Apr%2004.doc
- IDABC, "Promotion of Open Document Exchange Format" http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/3428/5644
- IDABC, "TAC approval on conclusions and recommendations on open document formats" http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/2592/5588