Chapter 1: Criteria for open standards

Policy background

Standards can play a key role in innovation and provide an infrastructure to compete and innovate upon (Swann 2010). Open standards aim to support ‘full competition in the marketplace for suppliers of a technology and related products and services’ (Ghosh 2005).

To improve access to government IT procurement for a more diverse market, for organisations of all sizes, and to give the public sector the flexibility to switch between suppliers and products, IT specifications must be based on open standards – standards which can be implemented by all. However, there is no universally accepted definition of this term. The Government needs to describe the criteria that constitute an open standard in the context of specifications for UK government IT procurement. In 2011, the UK Government Open Standards Survey included a definition on which the Cabinet Office sought feedback (see Open Standards Survey Outcome, Cabinet Office, 2011).

The European Commission previously consulted on the definition of open standard as part of the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) version 1.0. The definition included in the UK Government Open Standards Survey was based on the definition in EIF 1.0. The definition proposed in this consultation has been subsequently revised based on feedback from the Cabinet Office survey and discussions with stakeholders.

The European Commission’s EIF version 2.0 does not provide a definition of open standard, but instead describes ‘openness’, in terms of the following criteria in relation to specifications:  “All stakeholders have the same possibility of contributing to the development of the specification and public review is part of the decision-making process; the specification is available for everybody to study; intellectual property rights related to the specification are licensed on FRAND [(Fair) Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory] terms or on a royalty-free basis in a way that allows implementation in both proprietary an open source software.”

There is, however, no universally agreed definition of FRAND and in practice some of the terms adopted may present difficulties for the open source software development model in relation to patents and royalty payments. Software that is open source must be provided under one of a range of recognised open source licences . Some suggest that the most commonly used of these licences do not allow the development of software that requires royalty payments (Valimaki and Oksanen, 2005). In relation to software, standards must be compatible with free and open source software licensing terms to enable all suppliers to have fair access to competition for government contracts (Ghosh 2005), therefore the potential issue with patents and royalty payments must be considered.

Suitable open standards are not always available. Therefore, the Government must engage, as a key stakeholder, in the development of relevant open standards and must take a pragmatic approach to the selection of appropriate standards that help to reduce cost, meet service delivery needs and the needs of those who consume government services.

Proposed open standards specification policy

1. Government bodies must consider open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats and in procurement specifications should require solutions that comply with open standards, unless there are clear, documented business reasons why this is inappropriate.

2. For the purpose of UK Government software interoperability, data and document formats, the definition of open standards is those standards which fulfil the following criteria:

  • are maintained through a collaborative and transparent decision-making process that is independent of any individual supplier and that is accessible to all interested parties;
  • are adopted by a specification or standardisation organisation, or a forum or consortium with a feedback and ratification process to ensure quality;
  • are published, thoroughly documented and publicly available at zero or low cost;
  • as a whole have been implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms from more than one supplier, demonstrating interoperability and platform/vendor independence;
  • owners of patents essential to implementation have agreed to licence these on a royalty free and non-discriminatory basis for implementing the standard and using or interfacing with other implementations which have adopted that same standard. Alternatively, patents may be covered by a non-discriminatory promise of non-assertion. Licences, terms and conditions must be compatible with implementation of the standard in both proprietary and open source software. These rights should be irrevocable unless there is a breach of licence conditions.

3. When specifying IT requirements for software interoperability, data and document formats, government departments should request that open standards adhering to the UK Government definition are adopted, unless there are clear business reasons why this is inappropriate, in order to:

  • support a level playing field for open source and proprietary software providers;
  • avoid lock-in to a particular technology or supplier;
  • provide interoperability within and between government systems.

4. Standards for software interoperability, data and document formats that do not comply with the UK Government definition of an open standard may be considered for use in government IT procurement specifications if:

  • the selected standard is outside the scope of this policy; or
  • they are required to fulfil an international obligation/regulation; or
  • an appropriate open standard does not exist and is not imminent; or
  • there is a demonstrable economic benefit for the Government in using an alternative standard; and
  • the selected standard supports software interoperability, information/data portability, is non-discriminatory and implemented on a number of platforms from more than one supplier.

5. Any standard specified that is not an open standard must be selected as a result of a pragmatic and informed decision, taking the consequences into account. The reasons should be fully documented and published, in line with the Government’s transparency agenda.

6. The Government will participate in the committees of standardisation bodies to reflect government requirements when relevant open standards are being developed.

Potential benefits

Adopting this policy enables:

  • an open standards-based infrastructure for government IT which reduces the need for bespoke integration between non-standardised solutions;
  • sharing of information and data across and beyond government boundaries
  • opportunities for third parties to build on government information and service delivery;
  • fairer competition that allows a diverse range of suppliers with different delivery models to deliver government IT solutions;
  • greater choice for the Government to reuse solutions and switch between standardised products and components;
  • reduced risk of lock-in to a particular vendor.