Chapter 2: Open standards mandation

Policy background

The Government is creating an infrastructure based on a suite of agreed, open standards and adopting compulsory open standards. The Cabinet Office will mandate particular open standards and profiles to be used within common government contexts to ensure that open interfaces and interoperability are achieved across central government. (Profiles define subsets or combinations of standards that have a specific scope and deliver a defined function whilst conforming to the related standards.) An Open Standards Board is being set up to govern this process.

This section of the consultation document focuses on the policy for mandation of standards and considers the following issues:

  • The meaning of mandation in this context
  • The circumstances when open standards or profiles built on open standards should be mandated
  • The selection of a single standard or multiple standards where competing standards exist
  • The governance associated with the adoption and lifecycle of standards and how to handle new versions
  • Legacy systems and their compatibility with compulsory open standards

The Government may consider weighting the importance of each of the criteria defining an open standard when considering open standards for mandation.

Standards, particularly standards that are consensus driven, increase market transparency, reduce transaction costs, increase competition and reduce variety –  building economies of scale and positive network effects for suppliers and consumers. Competing standards (including competing standards versions), which deliver the same functions, diminish these effects by creating complexity in IT solutions. This may  increase costs, for example due to the need to support both standards in a single implementation, or having to utilise converters and plug-ins (Egyedi, 2012). The increased complexity may also have an impact on vulnerability and performance (Shapiro and Varian, 1999). To reduce complexity and cost the Government may therefore need to choose between competing standards.

The Government must agree on the circumstances when particular open standards and profiles should be compulsory for departments to adopt, avoiding the creation of solutions based on open standards that operate at a local level but which do not interoperate across government boundaries. This activity will recognise the need to allow for equivalence in accordance with European procurement rules. 

The lifecycle of mandated standards must also be considered, taking into account changes to existing standards or development of new standards in response to technology innovation.

During the UK Government Open Standards Survey (2011), feedback supporting the approach that the UK Government is taking on open standards compared the strategy to that of the Dutch Government, which uses a system of “comply or explain” in relation to supporting the wider adoption of open standards. In the Netherlands, government organisations are obliged to explain in their annual reports when relevant open standards have not been adopted. The process is supplemented by a procedure for evaluating standards which focuses upon including those standards that matter within the marketplace and which deliver against defined policy aims.

The UK Government currently investigates the uptake of open standards in government IT systems as part of the Major Projects Authority spend approvals process. Departments must provide information on whether specifications are compliant with open standards prior to proceeding with new procurements above a value set as the threshold for spend approvals. Whilst sunk costs are a consideration, longer term transaction costs and alignment with the Government ICT Strategy are key factors in the review process.

Note that the selection of particular standards for specific interoperability or security challenges will be covered on an ongoing basis through informal consultations, available publicly through an online Standards Hub. Selection of specific standards is not covered by the Open Standards: Open Opportunities consultation.

Proposed open standards mandation policy

1. The Government will mandate particular open standards, or profiles built on open standards, which support the following policy objectives:

  • providing and enabling informed choice to consumers of government information and services;
  • delivering secure, efficient, interoperable solutions;
  • supporting a diverse, competitive market for government IT contracts;
  • reducing the potential for lock-in to a particular vendor or product;
  • reducing bespoke integration, adapters or converters required between interfaces across common government systems i.e. stimulating standardisation and reuse across government IT.

2. In this context, mandation means that all specifications within scope must comply with this policy or explain the reason for divergence. The reasons should be published, in line with the Government’s transparency agenda.

3. For all IT spend approval applications submitted to the Cabinet Office, government bodies must demonstrate compliance with open standards and compulsory open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats or provide evidence of the need for divergence with an analysis of the impact.

4. Where competing standards exist which support the same function, the Government may choose to mandate a single open standard.

5. Open standards which have been mandated will be reviewed as part of the lifecycle of the Government’s agreed standards. Migration to a new open standard or newer versions of mandated standards will be considered on a case by case basis, taking into account the impact of migration on existing systems.

6. For all new government IT contracts, specifications must comply with compulsory open standards, which have been mandated by the Cabinet Office. For legacy systems, migration to newly agreed or updated versions of compulsory open standards should be part of the technology refresh lifecycle. Any mandated standards will recognise the need to allow for equivalence in accordance with European procurement rules.

7. For extensions to contracts and legacy systems, departments should consider preparing an exit management strategy describing the transition to open standards, particularly compulsory open standards.

Potential benefits

Adopting this open standards mandation policy enables:

  • opportunities for citizens and businesses to interact with government services in a format of their choice;
  • less complex government IT, which is more secure and costs less;
  • greater standardisation, sharing and reuse of solutions and components across government organisations.


 Case study: open standards and their effect on business

A 1999 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), noted how openness had encouraged growth of electronic commerce; the internet is used “as a platform for business” because it is built on non-proprietary standards and is open. 

The internet is recognised as one of the biggest drivers of global economic growth and has already created job opportunities on a massive scale, currently accounting for around 6% of UK GDP (McKinsey, 2011).

“The open platform enabled software companies to profit by selling new products with powerful features; enabled e-commerce companies to profit from services that built on this foundation; and brought social benefits in the non-commercial realm beyond simple economic valuation.” – Sir Tim Berners-Lee