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Open formats for documents: what publishers to GOV.UK need to know

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Best practice, Working with us

It's just been announced that all government will be moving to publishing documents in newly agreed open formats. Mike Bracken discusses the reasons for this on the main GDS blog.

What follows is a practical guide to how the new guidelines will affect your publishing to GOV.UK, once your own organisation adopts these standards.

What the standards apply to

The open standards guidelines apply to all new documents published on GOV.UK.

In this context, ‘document’ means something with a narrative - for example, formatted text, images, charts, graphs and presentations.

The standards cover two use types: viewing, and sharing or collaborating.

Documents designed for viewing

The document ‘viewing’ standards apply to documents designed primarily for people to read, rather than to edit or interact with.

Documents for ‘viewing’ must be available in one or both of the following formats:

  • HTML5
  • PDF/A

Examples of GOV.UK publications already consistent with these standards are the Government Digital Strategy and  UK’s work in Afghanistan.

Documents designed for sharing or collaborating

A separate set of standards applies to documents that users will want to edit.

This type of document must be published in Open Document Format (ODF). The most common examples of this are:

How and when to publish documents in open formats

The methods used to publish documents - and the timing of the move to open standards for publishing - will differ within every government organisation.

You should therefore expect to get more detailed guidance from your organisation’s Technology Leader and/or IT department in coming weeks about how your publishing will be affected by the move to open standards.

In many cases, though, you’ll already be able to save documents in open formats (eg  .pdf, .odt) using your existing publishing tools.

In the short term, you may also want to bring your publishing closer to compliance with the standards by making greater use of the  HTML publication format on GOV.UK.

Publishing in proprietary formats

Once open publishing standards are adopted in full by your organisation, no documents should be published in proprietary formats.

Data publishing

The standards do not cover the publication of datasets designed to be readable by external software (for example transport datasets). Our Service Design Manual has informal guidance on  the publication of these datasets and open data principles.

Simpler tables, laying out information for presentation - for example the MMO’s list of vessels - are covered by the above standards.

We’ll be publishing further guidance and examples on this in due course.


We’re happy to answer questions about the implications of open standards publishing for GOV.UK here.

If you have any questions about how these standards apply to your organisation, you should speak first to your digital team.

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  1. Comment by Lee Maguire posted on

    Does this change mean that simple tabular data will no longer be published in CSV format?

    • Replies to Lee Maguire>

      Comment by Dr. Jerry Fishenden, Deputy Chief Technology Officer at GDS posted on

      Dear Lee, thanks for your question. If the simple tabular data in CSV format are intended for machine readable purposes, then they can continue to be used and are out of scope for the purposes of this announcement (see Point 4 of the Policy paper here: However, if they’re actually a spreadsheet intended for human readable purposes, then they should be published as .ods and not .csv.

  2. Comment by Owen Branley posted on

    I'm already an end user of open docs, .odt and .ods and look forward to more news on this front. It is noted that New York City Council are trying to pass a Bill into law in favour of open systems as opposed to proprietry ones. (Huff News)

  3. Comment by David Pearson posted on

    I'd be interested in any guidance on eg "calculators" designed/built in Excel. At least, I'd assume that they should be tested in, and delivered as, the relevant .ods format?

  4. Comment by John Ploughman posted on

    Hi Graham, and thanks for the update.

    I've got a couple of questions on the actual presentation of documents on the publication 'splash' page that I hope you can answer.

    1) When dual-publishing in HTML and PDF format, users are presented with both documents as a list, with 2 large icons and duplicate titles. It's not always clear to everyone they are, in fact, the same document. There was a development story some time ago to present them differently so it was clear it was 1 document in 2 formats. Is this still in the works?

    2) The 'bland' HTML icon doesn't always make it clear that there's content sat behind it, unlike the PDF icon preview. Again, I remember something was being looked at to try and make a live preview appear there, with the 'HTML' label replaced with 'Webpage' so non-techies knew what it was. Are either of these enhancements still planned?


    • Replies to John Ploughman>

      Comment by Roo Reynolds posted on

      Hi John. Thanks for your comments. There's obviously (still) lots of room for improvement on publication pages, and we'll be keeping our eyes peeled and minds open. Although we have no immediate plans for either feature, they're both interesting potential future improvements and I'll be watching user research closely to see what we know about both and what we might do about them.

  5. Comment by Andrew Robertson posted on

    What is the GDS view on retrospectively altering files already published on GOV.UK?
    I'm assuming it will be up to each organisation to decide, based on user needs, volume and risk eg alter a spreadsheet that is used regularly by hundreds of people, but leave a report that is rarely viewed but needed like an annual report and accounts.

    • Replies to Andrew Robertson>

      Comment by Dr. Jerry Fishenden, Deputy Chief Technology Officer at GDS posted on

      Hi Andrew. Thanks for your question.

      This guidance is given in the documentation regarding existing documents - essentially, it's up to each organisation to decide what their users need. The general assumption is that what has already been published does not need to be revisited: this is about the creation of new documents. For more detail, see the last paragraph of Point 4 (Functional Needs) at "Documents that are newly created or edited in offline applications must be saved in ODF. There is no requirement to transfer existing information, unless it is newly requested by a user and shared for the purpose of editing and collaborating. However, if departments identify a user need and operational benefit in converting files they should be converted into the format specified in this standards profile." On PDF/HTML documents, notes that "The conversion of completed and archived documents is out of scope."

  6. Comment by Graeme Vetterlein posted on

    @ last. For years now most sites were unusable , anything you downloaded could not
    be read. Unless there was a "PDF version" I gave up trying to get into from .gov sites. Many we won't lose any more historic data now ... the "sorry we don't support that format any more." you got with any document more than 5 years old.

  7. Comment by Michael Williams posted on

    Hi Graham
    We know some screen reader users would rather use RTF files than accessible PDFs. Is use of the OpenDocument format restricted to "documents users will want to edit" or is it OK to publish ODT files instead of RTF to meet this need? - eg

    • Replies to Michael Williams>

      Comment by Dr. Jerry Fishenden, Deputy Chief Technology Officer at GDS posted on

      Dear Michael,

      The policy requires the publication of documents in PDF, HTML or ODF formats. If .odt files meet the need of the users for accessibility and they are not available, the users can request the files be made available in .odt.

  8. Comment by Andrew Robertson posted on

    Hi, can you give me advice on forms? I'm struggling to understand the guidelines.

    The policy paper says
    “Documents are not… a mini-application (such as… smart forms)”.

    But later on in the same paper it says “Forms and information exchanges should be digital by default where this is enabled, therefore office productivity formats (including PDF) should not be used for the completion of forms.”

    How do we deal with situations where we need a method to gather structured data and information from people and don't have a digital by default channel? I don’t think GDS offer a simple online form builder tool that organisations on GOV.UK could use?

    Are we allowed to use PDF e-forms such as ? The end-user only needs free Adobe reader to fill in, save and email the form. It cannot, I am told, be published as a PDF/A version for the form logic to work.


  9. Comment by Andrew Robertson posted on

    Policy paper says “The default format for saving government documents must be Open Document Format (ODF).”

    Does that mean we have to save all our files in open document format, even if the intended audience are internal colleagues in the same organisation (eg my manager) using exactly the same software?

    • Replies to Andrew Robertson>

      Comment by Dr. Jerry Fishenden, Deputy Chief Technology Officer at GDS posted on

      Hi Andrew,

      In the same way as in the past users used, for example, Microsoft Word .doc binary files to share documents, where documents are being shared in the future, yes, they should use the preferred open document formats specified in the policy.

      However, your departmental technology leader is working on the timetable for implementation and you should liaise with them on the precise timing and migration in your department or agency.

  10. Comment by Dr. Jerry Fishenden, Deputy Chief Technology Officer at GDS posted on

    Dear Andrew,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Your departmental technology leader is working on details of the timetable for implementation - you should liaise with them on the precise transition arrangements in your department or agency. Once the policy has been fully implemented, PDFs should not be used for collection of data in the way you describe (“completion of forms”).