2 Lessons from UK government study on electronic document usage

Screen shot of Government Digital Service blog page.The UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) is responsible for spearheading the development and adoption of digital services within and delivered by the British government.

The GDS is studying file-formats to help the British government develop standards for its use of electronic documents. They have reviewed customer support logs, conducted significant survey research and engaged in detailed interviews with workers inside and outside government.

What have they found?

It’s an ad hoc world

Let’s face it: while transactional records have consistent workflows, more sophisticated documents demand not just flexibility, but the ability to go ad hoc.

For example, people working on policies, guidance documents, and publications in general, tend to work with multiple documents at a time; often needing to be able to exchange documents internally and to collate feedback from different sources.

The blog-post doesn’t highlight this point, but “different sources” is very few words to describe a very large challenge. Quite apart from the plethora of source types such as desktop publishing applications, spreadsheets, word-processors, statistical packages, scanners, CAD packages, and more, new devices such as phones and tables all have their own applications, and increasingly, can create electronic documents.

So what are the problems?

From government users they heard:

“Occasionally people can’t open files created by colleagues or by people outside government. Sometimes the content gets corrupted and can’t be read properly. Government users are telling us that [the problems users experience] are mostly due to a lack of consistency in the formats used to save or export documents.”

GDS’s survey of 650 professionals outside government showed similar results:

“We asked about problems with viewing, downloading, opening, reading, editing or submitting government documents. In about a third of these cases, respondents said that they had issues sometimes or often.”

The problems users experienced came from a variety of sources:

“Where users have problems, they often cite issues with internet connectivity or not being able to read documents properly. For example, sometimes documents won’t open, or some of the text is missing or overlapping. Some of these problems are due to format incompatibility….”

So, what matters to users?

The GDS’s findings are pretty clear:

  • Downloadable files are required to support ad hoc and offline workflows
  • Consistency and reliability are key

Yup.

It’s not for nothing that PDF dominates the world of downloadable document formats.

Now drafting: document format standards for Her Majesty’s Government

The study’s objective is to pave the way for development and adoption of formal standards for electronic documents. So far, the study’s organizers have drafted file-format requirements in two categories:

Their recommendations so far appear to focus on open, standards based technology, and further, standards implemented successfully by many different vendors.

These pages have generated considerable comment, not least because the GDS did not include Open XML, the format that undergirds Microsoft’s industry-dominant Office applications. In an 11,000 word response to the GDS’s proposal, Microsoft makes the case for Open XML – and along the way, for PDF as well.

I’ve made my own suggestions regarding ISO 32000-1 (it really should be included as a collaboration format!) and PDF/UA-1 as a viewing format.

I look forward to the evolution of this initiative!



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