Why Open Digital Standards Matter in Government: Conclusions

(this is the conclusion of the essay I wrote for the Open Government Book. For copyright info, see the introduction)


Digitization is good, but only when it’s open in the ways described in these pages. Governments must lead the way in this goal, both by example and by enforcing interoperability through really open digital standards, for several reasons:

  • Without exploiting all the potential of open standards and FLOSS, there can be no opengovernment, no FOIA, no smart energy grids, and no efficient services. Open data and file formats are mandatory to guarantee that all citizens can analyze raw public data or submit their own information, or that data can be retrieved 20, 50, or 100 years later. The first, nonnegotiable step toward any open government policy is therefore to demand that only really open formats and protocols be used for public data and digital interaction with any public administration.
  • In the modern world, technology (especially digital technology) is legislation. A government that insists on using, or tolerating, closed, secret formats and protocols has abdicated part of its duty to protect individual freedom and equal opportunities, both in business and in education, as well as the hope of reducing costs.
  • To emphasize the preceding point, open formats save money. Only if there is no vendor lock-in can public agencies, businesses, and individuals get really competitive offers from many providers.
  • Open formats and protocols are both an extremely profitable investment and an enabler. Compared to reforming pension systems, health care, transportation, energy, pollution, or public education, open formats, protocols, and FLOSS are much quicker and cheaper to adopt. Therefore, since software is so ubiquitous, the adoption of open formats has a positive impact on all those other fields. There is probably no other way to save so much money in so many different places and free vital resources with so (comparatively) little effort than through these technologies - as long as that effort is coordinated, of course. That’s why it must be governments that set the example and constitute the critical mass that makes open standards and FLOSS accessible to everybody.