Viewing government documents

Updated 26 January 2017

Standards to be used: HTML5 and Document management - electronic document file formats for long-term preservation PDF/A-1 ISO/IEC 19005-1:2005 and PDF/A-2 ISO/IEC 19005-2:2011

1. Challenge

Citizens, businesses and government officials need to be able to access and read government documents on their own devices. Documents in this context include word processed texts, spreadsheets and presentations.

Read more about the original challenge on the Standards Hub.

2. User needs

Users must not have costs imposed upon them, or be digitally excluded, due to the document format in which government documents are provided.

Users in the context of this standards profile are people inside and outside of government who need to access and read information produced by government officials or government services.

These users need to be able to view government documents on their device of choice, for example a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop, without the need to pay for any additional software.

As technology progresses, government’s production of information in formats traditionally associated with documents will become less important for users.

Government services are being redesigned to make them more straightforward and easier to use by making them digital by default. This will diminish the use of traditional government document formatting even further as information is published directly on the web.

This standards profile recognises that changes in technology and service delivery will therefore mean that document formats become less important as for users accessing information and transactions increasingly becomes an online experience. However, documents formatted in office productivity software are still prevalent amongst users of government information.

Users need to:

  • access and read information
  • store a local copy of the information they are viewing
  • print a copy of the information they are viewing
  • preserve information for archiving or as a record
  • make sure that the information they are creating can be viewed in the way they were intending
  • be able to create accessible content and to use accessibility tools with information in online and offline formats
  • access information on a device and platform of their choice, for example a laptop, tablet or smartphone
  • be sure of the integrity of specific information
  • see previews of statistical information

Creators of government information should also consider the standards profile for sharing or collaborating with government documents if the user may also need to edit the information being shared.

3. Expected benefits


  • are able to access and read government information
  • are not required to buy new software to access government information due to the format in which it is provided
  • are able to re-use data and text, where licences permit

4. Functional needs

Documents are formatted text, images, charts, graphs and media for a specific purpose or topic, usually but not exclusively in a narrative form.

Documents are not:

  • tabular data for machine readable reuse (which may be represented in different formats, including CSV)
  • complex structured data (which are currently found in formats such as XML, JSON, RDF)
  • all of the pages on the web (although some documents may be published on the web and are separate content, designed to be consumed as stand-alone documents, such as HTML publications)
  • a mini-application (such as using office productivity tools to create business applications, calculators, financial models or smart forms)

The format should support:

  • citizens, businesses and delivery partners being able to view information using the device of their choice
  • rendering that is appropriate for a user’s device
  • characters associated with Unicode 6.2 for text based file formats (in accordance with the standards profile for cross-platform character encoding)
  • use of metadata
  • processes to ensure the integrity of a document
  • implementation in software from a variety of suppliers

Documents should be accessible on different devices without loss of integrity – the information should not become spoiled.

When dealing with citizens, information should be digital by default and therefore should be available online. HTML5 is the default format for browser-based documents.

HTML5 (either the HTML or XML formulation) must be used for all new services that produce documents for viewing online through a browser. For services currently using HTML 4.01 or XHTML 1.0 for producing government documents for viewing, there is no requirement to invest in converting to HTML5 merely to comply with this standards profile. For HTML5, HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.0 documents, the primary consideration is the production of valid HTML.

PDF/A must be used for static versions of documents produced for download and archiving that are not intended for editing, in particular PDF/A-1 and PDF/A-2. PDF/A-3 should not be used. (PDF/A is a profile of PDF 1.4 and PDF 1.7).

Where editable information is required the approach must be as set out in the sharing and collaborating on government documents standards profile.

Work in progress documents should be converted to the formats specified in this standards profile. The conversion of completed and archived documents is out of scope.

5. Interoperability

Other steps to achieving interoperability:

  • information that is newly published for viewing must be provided in one of the formats described in this profile
  • authors of documents must consider accessibility and usability needs at the creation stage
  • government officials may engage with standards bodies associated with the maintenance of standards that are agreed for document formats for use in government
  • further consideration will be given to the validation of HTML5 once it has been published as a recommendation by W3C

This standards profile applies to information produced by or on behalf of central government departments, their agencies, non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) and any other bodies for which they are responsible.

A document metadata profile is outside the scope of this standards profile, although this may be the subject of other challenges taken through the Standards Hub process.