This information is to be used as guidance on using open standards and why they matter, and should not be taken as legal advice.

Open standards explained

GDS define open standards for software interoperability, data, and document formats as those that meet all of these criteria:


The standard is maintained by working together in a decision-making process that is consensus-based and independent of any individual supplier. Involvement in the development and maintenance of the standard is accessible to all interested parties.


The decision-making process is transparent and a review is carried out by subject matter experts, which is open to the public.

Due process

To guarantee quality, the standard is taken on by a specification or standardisation organisation, or a forum or consortium with a feedback and approval process.

Fair access

The standard is published, thoroughly documented, and publicly available at zero or low cost.

Market support

Other than creating innovative solutions, the standard is supported by the market and displays platform, application and vendor independence.

Licensing rights

Rights are essential to the implementation of the standard, and for communicating with other implementations using that same standard. They’re licensed on a royalty-free basis that’s compatible with both open source and proprietary licensed solutions.

These rights should be irrevocable unless there is a breach of licence conditions.

Building on open standards

There are 7 open standards principles to follow when thinking about which open standards to use:

  • place the needs of your users at the heart of your standards choices
  • your selected open standards will make it possible for suppliers to compete on a level playing field
  • your choices of standards support flexibility and change
  • you take on open standards that support sustainable cost
  • your decisions on standards selection are well-informed
  • you select open standards using fair and transparent processes
  • you are fair and transparent in the specification and implementation of open standards

GDS describe the reasons for these principles and their implications in ‘Open Standards Principles’, published in November 2012.

Choosing which open standards to use

The Open Standards Board will be selecting some compulsory open standards using the Standards Hub process. Use standards that have been identified.

There might be instances where you’re looking for an open standard and GDS have not set a compulsory one in that space. If so, do a thorough assessment of existing standards and choose one that meets your needs and is consistent with GDS’s definitions.

You should also consider how the standard fits with:

  • user and functional needs
  • security and legal requirements
  • economic efficiency of government as a whole
  • interoperability
  • preventing lock-in

You’ll need to apply for exemptions to open standards if:

  • you’re considering use of a standard that doesn’t meet GDS’s definitions of an open standard
  • you want to use an alternative standard to one that performs the same function (if a compulsory standard has already been selected for that specific purpose)

Why GDS do this

By implementing open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats, government is:

  • improving adaptability and the ability for government to provide services based on users’ needs – avoiding digital exclusion based on the technology choices made
  • putting in place a level playing field for open source and proprietary software, giving government the ability to move between different technologies without the risk of lock-in
  • making it easier to share appropriate data across and beyond government boundaries, providing efficient services for users and delivery partners
  • making the cost of government’s digital services more sustainable by making things simpler and encouraging reuse

Benefits of using open standards

Basing your build of component-based digital services on open standards will:

  • provide you with an adaptable design
  • give you greater choice
  • make it possible for your digital services to change over time

Expressing your user needs in terms of required capabilities, which are in turn based on open standards, helps you to make better choices for service delivery. It also means that there is no unintentional lock-in built into government digital services.

Whether designing and building in-house or outsourcing, your solutions need to comply with open standards (where they exist and meet functional needs) for:

  • software interoperability
  • data formats
  • document formats


On a case-by-case basis, an exemption may be agreed in advance if there’s an exceptional reason why using open standards is inappropriate. The government’s Chief Technology Officer will agree this, or it could also be through Departmental Accounting Officer procedures for cases below the Cabinet Office’s spend controls threshold for IT.

Further reading