Microsoft Could Open Up Governments Tomorrow

Sarah Schacht

Word. Microsoft Word. The wordprocessing software that’s been around longer than some of us have been alive. It’s the software government runs on. But it’s also the software holding back governments from being open, transparent, and modern. And, really, you can’t blame governments for a design oversight Microsoft has made for decades; Word was never designed for governments’ unique legal compliance needs yet it’s still ubiquitous software across governments.

In the 1980’s and early 90’s, document processing tools were desperately needed by governments looking to transition away from paper-based processes and document storage. Word offered a simple, affordable tool to craft and share documents. But that doesn’t mean it was designed for the legal compliance and document structure needs of government documents. Word wasn’t designed with the public’s needs in mind, nor was it designed with an eye towards government’s data-driven future. To allow governments to be more open and efficient, Microsoft could release a new version of Word, specifically for governments. -More on this later. First, a little background.

In 2012, I was writing a book* on open government and as is typical of Seattle’s social networks, I connected with a person who led government sales of Word in the 1990s. Over lunch, they told me “We sold it in a way they’d never want to leave Word.” Microsoft was exceptionally successful; governments around the world adopted Word as their primary document creation tool at a crucial time in government technology stack evolution. Governments would never want to leave Word because it was so core to their document creation processes, policies, and (eventually) laws. And for the most part, they haven’t.

Word and its 12-year old DOCX file format** are the Jenga block few can pull from a government technology stack without the whole thing collapsing. Microsoft Word (often ancient versions of Word) is the keystone of most government’s document creation and management software and policy infrastructure. Doesn’t matter if they developed their own file management tool back in 1998 to organize Word files and share them with the public (often times through printing, scanning, and OCR-ing the documents), or if they bought an expensive, off-the-shelf database tool to manage case law or inspection reports. Doesn’t matter if they moved to the cloud or some SAAS solution; if the government information output isn’t in machine-readable data, it was likely created in Microsoft word and exported via a DOCX file or (shudders) to a PDF file. In all likelihood with a local government, you’ll still need to request this document in hardcopy or get it in Word’s docx files. It’s the keystone to the document infrastructure of government where, when removed, all the legacy tools built around it fall apart. Decades of document management — our public records, laws, court rulings, zoning permits, case files, historical documents, etc. — depend on Word. But their reliance on Word also limits their openness and utility. Governments’ reliance on Word even shapes our ability to access our own government’s history.

Word and its 12-year old DOCX file format are the Jenga block few can pull from a government technology stack without the whole thing collapsing.

You may be thinking, “But Sarah, PDFs are the real enemy of open government. They encase a document in a file format which makes it harder to search across documents and use the information in new and useful ways. PDFs trap information, not Word.” Well, yes. You are sort of right; PDFs (particularly the non-OCRed kind) profoundly limit government documents to human-readable use without a lot of scaping and human-engineered “liberating” of content from within PDFs. But seeing Adobe PDFs as the enemy is like believing a sick patient’s symptoms are the disease. Liberating PDFs is a treatment for a symptom of Microsoft Word’s disease; Word’s DOCX file format doesn’t allow governments to be legally compliant with accurate, consistent formatting and legally required features like signatures. PDFs are the rickety bridge between government document creation and sharing government documents in legally compliant, accurate ways.

It’s 2019. Why hasn’t somebody fixed this problem yet? Well, some have. Akoma Ntoso is a internationally-recognized data standard for compliance and consistency of government documents. In 2010, recognizing the intractable problem of Word in government legislation drafting, I trained on Akoma Ntoso, the data standard for publishing machine-readable and legally compliant government documents (particularly legislative documents). Coincidentally, I attended at the same time as Grant Vergottini, co-founder of Xcential, a govtech company focused on legislative drafting tools. Grant’s team has gone on to create a smart drafting and publishing tool which allows governments to publish in Akoma Ntoso’s standard. The Queen’s Printer in British Columbia, Canada, has worked on tools, too. The United States Congress has even experimented with Akoma Ntoso and launched something similar to Akoma Ntoso called USLM. In 2012, I held the first training on Akoma Ntoso in America and I’m happy to see all the growth in American legislatures of a machine-readable legislative document ecosystem.

Many governments have built or bought bespoke technologies to help them build schemas into document creation processes. But none of those tools have the scale, ability to integrate into current tech stacks, cost-competitiveness, or massive impact of Microsoft Word. We don’t need new tools when a modification of technology already within government’s technology environment would be more effective.

Much like the quote William Gibson quote, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed,” the potential to radically open up government documents is here — it’s just not as evenly distributed as Microsoft Word.

I’m not saying Microsoft should integrate Akoma Ntoso into a version of Word for governments. While it wouldn’t be a terrible thing, I don’t think Microsoft is likely to borrow from the existing, open standard. What Microsoft could do — tomorrow — is initiate a program to spin out a version of Microsoft Word as an update available to governments which could replace or augment their current versions of Word. “Word for Government” would have the capacity to automatically export government documents in a machine-readable format with tools which help document drafters automatically and consistently markup documents without needing to be programmers. Templates and macros could be baked in by Microsoft and added by government’s IT offices. Templates for legislative drafting, bill signing, court rulings, permitting and zoning, etc. could be made available through Microsoft and a community of Word for Government users.

I’ve floated this idea to Microsoft’s government technology and civic tech team members over the years. The idea never goes anywhere, even if it’s pitched to the Word team. Nobody there is interested in the work. That, or they have no idea how radically a version of Word for governments would change every aspect of government transparency, citizen engagement, records requests, or technology budgets.

Microsoft is doing good work in trying to address a range of attacks on democracy. But Word is a massive blind spot for them; by creating a version of Word which exports a highly standardized, machine-readable format of DOCX, Microsoft could support democracies and good governance with profound impact. And, they could start tomorrow.

*I never published the book, for a lot of reasons, but I wrote six chapters I should, uh, eventually publish.

**The TL;DR on DOCX: Basically, DOCX (a standard developed by Microsoft) has become a default standard for document sharing but lacks the schema capacity that governments require for legal compliance and document consistency. For more on DOCX and it’s general history, see: https://www.howtogeek.com/304622/WHAT-IS-A-.DOCX-FILE-AND-HOW-IS-IT-DIFFERENT-FROM-A-.DOC-FILE-IN-MICROSOFT-WORD/

    Sarah Schacht

    Written by

    Decade+ in #opengov, civic tech, & open data innovation. Surfer. Accidental #FoodSafety advocate/data standard expert. Author. #MeToo

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