EU goes global for procurement standards

Public-sector procurement documents will for the first time be allowed to reference web standards and other standards not developed by EU agencies or the biggest, slowest-moving international standards agencies

Public-sector procurement documents in the European Union will now be able to reference international IT standards, under new regulations being proposed by the European Commission.

European Commission

Public-sector procurement documents in the EU will now be able to reference international IT standards, under new regulations being proposed by the European Commission.

On Wednesday, the Commission laid out its strategy for reforming the way EU public institutions deal with standards. Open-source advocates welcomed the strategy, saying it would promote competition, reduce lock-in and lead to faster standard development.

At the moment, public procurement documents can only reference standards developed by European standardisation bodies (ESOs) such as ETSI, CEN and CENELEC, or those from the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), or the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

However, the Commission said, this approach is no longer in step with the way international tech standards now emerge. The Commission particularly referred to web standards as an example of this — such standards are developed under the auspices of the relatively young World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and therefore cannot be taken into account in EU public procurement documents.

"Alongside the traditional standard-setting organisations, specialised and mostly global ICT fora and consortia have become more active and several have emerged as leading ICT standards development organisations," the strategy document (PDF) read. "These leading organisations also usually implement rules, processes and procedures that are broadly in line with those laid down by the WTO for international standards organisations."

The Commission noted that ESOs have made "considerable efforts to co-operate more closely with fora and consortia", but integration between these groups' output and European standards had not been achieved.

"It is necessary to reach at least an adequate level of interoperability and to ensure that public procurers can acquire interoperable ICT services and applications," the document stated, adding that the proposed regulation would "establish a system whereby the most relevant ICT standards developed by leading global ICT fora and consortia can be used in public procurement to help avoid lock-in and encourage competition in the supply of interoperable ICT services, applications and products".

'Crazy situation'

Graham Taylor, spokesman for OpenForum Europe (OFE), told ZDNet UK on Thursday that the proposed regulations were "quite critical when you look at the public sector and procurement".

"What we've had in the past is a crazy situation whereby... W3C and Oasis standards are not referenceable in procurement," Taylor said. "Some countries have ploughed ahead [with such standards], but centrally and legally within Europe that's not been possible."

Hopefully what we will get is faster standards to market without adding levels of bureaucracy.

– Graham Taylor, OpenForum Europe

Taylor, whose organisation has long campaigned for an alternative to the dominance of the ESOs in IT standards, said it remained uncertain as to which forums and standards will gain Commission approval, but the OFE "would assume Oasis and W3C would get a tick in terms of their openness and processes".

Taylor added that Oasis would not have had to cede control of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard to ISO in 2008, if the European Commission had not mandated this as a condition for accepting the standard. "Under this new arrangement there's potentially no need to go to ISO," he said. "Hopefully what we will get is faster standards to market without adding levels of bureaucracy."

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