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…