Bonfire of the websites
"Clamp down on government websites to save millions" and "Martha Lane Fox appointed as UK Digital Champion."
Two headlines currently prominent on the Cabinet Office website which could just as well have been there under the previous government.
For some years now, politicians have been trying to do two things - cut spending while putting more services online, and so far it's proved rather hard.
But now the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is having another go, promising a review which could see up to 75% of government websites shut down. He says the previous government promised similar action, but ended up with more websites, not fewer.
This morning's press release also contains some damning evidence from a report which looked at value for money from government websites. Among its findings:
• Just 46 websites cost £94 million to build, with staff costs of £32m
• Quango websites have competed with government sites, so the Potato Marketing Board's lovechips.co.uk is up against the Department of Health's Change4Life healthy living campaign.
• The Department for Energy bid against the Energy Saving Trust for Google search terms, driving up the costs.
But the most eye-catching line in the report is the cost of different websites. The star prize here goes to the UK Trade and Investment site, www.ukti.gov.co.uk which had a cost per visit of £11.78. That compares with just 3p per visit for www.opsi.gov.uk, a site which gives access to UK legislation.
The comparison is of course quite unfair. The two sites are doing very different jobs, and the UKTI is only trying to reach a limited audience, exporters, rather than the wider public. But the overall cost of producing government sites does look extremely high.
This morning I spoke to Tom Watson, the former Labour Cabinet Office minister, who set out to trim web spending and indeed commissioned this report.
While he said there was a certain amount of spin in this morning's announcement - "we did actually close down over 1,000 websites" - he welcomed Francis Maude's determination to push through the efficiency programme.
But he had a warning: "It's like that Greek fellow, Sisyphus, trying to push a boulder up a mountain," he said. "It's very hard, it requires ministerial purpose to get it done."
What's more, at the very time that websites face closure, the Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox is talking of encouraging people to get on the internet by making sure that some government services are only available online. It sounds like that could mean more sites, not fewer.
The trick will be to identify those government websites that are drawing big audiences and delivering useful services at a reasonable cost and close the rest.
Easier said than done. By my calculation, the government is promising to identify by September over 600 of its 800 websites for closure. Let's keep an eye on how that goes.
Update, 12:30: UKTI have been in touch to say the figure of £11.78 per visit does not paint a true picture of the cost of their website. A spokesperson said "This calculation is based on the site traffic to a single part of the website that represents just 20% of total traffic." UKTI claims its website actually represents great value for money, promoting trade events which earn the UK hundreds of millions of pounds in export orders.
But this just goes to show what a fight ministers can expect from every government department with a website threatened with closure.