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Bonfire of the websites

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:15 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010

"Clamp down on government websites to save millions" and "Martha Lane Fox appointed as UK Digital Champion."

Screenshot of Cabinet Office websiteTwo 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 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, which had a cost per visit of £11.78. That compares with just 3p per visit for, 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Stick Google Adwords on the sites - the ones that can pay their way with advertising get to stay!

  • Comment number 2.

    Many Government web sites are vanity publications.

    At least the (over-complex) HMRC's allows you to do something that saves you and the state money. However there is a very bad tendency for civil servants to make things more complex and pretend that they are making it easier.

    There is an appalling example of this presently festering in HMRC's (and Company House's) - The need to file electronically in a very strange and almost entirely incomprehensible and far too complex dialect of XML/HTML called in-line XBRL (eXtended Business Reporting Language.) This may sound a bit abstract, but consider this there are a couple of million small companies in the UK and from next year they will be unable to file returns on paper. They must use in-line XBRL.

    XBRL is a list of terms that have to be embedded into an HTML document. The list of these labels runs to 25 megabytes of definitions with individual labels of up to a hundred or so characters. A reasonable guess is that this requirement by HMRC/Companies House will cost UK small business about a grand each (if not more) so that is a cost of £2bn!!! Absolutely ridiculous extra burden when we are desperate to get British small business to drag us out of recession.

    Please write to Vince Cable at his b Business Department and get him to stop this absurd abuse by HMRC!

  • Comment number 3.

    I made a recycling website for New Jersey ( It cost the state of New Jersey nothing. I never had any training on making a website or any other form of computer programing and this was the first website I have ever made. Making websites is very easy and could be simply done in house without having to pay for expensive IT experts. My website took me about 3 months to build in my spare time (evenings and weekends) and as I mentioned, that was without any knowledge of html code prior to starting this project.
    There is no reason why the government should be spending millions on websites. They are very very easy to make and departments can be easily set up so that people within a government department have access to a website templates and can simply cut and paste their documents into a web format for MS word or any other text based program to add new pages of information as it becomes available.
    It is not having a website that costs a lot. Hosting costs should be tiny as all you need is a server and an internet connection and everyone knows that most computer fixes require you to simply turn it off and turn it back on again. The problem is that because most people believe everything with computer programing is difficult we are prepared to pay IT professionals huge salaries. Spend a day on you tube looking at videos on how to make your own website and you will realise that these people are paid way too much.

  • Comment number 4.

    Most government websites are so badly laid out and designed that they are unuseable. The government should ask for their money back from the developers. Clearly the government is unable to negotiate contracts with service providers as has been amply demonstrated with PPP and PFI. When will government get serious about procurement?

  • Comment number 5.

    I have to agree: the level of duplication re UK Government is seriously off-putting.
    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. For one thing, you don't throw the baby away with the bathwater or reinvent the wheel. If a site already exists, you update it and retain the single site.
    Yes, I do believe that 75% of government websites could be shutdown - due to duplication, but you have to have really good systems people to accomplish this. I kid you not, but hackers can do these things quite well. What you want to do is ID all references to same topic, decide obsolescence, delete or update accordingly, merge links, and lastly make sure the naming of the final result is informative.
    Even two sites on the same topic, doing very different jobs, can and should be merged. This is simply good service for the public so that they get everything they can get at this single site.
    I also agree with the Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox about getting government services online. If done correctly (and wow, that's a mouthful), the public should be able to
    - get all the information about the topic at one site,
    - download any forms that may be cessary from that same site,
    - launch an enquiry for further information through an enquiry format, same site.
    The austerity needs of the current economic crisis provide much rationale for doing this exercise now and doing it well. In the long-run it will end up as better, more efficient and effective service to the public.

  • Comment number 6.

    No offence, but your site is exceptionally simple and would take a good web developer only a day to produce. It is all static content and doesn't really do anything apart from tell people things.
    This isn't what most sites do. Most have databases underpinning them and provide dynamic content which changes depending on what the user selects. It's this that takes a lot of time to get right. that and having someone update the content regularly.
    Making a static website like yours IS easy. Making a dynamic website that does what people want it to is not.

  • Comment number 7.


    The move to XBRL is driven by the the accounting bodies for each country acting together as part of a long running programme to standardise world-wide accounting as much as possible to aid business operations across country boundaries. So this is one occasion where HM Governemnt is completely innocent of over-complicating a website just because they can.

  • Comment number 8.


    Congratulations on your website, you should be proud of your efforts. However, as an IT profesional who's built many websites in my career I can assure you that the average website costs rather more than yours has to set up and operate because it does rather more. Requirements such as ensuring they can be accessed on a range of devices and by disabled users also increase the costs - building a website which is fairly available to all taxpayers, which is efficiently maintainable, capable of handling the loads required and provides the range of functionality they require is significantly and legitimately more expensive than building material such as you have done. This is not at all to belittle your fine efforts, but they are not representative of the level of provision required by the bulk of government websites.

  • Comment number 9.

    I agree with @3. Websites are an absolute doddle to make. Even embedding videos is simple (particularly if you use YouTube, which is free). Hosting websites is also very cheap, especially if you are only using the site as an information portal. As far as bidding for adverts on Google, surely there should simply be better communication between departments. I'm glad that we can now see the waste that has plagued the Governments of the past, and I hope that the current Government can address these issues.

  • Comment number 10.

    Slimming down the number of websites is a course a good idea if there is overlap or duplication or party promoting - what exactly is the website used for apart for promoting the PM?

    I think having local council websites is also not good value for money - there should be central govenment site, with local council information/activites on there. Same goes for NHS, Police and Schools.

    However, being able to vote on local and national issues online - would be fantastic in everyway - thats where the money should go!

  • Comment number 11.

    I am finding it difficult to comment fully as my jaw is still on my desk.
    How much for 46 websites!

  • Comment number 12.

    Websites may be easy to make, but good websites with enormous amounts of information that needs to serve large numbers of people are not easy to make at all.

    Paul, your website is perfectly decent as an amateur effort, but it certainly isn't a professional website, and it has lots of problems. The government couldn't use sites of this quality.

    That's not to say that the government aren't spending too much on their sites (they almost certainly are) nor that most of their sites are of high enough quality (they certainly aren't), but allowing a bunch of untrained amateurs to put government sites together would be a disaster.

  • Comment number 13.

    Can we ditch the student loans application website? It has a more complex login than my bank, makes little sense once you finally manage to log in, then crashes at you.

    We could replace it with something more modern and speedy: semaphore perhaps, or carrier pigeons.

  • Comment number 14.

    Most of government is moving towards open source if you look at some of the latest sites; mainly employing WordPress or Drupal, so things are on the right track.

    No convined that hosting is cheap as such - as security for the gov web estate has to be high and cope with variable traffic from publicity heavy launches down to lower every day use. Cloud servcies could help here in the future...

  • Comment number 15.

    Paul's, New Jersey website is not a good example of how an enthusiastic amateur can put together a low cost website but it does serve to illustrate the issue of competing websites being wasteful of resources and money.

    A quick google search of Recycling in New Jersey delivers the unsurprising first position result that the State of NJ has its own official recycling website which seems to deliver similar information from the source of authority on the subject.

    So I would suggest that significant waste exists not in well thought out and well designed public sector websites but in the multitude of competing websites that either offer the same information or, as in the case of, completely conflicting information to that found on Change4life.

    Perhaps a central web design authority for Public Sector could be established to review requirements and outsource the delivery of Public Sector websites into the Private Sector.

  • Comment number 16.

    If you take it to the extreme, all Government websites could be consolidated into just one site with various departments running off it as a sub-domain. That kind of setup, and hosting done via an efficient "cloud services" supplier, would also ensure high reliability, and still give enough flexibility for each department to individually style their departments.

    e.g. just look at setup, and especially now with integrated iD system.

  • Comment number 17.

    Are there any more like the Junior Doctors jobs website?

    A site that could be put together with a couple of good coders and some open-source components in around a week, but for some reason, was not only ludicrously insecure, but coast 6 MILLION pounds!

    And it was only going to be used by a few hundred people. What cost is that per visit?

    Someone made a killing at the tax payers expense on that one. I would love to know who.

  • Comment number 18.

    @3 and @9 demonstrate perfectly why the government and business mess up IT projects so often and why outsourcing is so common (and why in all those cases it gets redone later by "expensive" consultants with years of experience who actually know what they are doing). People with a minimum of knowledge think they know what they are doing and botch together something that looks like a good web site without thinking it through or even knowing what to think through.

    Just as an example, I had a gentle prod at @3s website. It took exactly 5 seconds to find a security hole (by changing just 2 letters of the information given in their post) that, if I was feeling malicious and had a few hours spare, would give access to change anything on the web site I wanted and that's without using any sophisticated hacking techniques. If it had contained any private data, it would all have been public by now.

    Cheap hosting is available to all, which is great for personal websites and simple information, but would you want your personal data or your children's personal data on a shared server in a prefabricated shed in a country outside European data protection regulations or would you prefer it in an secure, level 3 facility in the UK where no-one gets in without multiple checks on biometric data (fingerprints or iris recognition) and picture IDs.

  • Comment number 19.

    The astronomical figures for creation and maintenance of these websites tell the whole story. It would seem highly likely that the tasks have been performed by smart-suited, glass-and-steel officed companies with shiny brochures, probably recommended by accounting-companies of the same ilk.

    The task could probably be performed at literally 1000th the cost by small, even one-man, businesses.

    Of course, the latter just do their technical work and don't take time out to wine-and-dine politicians; you can understand their reluctance, given the IR35 punish-hard-work mentality of the latter.

  • Comment number 20.

    Most of the cost with IT projects are the following...

    1. Poorly specified projects - Just left a company that was building a site for a department in the NHS and the specifications looked like they were written by children - unclear, imprecise and incoherent.

    2. Poor management - The above project has had several project managers (all on short-term contracts) and therefore no one "vision" or overall control

    3. Using the same companies to build the same disasters - I'm talking about the large outsourcers and consultancy firms (I won't name them!) who charge a fortune and repeatedly deliver a pathetic end result, blaming the customer rather than trying to do the job properly.

    4. Poor operating procedures. The project I alluded to in point 1 has a crazy workflow which just does not make any sense (imagine an on-line system where you repeatidly export data to a spreadsheet and then import it back in again with changes).

    Until decent management (ie people actually trained to put secure and sensible processes, procedures and projects together) take control of IT projects in the government (and rebuild them from the ground up), they have no chance whatsoever of tackling the problem.

    Bring small IT specialist firms in to deal with things rather than relying on the appauling management within the public sector and you may get somewhere!

  • Comment number 21.

    All bloated government spending needs to be curbed - end of story. I've successfully taken my business into 3 new countries in the past year and I've not used the UKTI once! There are loads of other private companies running more commercially viable businesses which actually work...! I'm sure the UKTI website works for some businesses but I found to be far more useful for me! And best of all - I didn't vote Conservative but now I can see the sense of what they are doing

  • Comment number 22.

    I write a weekly digital blog over at and was just in the process of writing about this.
    What’s forgotten here is that Business Link is a website that promotes wealth creation by supporting business in our country and with 16,670,665 people spending an average of 8min 43secs on the site, that doesn’t instantly suggest a waste of money to me - in fact it’s figures suggest that it's obviously providing engaging content. What would make it easier when trying to judge whether a site is good value or not, is to know the return on investment that the £35 Million spent is providing every year, rather than headline grabbing arbitrary figures.

  • Comment number 23.

    I agree with 18 the idea that 3 and 9 think anyone can build a website devalues the work of people who have to spend four years study for a Computing Science degree and then morer years learning design, Photoshop, XHTML, PHP, MySQL and so on. It's like saying to Messi "look I can kick a ball, it's simple" why are you paid so much. Everyone's an expert now.
    Of course the government are profligate and do spend huge amounts of money on websites no-one uses but, as Rory says, you can't expect more people to use the internet and at the same time shut websites down. A large number of websites, including Companies House, are just too diffucult to use. Try filing your accounts online using a Mac, it's nighn on impossible. And therein lies the problem. Lots of websites not designed properly, a studied approach about who uses what sites and how much money they save via things like online filing, downloading documents, advice and so on would have been a better reaction. But again we have an example of slash and burn from this appalling knee jerk coalition.

  • Comment number 24.

    Government websites? Don't make me laugh. I could literally make a better website in a matter of seconds, after having been actively trained NOT to and I wouldn't charge them a penny.

    My office is made of mud and twigs, I hate wine and I don't even OWN a suit. I've personally started fifteen businesses from scratch and never asked for any help from anyone.

    Come on the government, pull your finger out and sign up us Dunkirk-spirited average Joes on the street.

  • Comment number 25.

    Wot!! No post off Kevinb yet, the people at Millbank are slipping

  • Comment number 26.

    Government websites are going up everywhere, and I have noticed there has been some overlap with the information and services each has to offer. I really dont think cutting them off is the answer, as they all provide some service. As a webmaster myself I know that with consolidation and automation, any website can continue fully functioning at a fraction of their current running cost.

  • Comment number 27.

    So Ms Lane Fox suggests encouraging people to get online by making some services only available online. I take it she has solved the digital divide then ? I must have missed the announcement.

  • Comment number 28.

    I am a professional web designer now, but before I turned pro I worked in a marketing and communications role in a public sector quango. In 2004 we needed a web site for a specific project - a simple 5 page brochure web site with no interactivity or social networking and a projected lifespan of only 2 years. Using the web design abilities I already had, I whipped up a standards-compliant, accessible, effective, and fully professional web site for the project in less than two business days, at a total cost of £60 (or £12 per page). Did I get compliments or thanks?

    No, I got a disciplinary hearing.

    You see, even though I was specifically hired for my ability to create and update web sites, my management felt that I was "supposed" to farm the web site project out to the quango's slick PR firm, who had quoted £2000 for the work (which works out to £400 a page).

    The defence the managemnent laid forth for this stance was the fact that if they did not use the full marketing budget allocation, they would not get as much money next year. To me that was a shocking confession of guilt and complicity in the public sector gravy train. It was clear that the idea of doing marketing work in-house, using in-house resources, with the in-house staff hired for the job, was not just an incomprehensible idea to the quango's management, but was viewed as an offensive threat to the public sector itself.

    That was one tiny project in one tiny quango serving one corner of one city in one part of the UK. The full scope of the marketing gravy train perpetuated by Labour's 13 years in power cannot be fathomed.

  • Comment number 29.

    Yes, closing websites will save cash. But even now, in their effort to save the money, my guess is that they'll end up wasting it.

    I predict that instead of SELLING the sites for good money, the government will end up just closing them down.

    The IT people behind the £11 a vistor site are not the type who'll advise the government that there are whole communities of eager websites buyers (like my own non-profit community at ) who'll pay good money to buy those sites.

    Fracis Maude, it's tax payers money - don't close those sites down and make £0 out of the whole exercise, find buyers for them and save us at least a few million!

  • Comment number 30.

    Surely the issue is not what it costs per visit, but what value that visit provides in terms of services to the tax payer or benefit to the UK economy.

  • Comment number 31.

    I have no doubt many sites could effectively be closed down, but the argument from cost is fundamentally flawed if taken out of context. Even £11.78 per visit is value for money if the alternative is that those interactions are replaced by calls to call-centres or visits to offices.

    I work for a local authority, with a website which can certainly be improved, but even as it stands represents a huge efficiency saving on the way we were doing business previously. If we axe or slash the website the cost to the taxpayer will increase substantially more than the savings.

  • Comment number 32.

    I would agree with a number of the comments that the big issue is to do with the commissioning. We've been involved with trying to shape or add content to a number of government agency sites. But we are always hampered with a focus on branding guidelines and pushing messages, not getting it right from the user's perspective.

    There are three things the new government must do for the websites that remain
    1. set up and listen to user groups. Design sites around what these users need and in the way they want to get the information
    2. don't be obsessed by branding guidelines and 'must include messages'
    3. have tighter contracting arrangements with web designers - particularly those designing vast data-backed systems. Run very tight project management with clear milestones - and be prepared to pull the plug if they are not delivering.

    We have seen a number of terrible websites that never functioned properly but no-one seemed prepared to say 'deliver or you are out'. You would never run a business that way

  • Comment number 33.

    Paul @ 3.

    So, making a website is very easy, is it?

    Your HTML isn't even valid!! Another poster has said your site has security problems.

    If I was UK Digital Champion, I wouldn't let people like you anywhere near the internet. You think by cutting and pasting a bit of HTML, that you can replace an IT pro? Your arrogance is as staggering as your inability to code.

    IT pros aren't overpaid, they get the going rate for someone who has taken the time and effort to study and get qualified for a profession.

    Now, if IT consultancies and the government conspire to create a contract which is way overpriced for the IT work delivered, that's another matter. The answer is not to replace IT pros with cheap amateurs like yourself, but to appoint a digital champion who can really shake up the government's procurement of IT to get a solution that works and is value for money. I don't think the present incumbent is the right person for that job.

  • Comment number 34.

    Rory your calculations regarding the UKTI website are wildly misleading not only in the respect that the site quoted represents only 20% of the total traffic to the entire UKTI web real estate.

    You have divided £4m by 28,000 (monthly visits?) x 12 to get your £11.78 per visit.

    However, this website has been running for at least 3 years if not longer than that. So applying the 20% filter as well as the lifespan of the site the number is likely to be closer to £0.45p - £0.75p per visit. Not such an eye-catching number, you'll agree, and compares favourably with private sector sites of similar purpose and audience

    Also as most of the posts here seem to involve development cost comparison - the £4m quoted by the COI includes secure hosting, compliance, marketing of the site, content creation and ongoing management and maintenance. For a fair comparison I can assure commenters the pure technical development cost is a couple of orders of magnitude lower than £4m.

    I don't disagree with the general argument that the UK government wastes astronomical sums on poorly specified, scoped and managed website projects with little measurable user benefit - but I think you are barking up the wrong tree with UKTI.

  • Comment number 35.

    #7. Pytorb wrote:

    "The move to XBRL is driven by the the accounting bodies for each country acting together as part of a long running programme to standardise world-wide accounting as much..."

    I am afraid you are ignoring some fundamental differences between the way in which different legal entities are classified in different countries and the impact of the EU wide XBRL nonsense in different countries. The UK has huge numbers of very small companies that are being hit by the legislation that was intended for large companies.

    It is quite absurd to expect small companies to be subject to the same regulations that are inflicted upon large companies. Frankly your blind belief in the perfection of accounting bodies I find amazing. They are after one thing and that is to make more money for their members. In the UK they have never really go over audit exemption. This stopped a large volume of the small company work and this idiotic trade and business managing proposal in a way for the industry to steal money from these old audit clients.

    Have you looked at the Taxonomies - that must have been written by idiots. Why for example are there two ways to describe numeric quantities? The over use of the xml Xlinks architecture make using the definitions absurdly complex - and remember many company accounts are still typed on a typewriter. Why on earth does anyone consider it sane to have 427 files and some 9.5 mega bytes of definitions in ifrs 2009-4-1. Absolutely crackpot! These accounting bodies are idiots! (and I've scanned this taxonomy and it has considerable omissions where files have to be added from previous taxonomies.)

    The other matter I think you should also understand is that the data quality produced by trials of this technology was absolutely pants. (There is a research paper that analyses the results of major American institutions and the results were rubbish they mixed up millions and billions and every other sin under the sun.)

    XBRL will die a natural death, as it is not fit for purpose in that it is incomprehensibly complex, eventually - but not before it has devastated every small company in the UK! Introducing it now is the absolutely the hight of folly. Perhaps medium and large companies can cope but small companies will be destroyed on a large scale by the effort.

    Frankly the ifrs (International Accounting Standards Committee) needs scrapping as its creation of this impossible to implement system is cretinous. What they have missed entirely is that there is no value in databases of the wrong data and their system will and can only collect huge quantities of wrong information as it it is far too complex. If you don't understand this then perhaps you have no practical experience in the preparation of accounts.

    Vince Cable - Kill XBRL Now and Save British Small Businesses!!!

  • Comment number 36.

    #35 John_from_Hendon

    I wasn't making any comment on the performance of XBRL, merely pointing out that with a significant external driver to put in place an external standard it can't really be seen as an example of civil servants in HMRC inventing a new way of filing accounts in glorious isolation thus making a website more expensive.

  • Comment number 37.

    Thanks for all your comments on my previous post, both scathing and complimentary. Actually I appreciate the criticism more as you have pointed out several flaws in my work that I need to now fix so I am very grateful to you all for that.
    Clearly I was speaking from an ill informed position. I now appreciate that web design is more complex that it appeared and apologise for my remarks earlier.

  • Comment number 38.

    Post 28 perfectly illustrates the reasons why ANY government project, not just websites, costs so much. Paul's comment, whilst not aware of some of the complexity involved, is essentially aiming in the right direction. As a web designer myself, I do appreciate the complexity involved, and the need to hire a professional team. It cannot be done by a one-man-band: it took me years of study, and even more years of experience, to be a professional graphic designer good enough to work for high-profile clients like Shell, HSBC, Nike etc. And it's not about learning how to use some software: the actual skills involved are not downloaded and installed when you buy a programme (I could buy a piano tomorrow, but it won't make me a concert pianist, or even a composer). But to learn all of the other skills (HTML, PHP, MySQL, XHTML etc etc) necessary to produce websites to the same standard as my design skills would take many more years, and probably isn't achievable in one person's lifetime.
    Nevertheless, a good team could still produce an excellent website for a fraction of the costs quoted.

  • Comment number 39.

    @28 wic2007

    So you think £60 for spending 2 days on a site is good value?

    That's £150 a week so if you're earning more than that you've just made a loss for your department.

    Tell me about your warranty, what kind of 24/7 support you give and how you intend to protect visitors privacy?

    If you can provide all that for £30 a day I'll give you a job as it's less than the UK minimum wage!

  • Comment number 40.

    @39 you misunderstand.

    As a public sector employee I was already being paid a salary of X per year to perform numerous marketing tasks for the quango. All company web sites fell under my remit. The construction of the new web site fell to me as my sole reponsibility. Thus the cost of the time needed to plan, construct, and supervise the web site was covered by my salary. The £60 was the cost for a year's hosting in 2004.

    We are not referring to what I charge now and the contractual guarantees I am able to offer many years later as an independent professional - which I can assure you is not what passes for acceptable in the public sector.

    The point I make is that in the public sector, even where people have been hired to do specific work in-house, the rule under Labour was to outsource marketing to corporate firms at massive costs for the sake of spending the funny money budget, which my quango smugly called "investing in communities". The main goal of public sector web projects has been to spend the money in order to get more money - regardless of the need, efficacy, or lack of business case for the web projects.

    In a situation where you are literally not allowed to do what you were hired to do, you become demoralised and underused and eventually just join in on the game.

    Except for me - I quit after less than a year of that garbage.

  • Comment number 41.

    Just what we don't need. Another highly paid guru / Czar / messiah to state the b***ding obvious. Martha Lane Fox rose to fame in the boom and that did not work out too well, did it? Wasn't that the last economic disaster before this one?
    And irritatingly the BBC has beeen taken over by Facebook and Twitter; possibly in prepartion for privatisation / moving out of the public sector. And let's not forget the BBC is a public sector organisation that should be trimmed if the Welfare State is going to be cut back. If it comes to a choice between having my appendix removed for free or losing a channell or two from the Beeb I know which one I'm going for. Get rid of The Archers every time.

  • Comment number 42.


    I think your original comment was deliberately misleading then.

    Now you're telling me that the site you produced cost a lot more than £60.

    Maybe it's this misunderstanding of costs in the public sector that's the real problem?

  • Comment number 43.

    @42 There certainly is a problem with costs when your managers - most of whom do not even use email, because they have their secretaries read it for them - insist that a PR firm charging £2000 is better qualified to make a static brochure web site than the in-house person they hired to do it.

    Which begs two more questions:
    1) Why was a PR firm considered better qualified than a web developer? PR is not web development.
    2) Why did a tiny neighbourhood quango need a corporate city centre PR firm? Their annual retainer was a lot more than my salary.

    That's how the gravy train worked.

    In the midst of the 5 page project, the quango was in the process of spending £60,000 on a revamp of their main web site despite the fact that it got fewer than 10 external, non-stakeholder hits per week. They had been counting all individual pageviews, including internal staff hits, as hits in order to inflate their popularity. Two years after I left they spent five more figures on a full rebrand (new name, logo, web site, etc) knowing fully well that they were being merged with another local quango the following year and would be rebranding *again*. And so the whole process was repeated.

  • Comment number 44.

    Fascinating discussion. With some great parapet popping by a few brave souls, and some usually constructive comments back that can only increase the knowledge base of all.

    What does not seem to be discussed as much, from the report to such as here, are the costs of operation beyond the initial construction, to keep things fresh, bubbling... and working. Not just to exist as a box tick, but to represent ongoing value to the user.

    Many moons ago I was helped (ironically, by BusinessLink) to create a site (wouldn't dare expose it here) to address an environmental opportunity to reduce waste, and it cost a fortune (mostly out of my pocket) on custom work that now can be found as free scripts. It remains steam (not the game software) driven, and enjoys fair critical and consumer support and accolades world wide.

    What's done is done. And, to a degree, if I was run over by a truck it would lumber on.

    But to survive, be maintained, and thrive, it needs constant nuturing, input... and promo to cut through and keep visitors coming back.

    As I am poor at the media sales aspect, this is mostly being done in spare time, for love. But it's a big, growing site, needing oodles of TLC from the Forum to the Q&A to dropping a link in green blogs worldwide when a relevant opportunity presents.

    I am hence very jealous of some government funded quango efforts (keen to see if they feature and how they fare (at what they are doing) or will do (in the cuts - I might get a boost if the 'competition' lessens. A few I approached for help or to complement took my Business plan and then used public funds to try and run similar efforts) - is such detail listed yet?) with many staff, and budgets for big stands at shows, or comms budgets to die for (ActonCo2 ?) who on occasion trumpet 'hits' figures using expensive PR agencies that would, if translated into unique visitors actually engaging usefully (awareness is 'nice', but hard to pin down) get doors slammed on them by media agencies who, so far, have politely suggested I come back when I have a few hundred thousand more in the double opt-in database*.

    *An entity, along with our registration procedure, we created to the highest standards, when I could cite a few expensive, high profile gov sites that are at best a bit lacking in this regard, if not open to being challenged legally if they are not careful.

  • Comment number 45.

    Government commissioning is at fault here.

    I know from one source that their huge IT company regularly bid far cheaper than it was possible to do the job for, then got the extra money required out of the government later. It was simply a case of making sure they could charge for overruns in the contract.

    This practice is not restricted to the IT sector. One group of Doctors in bidding to take over the running of a Walk in Centre bid way lower than was feasible. They got the job and now don't have the budget to employ sufficient nurses to run it.

    This is simply bad business practice on both sides. The IT industry rips off the Government with dodgy deals and the government Civil Servants and MPs are simply not up to the job of buying.

    I would say they deserve each other, but it is us who are paying for it all.

  • Comment number 46.

    #36. Pytorb wrote:

    (XBRL)"it can't really be seen as an example of civil servants in HMRC inventing a new way of filing accounts in glorious isolation thus making a website more expensive."

    I disagree - the file that has to be electronically created by every business has to be delivered via a government web site and furthermore the technology behind the structuring and creation of the file is that of the web - namely HTML (with the added 'bonus'(!!!) of a weird and totally impractical dialect of XML.

    Must of the discussion is about the price of each page visit - I can come up with a price of £1000 per file/visit (for about 2 million small business) and the this £ 2bn comes off of the profits of every British small company - quite ridiculous in these economic times and it must be stopped!!!!

    HMRC's way of implementing data collection will pointlessly crucify small British business. (By far the worst aspect of it is that companies will NOT be permitted to submit accounts on paper or electronically via pdf's for example)

  • Comment number 47.

    1. At 1:22pm on 25 Jun 2010, B Nelson wrote:
    "Stick Google Adwords on the sites - the ones that can pay their way with advertising get to stay!"

    People like me install software that prevents adverts from appearing. :-)

  • Comment number 48.

    I agree that all Government Websites should be consolidated into a single domain (eg UK.GOV) created using open source Content Management Systems and hosted on a secure, government owned, government run Cloud. The problem with the existing websites is that they are "purchased" from consultant who respond to every single request their "customer" makes. If that makes the website unuseable then that is not the consultant's problem: the customer got what the customer asked for.

    While I might object to a lot of things about the BBC website, but it is well put together, relatively consistent across different areas and it manages to cope with a reasonably high volume of traffic. While the Government is likely to hate such a thing, the best suggestion might be for the BBC to tender for the business and to get rid of all other contractors. Quite simply the range of different styles to the Government suggest a lack of discipline and failure to understand what websites do.

    Complaints about weird dialects of XML (XBRL) are equally a complaint about the development process. The private contractors developing and installing a website really ought to insulate the end user from the quirks of coding. Social Networking Sites such as Myspace and Facebook manage to do so for a wide audience: so it is not impossible, and, never has been. The whole notion that "Government" and "Civil Servants" develop these sites and are incompetent is a mixture of half truth, wishful thinking and failure to appreciate what is outsourced. Many developers are picked up cheap with little experience and, effectively, learn to code on the job. This regarded as normal within the IT industries: the excuse being that technology moves too fast.

    If the initial website passes a few testing scripts then it will be accepted. It will never fulfil it's stated or intended purpose and will be replaced - much the same as the software upgrade cycle demands. The number of half baked websites around government are a symptom of the divide between ordinary people who function in ordinary society and take information as they find it the different people of government and IT contracts who function by committee, contract and policy directions and manage information flows and customer expectations and forget (by accident or design) that the purpose of a website is to publish information.

    Intriguingly, the best Freedom of Information website is not run by the Government.

  • Comment number 49.


    As the website in question presents a static (albeit with some scripting) front-end, the type of hack you suggest seems unlikely to work to me - that sounds more like the sort of thing that dynamic front-ends are sometimes vulnerable to.

    But if I'm wrong, I hope you've emailed the website owner so they can fix it.

  • Comment number 50.

    I can tell you that the cost of developing and maintaining the Lyons Inquiry website (for Sir Michael's investigation into Local Government, now archived at was close to £zero as we (the Inquiry Team) had to do all the work in-house, in addition to our main jobs. If you need confirmation of this, ask the man himself.

  • Comment number 51.

    As for the rest of the comments...

    There is a balance to be struck. Yes, the demands of many government websites are greater than many amateur efforts. But often, they are not very far away... My own website would put the cost per visitor ratio of many government websites to such shame as to the point of being jaw-dropping. And my website could accommodate an awful lot more visitors before it had to increase costs. I'm sure this is true of many other independent websites.

    People who have worked in IT in the public sector will probably recognise the tale of budgets being spent on overblown external enterprises. Transferring money from public sector budgets to private enterprise isn't necessarily bad - in many ways it's a good thing - it stimulates the economy and moves money around. But when it's transferred to companies who are incompetent or who deliberately over-complicate systems just so they can dig their claws into public money and wrap their over-complicated technical tentacles around government systems in order to extract - leech-like - the most amount of money possible, then that's bad for everyone.

    The IT budget would be better spent across a wider variety of honest companies who charge less and don't seek to complicate things more than they need to. That's better from a fairness point of view, and it's also better for the economy at large.

    Here's a crazy idea: what if many public-sector organisations deliberately bought in IT services that they knew were inefficient, just so they'd have something easy to cut when the 'nasty' Tories came along with an axe (and, ironically, perhaps causing the need for cuts in the first place)?

    In that case, I'd suggest cutting the obvious, then going the extra mile to cut out the managers who thought that was a good idea.


    The BBC's CMS is absolutely fascinating from what I've read, and based on what I've read, I question the logic of their suppliers and IT managers, but their IT people must be quite incredible to achieve what they have. If you're reading, BBC IT people, you must be seriously brilliant to make a website like this in the face of that sort of problem. My hat's off to you, you deserve a medal.

  • Comment number 52.

    What is most interesting about the Energy Saving Trust bidding for Google Ads is not that it bid against the Department for Energy but that it was bidding at all.

    The private sector has given us lead generation businesses highly knowledgable about SEO that control the information we are most likely to find using a search engine. Since switching supplier rather than cavity wall insulation is the lead generation that energy companies pay for that is the information all of us are fed. Government policy which favours cavity wall insulation using grants across all political parties has to advertise to communicate its message.

  • Comment number 53.

    There are several root issues here:

    1. We are living in the past. Web design and hosting technology has evolved so quickly, few have any idea of it's capabilities and the ease with which large capacity systems can be provided by SME's with the right expertise and infrastructure. Indeed, we provide systems for extremely high demand customers with ease and at extremely low cost.

    2. The procurement process in the UK is broken. Government Officers have very little choice as to who they use for products and services, and are often forced to use large expensive providers rather than local SMEs to deliver even the simplest of systems. Indeed, some procurement offices clump requirements together thus making it easier for themselves but making application by SME's impossible. The procurement process itself is too complicated and very biased towards larger companies with unrealistic limits which immediately exclude SMEs. And don't even get me started on the CPV system! Whatever happened to good old common sense and judgement?

    3. The provision of centralised business advice services has been tried and tried again with little or no value to the majority of SME's. Business Link and UKTI are nowhere near as effective as they would make us believe. Unless you know exactly how they operate, you have a high chance of bouncing off, disillusioned and confused.

    The world is changing. The SME market is starting to take advantage of powerful Social Networking technology putting real advice, guidance and collaboration opportunities at their fingertips making huge clunky websites obsolete. People want to get advice from real people that they have formed a relationship with not wade through a sea of information on a website.

    So, what next? Well, watch this space; the identification of these kinds of wasteful follies is just the start. I think it is refreshing that Government is starting to ask "Where is the value?". The more they ask, the more they will realise that large clunky government services have been wasting vast sums of money with little or no value and that Businesses can survive and flourish without them. All we need is the ability to work together and support one another.

    We have the expertise and the will to dig this country out of this recession without wasteful organisations. All we need to do is collaborate! and if the Government wants to support us they could do worse than try a little deregulation and TAX relief for businesses. The rest we can do ourselves!

    Contaversial? Perhaps, but I am not alone.

  • Comment number 54.

    I know of some examples of Government websites where developers are charging £2000 per MONTH and then using a virtually FREE system like to make the website.

    Things won't improve until web developers stop ripping off the government. Anyone remember the fiasco, that was a Wordpress Template that cost £100k?

  • Comment number 55.

    The standards are so variable:

    The Best: NHS jobs website - a very slick online application form (this for general employment, not the specialist junior medics one).

    Good: The one for taxing your car.

    Poor: The one for paying for a season ticket for prescription tax - clunky and asks for unnecessary information.

    Absolutely appallingly bad: Online application for JSA. Poor design, badly-worded questions, help that doesn't, very clunky.

    Non-existant - HM Customs. Try getting a parcel out of the Coventry International Hub. They cannot even accept an e-mailed invoice, and rarely answer their telephone either.

  • Comment number 56.

    Because so much info's on web sites, nobody answers their phones in Government Offices anymore - or rings back either. They hope us punters will search their eites instead.
    Maybe that saves their time and our money?
    I believe we should find out what the alternatives are before we rush to dismantle web-sites.

  • Comment number 57.

    "This may sound a bit abstract, but consider this there are a couple of million small companies in the UK and from next year they will be unable to file returns on paper. They must use in-line XBRL."

    As complicated and costly as XBRL is, I don't think there can be any justification in 2010 for paper-based regulatory reporting.

    A much better solution would be to remove the reporting requirement for small companies altogether. The merits of corporation tax are doubtful even for large companies, but it is certainly unreasonable to burden small companies with the compliance and avoidance costs. The economy would do much better (and overall tax receipts would be higher), if these companies were left free to focus on what they do best.

  • Comment number 58.

    There are a number of fundamental issues relating to the websites developed for public sector bodies. Many of them have been commented on before but here are a few things that return to the beginning of any development process.

    What is the purpose of the website?
    By establishing this, a better result can be achieved for the end user. This is a fundamental issue for all web development and should be considered at the start of the project.

    Keep to a core message in the site. Many sites become a dumping ground for all information irrespective of the fact that it is not relevant to the purpose of the site.

    Consider the people who use the website. Most websites that I have had to deal with in a professional capacity have been organisationally focused not user focused. Who are they, what are they looking for, and what tasks are possible to achieve on the site. All these actions should be self evident and instinctive to the user.

    I have just used the car tax payment system on the DVLA site. There is one small user issue on this site that can cause many to have difficulty when using the site to pay their car tax. Fix this and many more people will have a better experience when paying tax! (Bit of an oxymoron there!)

    I could write a thesis on this subject but the book will have to do.

    The Government has an obligation to inform the citizenship of this country and a website should be an inexpensive method of doing this.

    The websites should be checked through and those that do not work for the user should be taken down.

  • Comment number 59.

    #57. mrg wrote:

    "A much better solution would be to remove the reporting requirement for small companies altogether"

    I'd go along with that.

    The problem is that HMRC want to collect data and they don't care what its quality is like, if it will be of any use or most importantly what it costs to collect. This is why XBRL for small companies is an appallingly silly burden to add to small companies administration. Studies have shown that XBRL attempted compliance produces quite poor data that is full of errors even from the largest of companies (see Microsoft).

    The fools at the HM Treasury are completely oblivious of the enormous cost they are putting on small companies to absolutely no benefit to anyone.

  • Comment number 60.

    #58. Nigel T Packer wrote:

    "I have just used the car tax payment system on the DVLA site."

    There is a bigger issues - the fact that the DVLA are 'an office of profit under the crown' (I know it is the wrong terminology, but it fits nicely!) That is they have been sold off.

    So we are prevented from abolishing Car Tax and putting up fuel tax to compensate! (if we wanted to!)

    Many Government web sites are like this. The ossify the current situation simply by existing and prevent change and this is not always a good thing!

  • Comment number 61.

    @ Paul (No.3)

    There is a difference between making a very simple website with a few static pages, vs. making a large enterprise system with a back-end database, customisation features for end users, content management features for admins to manage the site, that also needs to scale to 1000's of users, cope with a lot of content, and be secure, accessible, and work across a range of web browsers and devices, as well as all the computing programming code needing to be written to make all that stuff work.

    Hey guess what, I can build a house by throwing a load of bricks onto a pile, there ye go, a house. Building a house is really easy, I don't know why these professional builders, architects and designers, who have got university degrees in their fields and built up experience over 10 years, charge so much for building a house when I can do it in 5 mins.

  • Comment number 62.

    @ Guy Hoogewerf

    Because people's time costs money, £2000 per month for a single developer seems a decent wage to me, anything less and that developer/designer would be better off flipping burgers at McDonalds. Also they may be using an existing open-source CMS, but it still takes time to set-up and install, customise to clients requirements, create a custom design, add custom features, train the client in the use of the CMS, deal with a clients ever changing requirements etc. etc. A professional web developer doesn't go through an expensive 3/4 year university degree to earn a pittance and put up with that.

  • Comment number 63.

    Another issue is that the procurement process that public sector orgs have to go through is designed (reasonably enough) to minimise risk and ensure good value for tax payers money, but these are inflexible and lead to only the largest (and more expensive) contractors being able to win decent contracts.

    We are an SME web development company and often we fail to pass through a PQQ phase for a public sector contract because we've only got 3 year's trading history or because we have less than 50 employees. A larger agency/consultancy will then win the contract and outsource it back to us to do the work, they of course add a hefty margin to the fees.

    Sometimes this is a sensible approach because the large org will provide additional services, but other times, and particularly if the client is experienced, there isn't a great deal of value in their input, also depending on the skill set of the small suppliers sometimes there is duplication of effort in areas like strategy and project management.

    In my limited experience this seems to happen across all areas of public sector procurement not just digital.

  • Comment number 64.

    The Potato Marketing Board (now called the British Potato Council) maybe a quango, but it is entirely funded by a levy on the potato industry rather than from government coffers.

    What it does with its money is only the concern of potato farmers.

    Using it as an example of government profligacy is both misleading and irrelevant.

  • Comment number 65.

    I'm a web developer who has for the past five years worked on sites specifically for local/central government. Most of these were fully fledged web applications designed to run entire departments (building control, environmental health, leisure services etc) however we also often created the types of sites the story is related to. The company I worked for was fairly small (less than 10 people). Time and time again we displaced large corporate outfits who were charging many times more for something that wasn't even remotely as good. The general consensus amongst most of the N.Irish local councils was that they'd prefer a local company with direct dial numbers to the people who wrote the software. If they needed a small change the person who answered the phone would usually do it there and then. Unfortunately sometimes councils/governments view themselves as far too important to be dealing with a small companies. Disappointing the council of the constituency where the company is based had recently achieved city status and couldn't possibly consider risking their important data with a company like ours so they chose the big corporate outfit. Their software was 3 years late and by the time they'd received it we had our software running in 21 of the 26 councils. With RPA and council merging happening in the next few months it's fairly obvious that they have just created themselves a lot more work (AND WILL COST ME AS I LIVE IN THE CONSTITUENCY!!!) as the 3 councils they're about to merge with all use our software. I expect there is similar problems across the UK. If you don't have Microsoft tattooed on your forehead and aren't charging £30k for a basic website, you can't be any good!

  • Comment number 66.

    Here's an idea. Get rid of Martha Lane Fox!

    What does she actually know about business or websites? Correct me if I am mistaken, please, but wasn't she the woman who (with a partner) brought us - the website that never really did what it promised and cost venture capitalists a fortune?

    I'm don't know her personally, and she's probably a nice person, but MLF is the kiss of death when it comes to tech.

  • Comment number 67.

    At the other end of the scale we have Government entities like Broadband UK that do not have a web site and are conducting important work on increasing broadband coverage without any public visibility or scrutiny.

  • Comment number 68.

    Why don't hmg employ their own website building dept.
    Surely it's cheaper to employee a 100 web designers then it is to employ 100 consultants who then out source the work.
    I realise that this might be akin to a socialist principle (employing someone to do the job) but it would be cheaper and more efficient.
    But I suppose the dogmatic capitalist approach to employment these days wouldn't allow such an idea the light of day, especially from a tory government

  • Comment number 69.

    Maybe elements of my last post were a little too tongue-in-cheek for such a serious website.

  • Comment number 70.

    One of the problems with government websites is that they are trying to serve everyone and do everything. Many of the best websites try and do one thing well and government sites rarely achieve this.

    My own interest is access to regulatory data, which is often incredibly detailed and useful - but buried deep within pdf documents and impenetrable websites. Although not as bad as it was, the website for regulator of care homes was so poor that we built - the idea being to use government data but do one job well (in this case help people find care homes).

    This leads me to my final point - many government websites could be avoided if they simply provided a decent API to the data and then let geeks, hackers and businesses come up with all sorts of innovative ways of presenting this to the public. We extracted data directly from 130,000 pdf documents because there was no API - but there is a simpler way!

  • Comment number 71.

    The problem with Government websites is that the people making qualitative decisions (like specifying content), like a lot of the British management class, don't understand the medium.

    They ask IT experts to perform a particular task, which they then do, only to find that the task specified wasn't what was really needed after all and hasn't had the desired outcome.

    In so many walks of life, including the most obvious of supermarkets, the best management is by people who know how the different levels in their organisations work - because they have come up through the ranks - so until we have those in senior civil service positions whose careers have fully embraced computing (they are probably in their late 30s/early 40s now), catastrophic and costly 'failures' will continue.

    Ironically, it is probably the case now that the current Cabinet Ministers - being generally younger than their Permanent Secretaries - are better able to run their Departments than at any time past...

  • Comment number 72.

    Perhaps you don't understand the internet.

    The cost-per-visitor is dependent on several things; firstly, in the initial period after a site is put up, the cost of development. This varies. Some development teams (designers/developers) can command over a hundred pounds an -hour- for their work. Then, it depends if you have your own datacenters. If you do, then your costs there are for hardware, electricity, staff (for maintenance), and property rent. If you own the property involved, this cost is obviously only paid once in theory, but then has to be paid again if you need more space for server racks.

    You might not own your datacenters, however. Instead, you might buy space at someone else's. This means a running, per-month (or per-annum) cost with no single, large outlays to recoup. Further, it means cost per gigabyte instead of cost for hardware; if you have your own hardware, you just replace the links when necessary and pay for more connections to the network (IE, more cable). If you have multiple networks in one area, you might need uplinks between them that aren't dependent on someone else - this might be a laser link, it might be cable links... All involve cost.

    If you rent, then you need to pay for bandwidth and storage space.

    Bandwidth per gigabyte has no average because it simply can't be worked out; various hosts charge different prices. Even the cloud isn't reliable for figuring out an average cost; each cloud provider charges totally different figures based on their own costs, which in turn are reliant on the areas they have datacenters, and so on.

    It's therefore a very, very complex issue, and incredibly difficult to define financial performance when no direct fiscal profit is involved.

    Eleven pounds a visitor is, however, clearly very expensive. What this suggests is that there are far fewer visitors than expected, and more was spent on infrastructure than is required. If we assume the 20% figure in your update was correct, and thus divide by five, we're at two pounds and thirty five pence - this is better, but still absolutely awful.

    I attempted to set up a social networking website last year. I received something like 1.2 million unique visitors in three months. It still failed - users found the interface too confusing (I'll not get into why that is astonishing), based on feedback.

    My total cost for those three months was about four hundred pounds.

    That means, per visitor, my cost was 3.333333333333333e-4 pounds - in other words, a really, really tiny amount. In another way of seeing it, it cost me one pound for every 3,000 visitors.

    If that cost per visitor were applied to my site, I would have needed to net something like a billion visits per month.

    I have no idea how the government manages to waste that much money. Presumably, their primary cost is on development, and they are vastly overpaying. Potentially, the cost isn't really that high at all, and some people are getting very, very rich on skimming, in an area that almost nobody will notice...

    Further, you state that moving more services online would require more sites. Why is this, exactly? Does each service require it's own site? Surely this would mean that facebook, which provides about a dozen different features, should be a dozen websites?

    How exactly do you define "site"? Do you mean "page"? If it's costing ninety four million pounds to build 36 pages, I think someone is getting robbed.

  • Comment number 73.

    Note, a billion visitors per month was clearly wild overstatement. :p

  • Comment number 74.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 75.

    People who do not have in-depth information about web development and coding in general should refrain from commenting. Your broad, sweeping statements could not be any further from the truth. Essentially, what you're saying is "I made a program that prints hello world, its easy, anyone can do it. This is the same as microsoft making operating systems, why do they get paid so much?"

    The sheer scale and complexity of these websites are far beyond your grasp. You cannot do it yourself, it takes a serious wealth of experience and knowledge to design, code, and maintain these websites.

  • Comment number 76.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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