All right gov? Can government do the web?

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Can the government run one decent and cost-effective website, which gives customers speedy access to vital information and services? Unlikely, you might think given a track record of over spending on far too many sites that deliver a poor user experience at a hefty cost.

But today sees the launch of which seeks to change all that. The vision is of one website to rule them all - or rather a single destination for the government's customers rather than more than 400 different addresses spread across the various Whitehall departments.

If this is to work it is going to need a change of culture, from one where the government viewed its web operations as something to be farmed out to some giant suppliers and forgotten, to something far more responsive.

When I visited the Government Digital Service - now in charge of this operation - there were some encouraging signs. At first glance the office appeared to be awash with T-shirts and ponytails, more like a technology firm than a government department, though with much worse coffee and no free food.

In the foyer was a huge picture of Martha Lane Fox, whose report on the government's web presence urging revolution not evolution had led to this new approach. Her portrait was covered in post-it notes, and in front of it was a group of developers brainstorming some ideas.

But what I really liked was the Wall of Shame, with examples of terrible web practice - and a printout of a blog post. It was headlined The £105m website, and was a piece I wrote two years ago about the huge cost of one government site,, which had cost £35m a year to build and run for three years.

It was typical of an era when civil servants with little knowledge of what was involved in building and maintaining a site were content to entrust the job to the "experts" at one of the few IT firms deemed substantial enough to win the contract.

Now, two things may be changing. There is a drive to get smaller firms involved in public sector web contracts, and in the Government Digital Service there is now a central pool of skills rather than a lot of separate units at each department, all trying to do their own thing.

"There was a lack of digital skills at the centre" the man showing me round told me, "which is why things like the £35m site happened."

Many of the people working to hit today's deadline were new to the civil service - it appears there was a big clearout after the Lane Fox report - and one imagines many will move on to other jobs soon. But the idea is that will not be a project that's built and then just sits there but a work in progress, continually evolving as the world around it.

Will the customers notice any difference? To start with, is only replacing Direct Gov and that notorious Business Link, with the departmental sites following later. The new site is very sparse and simple, a Google-like interface designed to get you quickly to what you need. "Simpler, clearer, faster", is the promise on the site - and "cheaper" is supposed to be the other watchword. Nothing to set the heart racing, but then that's not the aim: "We hope most people don't notice," my guide told me.

Ask most people to do some word association about the government and computers, and you can bet the words "disaster", "billions" and "shambles" will be prominent. So a low profile for this new venture may be no bad thing.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Talk is cheap, i'm an engineer and i've worked with the best and the worst in my field. One thing that makes the worst stick out like a sore thumb is they talk too much (a lot of c**p), great for impressing the technically incompetent, but not great for getting the job done.

    It's part of whats known in psychology as the "Halo effect".

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    My website has been up and running for over 9 years and is run by volunteers from around the world it can boast being down only once in 24 hours as we moved to another ISP total cost to run inclusive of unlimited bandwidth £8 per month

    looking at that £25 million figure makes my eyes water

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    A cost-effective government plan? Do me a favour. Earlier this year, this government casually decided to scrap the Royal Air Force Nimrod MRA4 maritime reconnaissance fleet, thus throwing roughly £3.5 BILLION of tax-payers' hard-earned money down the drain. "Cost-effective" is a term that means nothing to any of them, unless applied to more cast-iron ways of fiddling their expenses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Websites designed to take your cash work very well e.g. the DVLA tax disc but any site that includes FAQ's is specifically designed to deter interaction with users and frustrate the public. 'Electronic walls' are used by utilities and govt depts to avoid us. The systems suppliers know this and that is why they get all the contracts, the cost is irrelevant to our public servants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    One thing is sure, someone in government is making a fortune out of it or they wouldn't do it !

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @21 The cost at the moment seems to be around the £5m mark for a year of Alpha and Beta testing and development.

    @22 I don't think this is the case here. The people behind this are clearly very good. The GDS team have been blogging about the development of this site for a while now and it makes interesting reading. I'm pretty sure they won't be needing to install printers anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    How much did this new site cost? We know the budgets for both and Business Link were transferred to this team to set it up but what was the total. The ads I saw for develoers were offering big salaries, can't be much of a saving and from what I've seen they are doing a lot less than the old websites.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    as an example go to the DVLA site and try to get a replacement tax disk, replace a lost licence, change your registration document address or any of the things you expect to be able to do and see just what we get for £25m. Goverment IT is a joke run by the same suspects for years while competent UK IT companies can't even get into the oak panelled office to hand over the brown envelope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I agree, it'll go the same way.....
    Clever business in the private sector, employ experienced and tallented IT folk, who may or may not have official qualifications.
    Public sector employs only uni grads with "computer science" degree's, muppets who (speaking from direct experience) can't even install a printer or reformat a HDD.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    This website replaces both Businesslink and DirectGov. The DirectGov website cost £25m to run, most of the money (£15m) was spent on staff and what has happened to the staff that were running DirectGov. Yes you guessed it they are running this new 'revolutionary' website. I'd be interested to know how much it cost to scrap both legacy sites and create this one. Not much of a saving I'll bet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @19. Cid Looking at the history of the GDS team and the manner and reasons it was founded, I'm optimistic that it won't happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Forever forgotten is that the Business Link site was once very good, but was then outsourced by Labour to Serco some five years ago. Serco made a huge profit from it, while adding very little, all in the name of reducing the number of people employed by the government directly. Who wants to bet this new site goes the same way in a few years' time?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Little_Old_Me: By doing a shedload of research & finding out what users actually want to find out!
    the6ftmoose: By not running it as a gov IT project, but as a web team who happen to do gov sites
    Hastings: Bit of both - as the depts don't have content design and web copywriting skills, but are experts, so content is created by professionals and checked by experts.
    BAmberGas: Yes, Tested for a year

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    To counter the mostly negative piece from RCJ, I have used the gov websites for all manner of things [car tax / passports / HMRC etc] and think it is going well. We just need more positivity - as always in the UK - but especially from the media, incl RCJ.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.


  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    What is the betting though that once you have found the information you want then contact the person/department etc that you need to speak to put the actual wheels in motion you still find, more often than not, that what they website said about whatever doesn't apply to you, or seemingly anyone else you know...???

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Have to agree with 8. harriyott - it seems a vast (welcome) improvement on other Govt. sites (eg. HMRC...)

    Mind you, quite why someone felt the need to add a prominent note reminding us that the clocks go back on 28 October is a bit baffling...I'm now waiting for one telling us how many shopping days are left until Xmas

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @7 The answer is private sector contracts, that's where the money goes. Direct employment of web developers rather than expensive sub-contracting the is the way forward.

    The problem is, people just see admin costs of the salaries of these in-house experts and don't consider the saving which are made by not going externally. I'm amazed that DC didn't fire all the web developers to 'save' money !

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I think they struggle to be 'cost effective' because they just say what they want done and do it without any thought for the cost. They will employ some company who will charge massive prices and it will be paid for with tax payers cash.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Information is best conveyed from person to person. Thus far all this electronic information has not given us a good liveable planet. Let we focus on the real issues we need to improve on. For your information Google The World Monetary Order to Come.


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