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 50.

    I'm resisting the urge to have a rant about "Flash" websites and "virtual catalogs". The web should easy to use, but not simplified (for idiots) to the point where functionality is impaired to the point of extreme irritation.
    Often when a website (or anything really) is overly simplified it becomes entirely illogical in the hands of experienced users.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    "More to the point can anyone run a decent, cost effective website when it has no one focus and instead ranges over thousands of subject areas....."
    Well, yes. Most (even amateur) webmasters can. All they need is a good search database script such as MySQL or similar. The problem is what do they want to include and exclude from public view, and how easy to access it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Visually I think it's unappealing and it appears to have been written for a short-sighted 12-year-old. It's not easy to find stuff and it's full of redirects to existing gov websites or to DirectGov. Amusingly, I found a link that says "More information on the HMRC website" which actually takes you to a Home Office page.

    Please tell me this is still in beta...

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    The thing is, the design and usability of is amazing and timeless on this new site, however the content still lacks & is it is still way to hard to find the information that is needed.

    It also hasn't completely replaced because clicking several links takes you to the orange forms that are ridiculously long and hard to use.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    "Can the government run one decent and cost-effective website"

    Simple answer: No

    Why?: Because as soon as "government" and "IT" are put into the same sentence you know the cost will be in the billions of pounds, nobody will be able to decide on what the actually want it to do, and it will be the usual mash-up of a "make do" system that doesn't work properly

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    @ 42 - failure of IT systems is likely to be down to limited, no or insufficient requirement specification OR scope creep!

    @ 44 - agreed, but see above - sometimes the business doesn't 'know' what it wants so the developers and testers have to 'best-guess' to hit a deadline, resulting in a system that does what its designed to but the design doesn't meet (the non-existant) requirements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Thanks for that assurance, not sure whether I posed the right question in that case!
    Maybe I meant tested for practical design that yields a useful outcome. I'm an electronic systems engineer, so can turn a line of code when I have to but I still encounter sites that seem to have been designed to be impenetrable to all but dedicated Asperger sufferers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    @ 14 Isitonlyme: the reason for making this information so prominent is user research. At this time of year, trying to find out when the clocks go back is one of the most searched-for things - a 'top task' - so why not make it as easy as possible?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

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

    It isn't the civil servants; just look at the fees paid to consultants and IT firms. And since the 80s, the top layer have been convinced that private does it better but most of the big failures were privatised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    @22 That's not true.

    The Civil Service Technology in Business Fast Stream does not only recruit computer science graduates. The key requirement is an interest in technology and a keen, customer-focused attitude. The scheme and the Government IT profession are relatively new, but both are beginning to reap substantial rewards, as evidenced by and the success of

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I tried to find out, recently, about the categories of vehicles that are included on my driving licence.

    I looked at DVLA website. No help. I called them, no answer. I called 5 times, no answer.

    I called the police - they didnt know, told to call local council

    Council asked if I had called the police.

    Called DVLA, who wouldnt tell me "you should know".

    And a website would help?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Our Government and civil service have never ever done anything that is cost effective. Civil service budgets are based around which department can get an ever increasing size of the pie.

    Whilst services decline, taxes increase and costs increase. The civil service knows nothing about efficiency and doing a good job. Just look at the endless mistakes from the Revenue, Benefits and contracts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I was trying to find some information about pensions today. I was redirected to the new website - were I could not find what I needed.
    I had to use Google.
    As I am an experienced user, this is not a good start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Websites designed to take your cash work very well e.g. the DVLA tax disc site
    The Income tax site too, it's a doddle to use

    Sites where we receive cash from the government... welll

    There WAS a for profit website which did the job for people for a child tax credit
    The government looked at closing it down because this one site was creating a situation where the benefit uptake was too high

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    A cost-effective government plan? Dream on. Earlier this year, this government decided to scrap the Royal Air Force Nimrod MRA4 maritime reconnaissance fleet, thus casually tossing 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 effective (ie more iron-clad) ways of fiddling their expenses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    #5 & #18
    As a tester of >18 yrs across a variety of business sectors, I still come across navigation & messages displayed to end-users in even very well-funded sites (HSBC online banking springs to mind for it's unhelpful messages) that really should not have got through formal system or user acceptance testing.
    No system can be perfect, but good testing really does go a long way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    A retailer can build its own website selling multiple products & services within its own budget yet still remain competitive as well as fully functional.

    Whats so different about government that it has to be an expensive disaster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    #31 a HALO is a noose 12 inches out of position in upward direction

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    IBM got sick of it, and invested millions in training programmers, till they were a dime a dozen.

    Well, one day, when I was sitting in my office, I
    thought of this little scheme, which would redress the
    balance a little. I thought 'I wonder what would happen, if
    there were a language so complicated, so difficult to learn
    that nobody would ever be able to swamp the market with

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    It's part of whats known in psychology as the "Halo effect"
    Politicians ALL suffer from it

    An interesting interview here about C++ and why it was made so massively complicated

    It might be a spoof... then again it might have a ring of truth...

    Bjarne Stroustrup
    I Did It For You All...


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