All right gov? Can government do the web?
- 17 October 2012
- From the section Technology
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 www.gov.uk 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, Businesslink.gov.uk, 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 gov.uk 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, gov.uk 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.