All right gov? Can government do the web?

 
Screenshot of gov.uk

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.

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

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 70.

    I had the Jouney Planner bookmarked from Directgov and it takes me straight to the Plan your journey page on gov.uk. Exactly what is needed.

    BBC web users can find this site's link to Transport Direct on the Travel hompage.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 69.

    Propaganda and re-branding. Basically the just re-branding something they already have. Labour spent millions on great websites, then the Tories closed them all down for propaganda reasons. Just so they can get their message and content to the voters repackaged without reference to anything Labour did. BBC manages a huge amount of content and a large number of sites- so it can be done cheaply.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 68.

    Not a penny more should be spent on gov.uk until basic web access to the public sector web domains is freely available to 100% of Britons. Many people remain utterly unfamiliar with and totally disconnected from the WWW. What is the point of e-government if we don't have e-citizens?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 67.

    I read this article about a government web site, a change of culture and I think this could be interesting. I go online try m.gov.uk and receive a response of ‘page not found’ – excitement over.

    It is always the same. We are still paying over the odds for outdated sites.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 66.

    Reminds me of those marketing ads that show up on expired domain names.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 65.

    Oh this will be a good one!

    The Tories will outsource the government web to the private sector - their mates in the private sector who run the web sight will channel tens of millions of the public's taxes directly into their profit margins & they and their shareholders will get all the money.

    The Result - a government web site that is about as good as the public transport system in this country

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 64.

    suit 1: "oh. yes. we need a website". *makes a website*. suit 2: "ok. what is a website?"

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 63.

    No, is the simple answer.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 62.

    Why would the tories waste so much money, we set up some great options for everyone and created hundreds of job, they should leave it alone.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 61.

    I don't think any Government site, or sites will get anywhere, unless they sort out properly what to do about cookies. Go on any current site, and you have NO OPTION but to accept cookies. No refusals allowed! It's just ridiculous. There is a time and place for accepting cookies for identification, but not on the first blinkin' page! I complained, but nothing was ever done.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 60.

    Why was this built in Whitehall? Why not elsewhere in the uk where the skills are available at a lower rate? Or even at Tech city?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 59.

    @andy (#57) Probably because HTML5 video is only partially supported as of Trident v5 (IE9)?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 58.

    @dmcc (#55) It'll be NIDirect you want ( http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/ ) - NI's a wee bit ahead of GB on this sort of thing...

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 57.

    just tried to view the gov.uk site on an ipad, thought i'd take a look at the 'take the tour' video on the landing page, but oh wait the video is served in flash, html 5 anyone?

    good to see these 'new civil servants' know how to keep a project ticking over for a while!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 56.

    Cleaner faster simpler ?
    I followed a link to find my local councillor to be told: "Most of the data is accessible as XML or json data through a simple API (basically add .xml or .json to the main part of the URL). There is also a Google Gadget, an app for Hyperlocal sites using Ning, and a simple javascript widget."

    What could be easier ?

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 55.

    Oh it gets better. "All gov information in one place" is the dream. The reality? Well I searched for a register office based on a postcode in my home town in Northern Ireland (BT area). The top result? Llangefni. In Anglesey.

    "All gov info in one place" unless it's a devolved administration...

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 54.

    £4.8m so far and we have a site that doesn't seem to be showing any real back-end integration. So as a tax payer all I'm thinking we have paid for is a site redesign that just does a bit of deep linking using the old DirectGov system. For 4.8m I expect this site to be a lot further down the road, sorry Rory, this hasn't been done quietly, I've been fielding complaints all day about the site.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 53.

    I am puzzled as to how the government's Highways Agency can have unveiled a brand new website in the same week as the launch of gov.uk, which was supposed to do away with all these peripheral sites.

    Is this a case of civil servants saying one thing and doing another?

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 52.

    I do not agree with this comment: '...and one imagines many will move on to other jobs soon.'

    The most exciting part of a project like this is seeing the design in the 'wild' and understanding how people are using it. I would be surprised if the team started moving on at the most exciting time of the project.

    Well done GDS!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 51.

    48.dmcc
    Absolutely spot on sir!

    50 Birchy.
    I think DMCC has hit the nail on the head - usability and a useful outcome is what the web should be about, hence my doubts based on previous experience of government sites.

 

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