All right gov? Can government do the web?

Screenshot of

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

Instant translation – no longer sci-fi

Automated translation is no longer the stuff of sci-fi fiction, since Skype launched a beta version of its Translator service.

Read full article

More on This Story

More from Rory


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Governments are ripped by by "consultancies" whenever they venture into IT. Until these charlatans are disposed of nothing will change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Does it scare people to know that a massive department of Government officials can achieve less that one guy sitting in his basement?

    Modeling at the wrong level of abstraction. Meetings about meetings, purchase of tools & having no one who can use them. NOT capturing the target audience.
    It's the curse of any big entity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    With the increasing threat of cyber war is it justified for our Government to give Cyber Warriors the opportunity to hack steel un-amounts of Personal data from a Web-Site's Database???
    It does not matter what security is put in place for any sort of attack because it will be bypassed with great ease especially with today's technology and behond!
    Keep Personal Data away from the internet way forwa

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Fine. No problem.

    I just hope that the setup is

    a) responsive to user issues. Nothing is perfect at launch.
    b) prperly employs and rewards good IT people for hard work.
    c) keeps out the management consultants who have done more than anyone else to screw up delivery and waste public money on past projects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    At the moment it looks like this is a lick of paint in some areas, as when you actually try to do something like apply for a car tax disk it goes to the old direct gov page.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I don't know anything about designing websites but if I can find what I want on them and they're clear and simple to use then that's all I'm concerned about.
    Just tried and it seems to work fine and is easy to navigate so it gets my thumbs up so far.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    @Graphis #83

    > All too often, websites are put together by developers/programmers,
    > and then handed over to a "designer" who's sole task is to
    > window-dress it

    Of the last 100 websites I've built, that has been the case in 0 of them

    @Everyone else who doesn't understand the subject matter and thinks websites are javascript frameworks, mySQL and a domain


  • rate this

    Comment number 83.


    Exactly. All too often, websites are put together by developers/programmers, and then handed over to a "designer" who's sole task is to window-dress it. This is a mistake: everyone needs to contribute to every stage in order to achieve the total integration of ease/functionality/aesthetics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    The less technically minded measure progress on what they can see, basically how pretty the website looks.

    Like when a car manufacturers declares a future new model.
    If people see a rolling chassis, they'll say it hasn't even been started.
    If people see a polished empty shell, they'll say its almost finished.

    This is why there are so many websites which lack logical functionality...

  • rate this

    Comment number 81. is a great example of "Responsive Web Design" - this means accessing on a smartphone or tablet is a good experience with the site resizing for the device of the user. It's also a very efficient way to host content. The Government, being efficient, who would have thought it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    78. Nick
    "Design is irrelevant"

    You're making the fundamental mistake that "design" simply means making something look pretty. On the contrary, design is applying creative thought to the entire experience and functionality, which includes the look. It is creative/technical problem-solving, not just aesthetics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Most of the site is applicable to England only and fails to provide for the different arrangements in Scotland Wales and NI. A complete waste of time and money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I think it's a great idea and who cares about design really? You're not shopping for a new car, you're paying to have it taxed! So design is irrelevant.

    What is good is that the site is laced with keywords meaning that searching online for what you need will direct you to the correct section more efficiently.

    It's about time things on the government's web side of things were more centralised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Your kidding me right? Since when has the Government done anything with IT correctly that warrants this being tip top? Who cares what costs it saves regarding domains and blah blah blah what matters is the RIGHT information and the RIGHT forms with the RIGHT advice!

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    I haven't gone through it all, because I simply don't have the time, but it's a good start: given the sheer amount of info required it was always going to be difficult to please everyone. But it's clean and simple, easily navigable. At the moment, it's still a little 'lite' on detail, but hopefully that will improve, without it getting bogged down. Definitely an improvement on before.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Tried it and succeeded in getting information on HMRC and an LPA with some effort.

    What is a delight is the lack of pointless graphics etc which just waste time and bandwidth. The BBC used to have a great text only news website until it replaced it with its mobile site.

    The web is a mess full of poorly designed sites and it is not just government to blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    @ 67. ArsenalFan

    You attempted to go to because you thought that was the mobile site? And then you go on to complain about out-dated websites? Separate sites for mobile devices are outdated - the main site re-formats for your phone, just as any modern website would. This gives you the full content of the main site, and at a much lower cost than running two different sub-domains.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    It is still nightmarish... nobody has stepped back to look at the underlying systems and get them right first. Form design is still appalling - I'd not let BTEC students get away with such sloppy work. Navigation is very hit and miss - it's easier to use Google to find what you want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I don't mean to sound too rude, but small government for small minds comes to..erm mind!

    We need data, not beta (pronounced in american)..sorry that was awful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    The Businesslink website was not perfect by any means, but it, contentwise, still made a lot of sense. Peel the onion and there was information, guides and direction.

    This haskilled all of that. Suddenly I have a poorly presented information bureau. I am sure that al the backbone stuff is all neat and tidy in the iT sense. As a well presented information full tool for business people it is not.


Page 1 of 5



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.