A Christmas government website wish

Chris Cook
Policy editor, BBC Newsnight

image copyrightThinkstock

I have a really simple Christmas wish: Please can the government stop "improving" its websites.

If possible, a return to the sites we had in about 2009 would be ideal.

The recent redesign of departmental sites has been a calamity for government accountability.

I make no pretence that this isn't special pleading: I use government websites a lot and resent design changes.

But, usually, I get used to them and shrug them off. Not this time.

This time, it's proved impossible to adapt to a design that, as far as I can tell, was designed to irritate people like me.

This may be a surprise to some people - it is easier to perform some tasks online, like booking a prison visit.

And if you've heard of the GDS - Government Digital Service - redesign at all, it's probably because it is award-winning.

Maybe you have seen its high-minded design principles.

Where to start?

It also has fans.

Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, said the redesign "makes life better for millions of people… looks elegant, and [is] subtly British".

He added: "It is the Paul Smith of websites.

"The rest of the world is deeply impressed, and because it has rationalised multiple official websites, it saves the taxpayer millions - what's not to like?"

Where do I start?

It is often incredibly hard (and sometimes impossible) to find older documentation or data. Lots has simply been destroyed.

Given that a central role of most government websites is just to publish accountability information, that ought to be an existential problem for the GDS.

image copyrightThinkstock

Even if data is there, it's a faff to find.

For example, if I go to the Department of Health site and click "statistics" or "publications", they aren't the statistics for the DoH. They're the latest entries from anywhere in government.

At the time of writing, it's "exports of objects of cultural significance".

Part of this is a silly, one-size-fits-all design.

Last year, Mike Bracken, head of the GDS, told the BBC: "We had thousands of websites.

'Feat of ingenuity'

"And the only thing that was consistent was there was not a single consistent thing across any of them.

"It's quite a feat of human ingenuity to spend so much money on coming up with something that never looks the same."

So every department's page is now identical.

I'm no design guru, but I'm not sure of the benefit of this; in fact, I consider having websites that look differently to be a feature, not a flaw.

It's how I can tell where I'm browsing - because the things on the screen are visibly different. And the regularisation is, furthermore, destructive.

Lots of departments seem not to be allowed to have pages for sub-divisions of their ministries.

'Thematic pages'

They have weird "thematic pages" that make little logical sense.

The Department for Education has 21 "themes" to its work, lots of which are quite, er, vague.

Like, for example, reducing poverty and improving social justice. What goes in there?

The result is, if something you need is not on the front page, you may never be able to browse to things you want. You'll have to hope you can work out how to search for it.

Even if you do get them, though, things can still be tough.

The further education statistics used to be published sensibly; they are quite complicated and require unusual care in reading.

They had their own website where people who understood them laid them out in a logical order.

Loads of forms

At the same time, there are areas where you might want actual regularity across government - an email address for Freedom of Information requests on every government site, say?

But you don't get that. Some departments insist on making you fill out a load of forms. The GDS has regularised the irrelevant and allows variation in the essential.

There are also really simple things it can't do that (some) older government sites can.

You can use RSS readers to follow official announcements: that means you can be automatically notified every time a minister makes a speech.

But it won't do the same for official statistics. Why?

Maybe there are benefits to the government in this redesign: a single content management system might be a big saving for the civil service.

But - boy - it's come at a massive cost to site users.

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