The UK Government Digital Service created by Minister Maude under the leadership of Mike Bracken (ex-Guardian) just released a much-awaited beta version of its new unified web site for public sector, at www.gov.uk.
This is still far from being a full replacement of the current government portal Directgov, but gives a pretty good idea of how things will develop. At face value, it doesn’t look better than many other government web sites, although it is said to provide more effective search capabilities. It provides categories to browse from, popular terms or services and then, for each category, a mixture of information people may be looking for and some services. The style of interaction does not look dissimilar from many other web sites, and it does not even provide the ability for people to tailor it to their needs (like redbridge i does for instance).
But the beauty of Gov.uk is supposed to be under the hood. As a review on the FT Tech blog puts it
Early testing on 2,000 people by civil servants cut by a third the time it took people to find information or complete a task. In some cases, dozens of pages have been whittled down to a multiple-choice process to guide users to their particular destination
If this is confirmed, it is well worth a suboptimal (at least for now) user interface. Also, what is being praised is the unusual development style, which is definitely closer to a start-up or one of the tech giants in Silicon Valley rather than a traditional government institution. The profile and resume of most developers in nothing like the usual government IT person.
There is an excellent review provided by Alex Howard, who also hints to the technology used. One thing that is missing though .- and this also pointed out in Alex’ article – is a clear path to making sure services and information on the new site can be used by multiple intermediaries.
There seems to be an inherent contradiction. On the one hand the UK government is pushing for open data and working to gov.uk as a platform. On the other hand the effort so far seems to be focused on making sure that people only use it. But wasn’t this Directgov’s initial idea? And hasn’t time proven that – especially with evolution toward web 2.0 and social media – people want to be in control of the channel and application they use to interact and transact with government?
UK politicians and government executives keep talking about citizen-centricity, and yet they seem to miss what it really means.
Case in point: In the e-government space, the UK government said many times that intermediaries are important.
The first intermediary policy that I ever saw in the world came actually from the UK in 2003. It was assuming (well before the term web 2.0 was invented) that people may wish to choose a different entity than a government organization to conduct government business (e.g. an insurance for health care, a bank for tax returns, an association for applying for school, and so forth). However their portal development strategy did not really apply that policy.
More recently (in 2007) they have been at the forefront of what would become the government 2.0 movement, and when I met Directgov executive two years ago I was told they were planning to support intermediaries and not act as the only point of contact. And yet, there has not been any visible development. A little over a year ago a Directgov review confirmed the ambiguity between being a service wholesaler or a retailer
Now, with the government pursuing more savings, there is an even greater momentum to close down existing government web sites and consolidate everything into a single web site of sort, which I assume is what gov.uk is the beta version of today.
So, what happened to the idea that people may get greater value from choosing a more natural contact point to interact with government? If there is value in allowing organizations to leverage open data to create dashboards and applications, why shouldn’t it be the same for services and information hosted by gov.uk? Why should I use it to know my council tax (this is one of the services they provide), if I’d rather use my council web site more frequently?
I am pretty sure that the techies at the GDS will tell that the gov.uk architectures supports it, that they just have to define the API, and that as everything is open source and cloud-based, it is almost a “piece of cake” (well, of course they would be more cautious, but as they are young and cool I have no doubt they would pull it out).
The problem is that this is not just a technical issue. It is a design issue. It is about asking yourself from the outset “is my web site the best way to deliver this service to a citizen? And, if not, how do I figure out the best channels and engage them?”. From what I read, there has been a lot of user involvement in designing the site: but I am not aware that there has been much effort invested into looking at a broader set of use cases and options.
So, what is Gov.uk going to become, when it grows up? A platform or yet another government single-point-of-contact?