Late last year Martha Lane Fox published a raft of recommendations intended to revolutionise the UK Government's online services. At the launch of her report.
"Government should take advantage of the more open, agile and cheaper digital technologies to deliver simpler and more effective digital services to users."
Another of her recommendations was a shift to "a service culture, putting the needs of citizens ahead of those of departments". She also made a strong case for the UK Government to adopt a single web domain, analogous to the BBC's use of BBC.co.uk
Announced in late March, the alpha.gov.uk project is a response to some - but not all - of the challenges laid down in Martha's report. It has two overarching objectives:
- To test, in public, a prototype of a new, single UK Government website.
- To design & build a UK Government website using open, agile, multi-disciplinary product development techniques and technologies, shaped by an obsession with meeting user needs.
At launch, the prototype (or 'alpha') will be far from complete. The alpha is not intended to be an instant replacement for dozens of gov.uk sites. Neither will it improve the quality of government's online transactions - others are working hard on these.
What the alpha will do is test a selection of new, reusable products aimed at meeting some, but by no means all, of the needs people have from government online. But it’s important to note that these products are, essentially, demonstration models only. They are not intended to replace existing products and warning signs will be placed on the site to that effect.
As an example of one of these needs, every year a surprising number of people mislay their passports, and turn to the web for help. In this instance, the steps you need to take depend heavily on your precise circumstances. Was your passport lost or stolen? Are you in the UK? If so, where? If not, which country are you in?
The team has developed what is hopefully a simple solution to this surprisingly complex problem. The alpha will trial a range of such products (guides, tools, decision trees, answer pages, calculators etc.). In essence, the alpha will test new formats, but will be very far from a comprehensive product.
However, the prototype will also herald a new information architecture (IA), suited for a single government website. This architecture assumes users:
- Begin their journeys on a search engine (as the vast majority do)
- Want to minimise the time they spend on a gov.uk site
- Do not understand anything about the structure of Government in the UK
A new, user-centric IA is an essential prerequisite to the introduction of a more flexible, cheaper, shared technology platform, again as per Martha's recommendations.
Mirroring the new IA is a single government brand to replace the myriad of different departments or agencies logos, all presented differently. More on the thinking behind the brand in a later post.
Notably, everything is being designed for the Internet, not just for the Web. In English, this means that everything the team makes could be easily syndicated to non-Government sites, or quickly made suitable for new Internet platforms such as mobile or IPTV.
Normally an 'alpha' would not be made public. You normally opens the doors at a later, 'beta', phase in a site's development. In this instance, we think it's vital to get real feedback from users on what is a relatively radical product approach.
What is also radical, albeit primarily in the context of Government, is how this alpha has been developed. Of which, much more to follow.