https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2011/04/28/jfdi-gov-uk/

Towards a simpler, smaller, nimbler, cheaper, better gov.uk

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:

  1. To test, in public, a prototype of a new, single UK Government website.
  2. 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.

10 comments

  1. James Munro

    Hi Tom et al

    Great to see how much progress you have made in such a short time – and good luck for launch!

    In the meantime.. is there a RSS/Atom feed for the blog anywhere?

    Reply
  2. Jamie Arnold

  3. James Munro

    Thanks – just the job!

    Reply
  4. Charlotte Beckett

    Am I a lone voice here thinking this site is disfunctional? This site is about access to content, not entertainment. Why is the “traditional” site layout, which for years people have learnt to read and use, totally thrown out?

    Agreed that a search box is a great way to start the content journey, but what if I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for? I get a few suggested search terms but they’re a bit confusing. Is this free text? I type something in, a bunch of suggested options come up. None are right. I’m a bit foxed. So I look for the more traditional navigation to find the relevant section.

    I look top left and across the top. That’s where I know it is on websites. But I can’t see anything. All I have on my screen is a massive image and a search box. Confused, I probably give up. As it would never occur to me that the navigation would be bottom right over the fold.

    I think you get the point. This is not an entertainment site. I want information. I want content. Even as someone who does digital, who sees a lot whacky consumer sites, I still read the page in the traditonal way. Has this actually be user tested with a broad cross section of “real” people rather than us industry folk?

    I really really think this is a brilliant idea. But I’m not convinced in its current it’s fit for purpose.

    Reply
  5. Anon

    Charlotte Beckett, I think this is why it says “Alpha” on the tin.

    Reply
  6. Russell

    I can’t see why this is an improvement on Directgov, Business Link etc.

    As an example, currently if you are on Directgov – or have Googled ‘Employment tribunals’ – and you’re the person attending one – you have already defined your self as a member of the public so know Directgov is the place to be. The ‘solution’ on alphagov is to be presented with a question asking you what kind of user you are. Eg ‘are you attending a tribunal or are you a professional working on one?’ Why is this more efficient? – it’s another click straight away.

    Effort should rather be put on making sure all transactions are on Directgov – and all public-facing information is off ALL other sites. Mixing audiences on one site is the antithesis of what Directgov has tried to achieve.

    Reply
  7. Lawrence

    Charlotte, have a look at a couple of pages:

    http://alpha.gov.uk/browse.html – Browse… everything

    http://alpha.gov.uk/government/departments/education/ – this will be familiar.

    For me this is exciting. Considering the budget and resources it is amazing how much this prototype delivers.

    Just think about how many Gov websites there are out there, each using a different platform, design and governance. Think about the cost.

    In Feb last year I blogged about this and argued that Gov websites should be like Facebook – http://www.architxt.net/blog/new-media/government-websites-like-facebook – and I see a lot of that here :)

    Reply
  8. Lawrence

    When thinking about users, what will the options for those managing the site?

    Assuming the general idea is for each Gov entity to look after their own bit, will they have access to the usual publication and workflow tools?

    These can be quite complex and I’m wondering whether developing these is out of scope on this project?

    Perhaps the approach is to develop a core set of functions and build (and share) bespoke ones as required.

    Reply
  9. GOV.UK beta | nicepaul.com

    [...] a civil servant wasn’t even on my radar. But after a 3 month contract on the prototype ‘Alphagov’ project in the spring it felt right to be working on something that I knew by then would have a far [...]

    Reply

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