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If content is king, who rules our land?

As Sarah Richards has already said, the citizen beta of GOV.UK is as much about radical simplicity in words as it is about design and back-end innovation. In a few murky corridors, clarity is still considered heresy. Alan Maddrell, Content Designer for the Government Digital Service explains how we're achieving clarity.

Write less, say more

There's an understandable tendency in government to want the user to understand everything they might possibly need to know in case something goes wrong. There's occasionally even an unstated wish to impress people with complexity so they take the process seriously. Yet evidence shows that our minds recoil when confronted with reams of words. It's our job as content designers to get out of the way of people completing what they came to do. One of the things we learnt on the citizen beta of GOV.UK is that this is harder than it sounds. A refrain heard daily was “do you actually need to know that at this point?”.

We have the tools, we have the talent

GDS has skilled and dedicated developers at the top of their game. The reason they're able to deliver such amazing stuff is because we're set up to allow this to happen. Everything from machines to recruitment and procurement is set up to allow talented people to do what they're good at. Content is no different.

Putting lipstick on the pig

If crucial decisions affecting usability are being made not by content specialists but by external forces, users suffer. Historically this has led to inflexible, decade-long contracts with suppliers resulting in substandard tools and services from the users point of view. External forces means well-intentioned people whose focus is not on clear communications writing opaque content and passing it to “the website guys” to put up. They're told "it's already been signed off". Last-minute rewrites can't fix that. A colleague elsewhere in government calls it “putting lipstick on the pig”. External forces means the roles are confused.


The view that anybody can write is common in and out of government. Information seen by millions can sometimes be written by anyone, from policy experts to tech specialists, with no specific communication or content training. When it's written with the user in mind by digital content specialists, it's easier to navigate by the user because they have the skills required to strip the complexity out, leaving simplicity.

How we wrote the citizen beta

We’ve had the generous and invaluable cooperation of subject matter experts across government and these relationships work because roles are closely defined. Subject experts checked the content for accuracy, content specialists checked for usability. This rebalanced the relationship. When the facts were signed off, it went live. It took both sides a little while to get used to, but overall it worked surprisingly smoothly.

Doing the do

What worked? The text is sparse, clean, informative and rigorously task-oriented ("where's the do?"). We produced content very quickly - and that's all we did. When factual inaccuracies were found by the experts, they were fixed in moments. On the flip side, sometimes we didn’t know what was missing. We're very grateful for the suggestions we've had for future content from across government, as well as from the third sector and the public. Sometimes our brains hurt because we had to get up to speed on a different subject almost every day and sometimes we got scared. At beta release, there were some content items that would (and will) later be replaced by smart answers or other formats. But it worked and redesigning the editorial process is what allowed this to happen. - content in 7 steps

  1. user needs identified through data
  2. content designer writes draft
  3. review by another designer ("second pair of eyes")
  4. factcheck
  5. published
  6. user data reviewed
  7. content iterated

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  1. Comment by A Concerned Citizen posted on

    Beware of being too successful. A soon-to-disappear website started with a similarly ruthless attitude to unnecessary detail and "policy push". Its reception 10 years ago was so positive that the decision was taken to publish ALL government information for its users on the same site. At the same time the successful in-house service was outsourced.

    The result was the originally lean website became bloated with unnecessary detail because Departments were told they had to publish everything on it. A previously strong editorial team became too stretched to win all the arguments with the subject matter experts. The outsourcing ensured that costs bloated in step with the content.

    Outsourcing seems to have been tackled - for now - but how will GDS tackle the immense mass of information that Departments feel obliged to publish? The sheer volume of this suggests that your current approach is not going to be economic without the strong editorial control being diluted.

  2. Comment by Rory MccGwire posted on

    Alan, your team's vision and implementation are 100% spot on. You will save the taxpayer a fortune and make our lives so much easier - simply by putting the user at the centre of what you do, and 'doing what works'. Brilliant.

    What will your approach be to links to third party websites? This had already opened up under the old regime, eg that site has links to our Law Donut site (because we can explain legal issues in a 'commercial' way that neither Business Link nor Acas are allowed to, understandably). In fact we created five 'Donut' websites to fit alongside the old site in this way, plus over 100 local customised versions that Chambers of Commerce and others have licensed.

    Could you point me towards where this discussion is going on?


    • Replies to Rory MccGwire>

      Comment by alanmaddrell posted on

      Replied over email

  3. Comment by Luke Oatham (@Luke_Oatham) posted on

    Great how content specialists get equal sign-off with subject (policy) experts, and not looked on as content shelf-stackers.

  4. Comment by ngulik-blog posted on

    This is great stuff and truly inspiring for me to see really starting to happen properly in Gov. I’m sure a lot of us in the game of getting government content and transactions online are well versed in the ‘passing it to “the website guys” to put up’ phenomenon. Tell me, how did you get to the point where those colleagues in ‘policy’ were happy to become the factcheckers rather than the absolute signer-offers?

  5. Comment by mrflicks posted on

    If "Content is King" then the best SEO rules then yes?

  6. Comment by Matt Tooke posted on

    Hi Alan. This is great stuff and truly inspiring for me to see really starting to happen properly in Gov. I'm sure a lot of us in the game of getting government content and transactions online are well versed in the 'passing it to “the website guys” to put up' phenomenon. Tell me, how did you get to the point where those colleagues in 'policy' were happy to become the factcheckers rather than the absolute signer-offers?

    • Replies to Matt Tooke>

      Comment by alanmaddrell posted on

      Matt, sorry it's taken a while for me to get back to you - I had some asking around to do. There's no one answer I can give you as the approach has to be tailored to each circumstance. We had a lot of existing contacts within departments, but a lot of roles had changed. Quite often, existing franchise teams for Directgov etc acted as the single point of contact between content designers and policy colleagues. Where that wasn't an option, heads of ecomms were often able to help find the right people. A new organisation and site gave the opportunity to establish a clearer way of working. As far as possible, we met the departmental points of contact in person to talk through any issues, and made sure we gave clear instructions they could pass on. I'm not sure how helpful an answer that is but that's roughly what happened.

  7. Comment by John Andrews posted on

    4a. Review for how material can be better integrated with not for profit sector information/advice

    8. Review how hand-offs to external suppliers with valuable more in-depth subject information can be safely achieved, particularly in the not for profit sector

    • Replies to John Andrews>

      Comment by alanmaddrell posted on

      We are doing this in some areas already but there is indeed more to do.