In November last year I posted about our plans for the future of GOV.UK. We want to provide trusted, joined-up and personalised interaction for users, so that we can provide the right things to the right people, in the way they want to use them.
Since then a lot has changed. GOV.UK has been at the centre of the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing vital and up-to-date information and services. GOV.UK has repeatedly seen record demand, peaking at over 132m page views in a single week (and that’s just of those who consent to analytics tracking - true number approaching 300m?). We have worked across the public sector, including with colleagues in the NHS and local authorities, to build and launch services - from scratch - in just days, to help people receive essential supplies and to help organisations offer their support.
In fact, departments across government have delivered 69 live user facing services since the start of the coronavirus emergency so far. Another 46 such services and products are in the pipeline for delivery too.
This COVID-19 response has required the GOV.UK team to respond rapidly to people’s needs, while providing robust and resilient digital infrastructure.
It wouldn’t have been possible for GOV.UK to work in this way without the work we’ve done in the past - building the tools, platforms and working practices that have enabled our response. And without excellent collaboration with colleagues from across government, of course.
And, more than that, GOV.UK’s current role at the centre of the coronavirus response shows how vital our plans for trusted, personalised and joined-up interactions are. Right now we’re providing clear advice and services in a fast-moving and complex situation - making things simple for users.
And now we’re looking ahead to the continued response for coronavirus and what it will mean for people, and how this will overlay with the Transition period ending.
Here’s how we’ll build on our work so far:
Proving the value of personalised services
GOV.UK began its life about 8 years ago by bringing together government digital estate of websites into a single one, with a consistent brand. Almost as soon as we did this, we started to join up the information published - so that it was less a grouping of flat content (e.g. static pages) and more a coherent collection. This ran in parallel to transactional services meeting spend control and design standards, ensuring that the quality improved overall.
Related to the publishing platform, our work on findability and developing our smart answers format has put us in a strong position to quickly build and deploy services - something that has been vital in recent weeks.
Subsequent projects like developing our Step by Step pattern and our work to help users navigate complexity at scale - which led to the Brexit (now Transition) checker have shown the opportunity for us to join our content together to help users navigate complex situations.
The work GOV.UK is doing in response to coronavirus builds on this and has a particular focus on supporting people who have critical needs as a result. Previously GOV.UK ran the publishing platform and provided join-up upon it using no data, or extremely limited anonymised data, like the Transition Checker. Departments provided (and continue to provide) transactional services on specific issues, like renewing a passport, getting a driving license or paying your tax.
GDS is now providing transactional services too, but ones that sit across departmental boundaries. This is about getting the right support to the right people across complex processes and larger topic areas, and working to remove silos in service delivery. For example, businesses are now able to register that they wish to help the coronavirus response by submitting their details on GOV.UK, and people who are in the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ category can indicate on GOV.UK if they need a free food parcel, a priority supermarket slot, or similar.
To enable us to build some of these services, GDS has stood up service teams to fulfil the delivery, recognising that as part of this we need to be able to safely and securely use, exchange and parse data across (for example) health, local and national levels, in order to provide the right level of service, complying with all data protection standards.
Using data to better meet user needs
So let’s take stock: years of work to bring coherence and join up across flat content, we evidenced at scale the value of personalisation in a government context through the Brexit Checker. Now we're replicating this in our coronavirus response, and extending such an approach to also provide transactional services that sit across departmental boundaries, which involves making better use of data.
That next level of scale is about being able to offer information and services relevant to a user's need more generally in this way. So we’re looking across the next steps in the coronavirus response, and what’s ahead as the Transition period comes to an end. And very quickly, given what both of these events cover, this just starts to look a lot like interacting with the government more generally.
So we’re working through questions like: if we made better use of data, what might a meaningfully different level of service and interaction look like? What’s the minimum set of data we would need to know to deliver this? And do we start with something very basic and build over time, or do we focus on a complex topic area (like Transition) or user group (like SMEs) to begin with?
Obviously, GOV.UK will also work to ensure that such data is not a prerequisite to getting something, or finding something out, from the government. This is more about making it as easy as possible for users to personalise their interaction with the government online, via GOV.UK, if they want to.
What this means for the future of GOV.UK
On GOV.UK we have a responsibility to help users navigate complexity when interacting with the government. This is what GOV.UK was set up to do in the first place and it continues to be our first principle.
And this is obviously not just about emergency moments either - responding to coronavirus just makes the need very clear. We need to support users to do the things they need to do as quickly and easily as possible, so they can then get on with their lives. That means our change in approach - personalisation at scale - needs to be persistent and make better use of data in an appropriate way. So we’re looking at our options now for how we provide that persistence.
Users currently have ‘accounts’ on transactional services that the government provides (such as a tax account), however users' needs often sit across transactional service boundaries as they form part of a larger process or interaction with the government. GOV.UK is looking at ways that it could help users understand what whole topics mean for them, guide them through complex processes over time, or perform transactions that currently span multiple services and departments, or rely on data from one service to be presented and used in another.
It is extremely important that if we are to organise and personalise GOV.UK more effectively that we provide the right level of security for a user (and for the government).
This is the ultimate aim of our personalisation work. It’s not about sending people to different parts of GOV.UK in order to keep them on the site for longer (like some websites might do) - it’s the very opposite. It’s about helping people navigate the site as quickly and effortlessly as possible and ensuring we can proactively support their needs, without them needing to understand the structures of government, or explicitly know what they are looking for.
Achieving this will take a huge cross-government effort to see through, but firstly with Brexit and now with coronavirus we have demonstrated how essential it is. Government - and GOV.UK - must find a way to support users at all times.