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Getting it Right: Gov.uk

BY David Eaves | Monday, October 22 2012

A little over five years ago I was speaking at a conference for the CIOs of various Canadian ministries. Speaking just before me was a consultant from Accenture who was presenting on their most recent Global Report on Government Service Delivery. In it, Canada had just slipped from first to second in the world, after Singapore. While slightly disappointed, the audience remained content that among 30 or so leading countries in the world, Canada remained second.

I, on the other hand, felt sick.

Speaking next, I tore up my talk, grabbed a copy of the report and marched to the front of the room. Why, I asked, do we do peer comparison studies? Because we want to know what our competitors are doing — to ensure that we do not fall too far behind.

The problem is, Singapore and Canada, or the United States, or the UK for that matter, are not competitors when delivering online experiences to their citizens. Canadians don't compare the (terrible) online experience they get with the government to that of Singapore, or Sweden. Rather they compare their experience to Facebook, to HipMunk, to Gmail and Flickr.

All the Accenture report did was take a group of laggards who generally deliver a crappy online experience, lump them together and rank them. Rather than tell governments their online performance was in crisis, it reassured them that all was well.

I share all this because, for possibly the first time in my life, I'm actually excited about a national government website. It would appear that in the United Kingdom, the designers, the developers and the content creators of a government have finally beaten the managers. And the result? Not only is it stunning, but it actually stands to be compared against the websites that citizens regularly use. Citizens will compare government websites not to one another but to sites like Google or Facebook, and Gov.uk easily stands up to that comparison.

That's because when you go to www.gov.uk, you won't find pictures of politicians you don't care about stalking you at every turn. Nor is there a paranoid refusal to use cookies or other tools that make it easier to use a site regularly. Nor will you be overwhelmed by a thousand links arranged in a manner that reflects the power structure of the organization, not what a citizen would care about.

What you will find is an elegant, simple site that is easy to navigate. Here is an extreme example: look at the page that talks about how the site uses cookies. I'm not sure I've ever read a clearer description about what cookies are and how they are being used on a website.

So how did they do it? Here's my take based on some exploration of the site, and this article by Mike Bracken, the executive director of Government Digital Service for the UK government.

The Designers Won

Sadly, in many governments there are no designers. Managers, with no understanding of the web, may perceive designers as synonymous with luxury. Consequently, no one advocates for the user, nor do they think about usability. Even when designers do exist they have little power to confront powerful bureaucratic or political interests that override good design principles to ensure their priorities (not those the public cares about or that makes sense) trump all.

Take my own country. Visit the website for any government ministry (here try Treasury Board, or our Department of Foreign Affairs, here's a list with links to all the ministries). I guarantee you that within 10 seconds of hitting the site, the largest item you'll be confronted with is a photo of the minister and a press release about an issue almost no citizens care about. These are websites where the designers lost.

The Hackers Won

The other amazing thing about www.gov.uk is how much of it is built on open source:

All Gov.uk's core code is released openly via a collaboration platform called github. That means members of the public can suggest corrections and improvements. Most of Gov.uk software is open source – meaning the platform is not subject to licence payments, code delays from vendors nor proprietary lock-in. At a stroke this saves a fortune for the taxpayer, allows rapid changes to be made and allows us to switch technologies at the speed at which they emerge these days – which is daily.

The US government (among others) has been using Drupal for quite some time, so the use of open source software for website development is not entirely novel. However, it is recognition that for a site that needs to be both this big and this responsive, you are going to need to have in-house expertise as well as leveraging skills and experience outside of government.

What I think really matters is that the UK government recognizes its website is likely the way it is going to interface with a large percentage of its population and, as such, is a critical and strategic piece of infrastructure.

The Data Geeks Won

The final big lesson is that the data geeks won. Mike Bracken is unbelievably clear about this. He talks about the mounds of data they gathered about how people used and wanted to use the government's website and how this influenced development and design.

This is perhaps the most important lesson for governments. Listen to your users.

It's not rocket science, but it bears repeating, since so few governments seem to look at how their citizens actually use their websites when redesigning them. The Code for America team in Honolulu did wonderful work prioritizing links on Honolulu's site by connecting it to Google Analytics to help discover what citizens were actually looking for. It's clear that using data to design and prioritize decisions sits at the core of gov.uk. This is a conversation that may make many senior public servants and politicians unhappy as their pet projects, photos and press releases get reshuffled, but it will likely lead to happier citizens that spend less time looking for online government services and more time enjoying life.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to The Omidyar Network for its generous support of TechPresident's WeGov section.

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