Once upon a time, I managed a team who were struggling to crack a tough problem. They needed to improve the dreadful user experience of a major online transaction, but the ‘owners’ of the transaction – a ‘partner’ organisation, in Government-speak – refused to let them have access. The ‘owners’ talked about the extensive user testing they had already done. My guys asked to see it. The Comms people said the IT people had it. The IT people were too busy building the transaction and frankly, digging out that email would put the project in jeopardy.
My guys would ask nicely if they could test the application. The offered to bring in the team nominally responsible at the heart of government. In a rare moment of weakness, the transaction owners offered a 60 minute demo in their far-flung office, but no hands-on access. The deadlines crept nearer and nearer. The emails became more colourful. Worried submissions started to make their way to ministers (who frankly had shorter-term horizons).
At this point in the story, I’d like to point to a dramatic denouement where the resistance crumbled and the heroes triumphed, but the truth is duller and more common. There was a lot of bad feeling, something a bit shit went live, and an unknown number of customers were annoyed or confused.
Where I think Martha’s wrong is in centralising content management and the user experience full stop. We’ve lived with web convergence and a single-domain (well, supersite domains) for a while now, and that works to a point. At best, it’s a seamless integration and quality check; at worst, it’s a pleasant fiction that does no harm.
But she’s gone further than Varney did (retyped from the published, scanned PDF):
Recommendation 3: The model of government online publishing should change radically, with a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments
The proposed model would see ‘Departmental experts’, presumably policy owners, producing content on commission from the central team, who would manage a ‘shared, agile, cost-effective suite of web services’ to publish it via a single domain, perhaps using departmental subdirectories for navigation.
Now, I’ve been proliferating government websites for some time, it’s currently part of the way I make my living, and the recommendation above is likely to render many former colleagues and friends redundant in due course. None of which are valid reasons to reject a good idea, so I’m trying hard to manage the inevitable conflicts in my reactions.
It’s true that there’s plenty of bad practice across the government web estate, and plenty of opportunity to join up and adopt common infrastructures. Though government speaks to many audiences, it doesn’t do so consistently well. And there aren’t the meaningful incentives or threats to those who do it well or badly to lead them to improve.
It’s quite possible I’ve misinterpreted elements of the admirably concise report, but I’m struggling to see how this model will work in practice:
- Government online content, done right, is simply too big for a single site. I’m not sure what commercial sector examples might be relevant here, but perhaps the BBC comes closest, and it seems to have come to the view that closest you can come to harmonisation is in standards for content, common search and a basic unifying navigation bar. Directgov and BusinessLink pare down government content, which is essential for citizens and businesses, but useless for intermediaries, researchers and stakeholders. I hope that cleverer minds than mine will be put to the task, but I don’t see how a useful volume of government content for these audiences can be made navigable in one place, except through search.
- Centralising digital channels poses problems for integrating digital into other aspects of government’s work. Whether and how to devolve web publishing is a challenge every large organisation faces: a centralised model is generally more consistent and probably lower measurable cost, but less responsive, creative and integrated with the organisation’s work – and those are bigger challenges in large departments than somewhere more news-oriented like Number 10. Arguably, a central Cabinet Office team co-ordinating digital should really co-ordinate other communications channels too.
- By separating content commissioning, transactions and publishing from digital engagement, an opportunity is lost. Broadening engagement with policymaking really needs people to be involved in context, not in isolation. And I’m not clear what a digital engagement team in a department would do without a say over platforms from which they can form partnerships, except create sneaky blogs and microsites around the margins (and no, you can’t do everything on third party sites or within a government brand).
- It’s somewhat old-fashioned to view websites as a professionally-managed library: the truth is, stakeholders’ interactions with government often happen at an individual or team level, and professional audiences for policy content want human contact, latest news and full data rather than the high quality ‘guides’ developed by supersites like Business Link. Improving the responsiveness of government and its transparency needs to involve putting a window on the wormery, not laying neater turf over it.
There are definitely some opportunities, and it’s encouraging to see ideas from outside as bold as this, with an early indication of support from Ministers. What might well make sense would include:
- Pooling capability: more sharing of the expertise and resources around government for multimedia production, user research, search optimisation, email marketing and so on
- Shared infrastructures: a small but plural set of platforms for different organisations and different purposes, including low-cost open source social CMSes, heavyweight publishing-oriented platforms, community-oriented platforms and data/document repositories along with a menu of sensible hosting options
- A common look and feel: as mandated in Canada, underpinned with clear, practical and concise guidance
- Pan-government search and shared services for commoditised applications such as vacancies, news, speeches and formal consultation, learning from the best in-house work on API development within government, such as for civil service jobs
- Co-ordinated news planning: integrating government platforms better to promote the big launches, combining the people, tools and partnerships to give big things a proper push online
- A unifying vision: a digital strategy which brings together the various functions of digital and articulates its role, and the key direction for government online in supporting transparency, increasing participation, improving customer service and strengthening public sector collaboration
It’s easy to be critical from the sidelines, and I don’t want to fall into that trap. There’s much to like in Martha’s report, and a real opportunity to make things better. If it’s done right.
For ease of reference, I’ve uploaded OCRed versions of the two documents here to improve accessibility and quotability:
- Directgov: 2010 and Beyond (Report by Martha Lane Fox), PDF (2.7mb)
- Directgov: 2010 and Beyond (Response letter from Rt Hon Francis Maude MP), PDF (221kb)