What’s up GOV?

By Nick Holmes on January 31, 2013
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Filed under Government

Have you visited GOV.UK yet?

If you’ve recently used any government service you will probably have been directed to GOV.UK. On 17 October 2012 it replaced Directgov and Business Link as the place to go for government services. And on 15 November the first government departmental and agency websites started their migration to the Inside Government section of GOV.UK. As of today 8 of 24 government departments and 13 of 300+ agencies and other publice sector bodies have migrated; all departments are due to have moved by April 2013 and (with exceptions) all other public bodies by April 2014, so you better get used to it.

First, we ask, why the caps for GOV.UK? Must be because it’s BIG; an über site brought to us by the Single Government Domain project, born out of a report by Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox and delivered by the Government Digital Service, a new team within Cabinet Office tasked with transforming government digital services … aka Digital by Default.

So all this government stuff in one place and designed to be “simpler, clearer, faster”. Is that a Good Thing or “some kind of Orwellian nightmare“? I set out to find out.

It is early days yet, perhaps too early to judge properly. On the other hand, although all Departments have not moved over yet to GOV.UK, the site has officially launched and purports to have replaced Directgov and BusinessLink, so what are first impressions?

Well, shock, for starters. Why doesn’t it look like a grown-up website? Where has everything gone? Why are the lists so random? Why can’t I find anything?

I turned to the GDS website for explanation. They publish a blog about the ongoing project. (Hint: navigation is limited; nav links and a search box are at the very bottom of the page.)

The intention of the new sites is explained by Mike Bracken of GDS (at alpha stage back in January 2012). Compared to Directgov and BusinessLink, GOV.UK addresses “667 of the most common and important mainstream user needs … with a product that is redesigned, rewritten and rethought to offer a simpler, clearer, more consistent design, properly managed search and a user-focused service experience.”

Now I know they have done a lot of work on determining user needs … but I’m a user and I have serious problems. Here are just a few of mine and others’ I have sought out. (Would you believe how difficult it is to find web pages about a site called GOV.UK?)

I browse for a topic from the home page; after a couple clicks I get a set of links in apparently random order. I search for said topic using the site search box. Again I get a set of links in apparently random order whose relevance is impossible to guage. So how does their ranking work? We should be told.

I try the same search using Google and, bingo!, the page on GOV.UK I want is top. Now this is in fact a plus! GDS recognise that most people start their search for a government service, as for any other, using Google and the site has been optimised for Google, so we get nice structured, descriptive titles and friendly URLs. But it does rather highlight how “otherwise” the on-site search results are.

An article on economia criticises the information for businesses as littered with errors and using “noddy style” language.

Others have also criticised the website design as being simplistic without probably considering that simplicity if not simplistic is in fact the intention.

But, it certainly doesn’t feel like everything is there. For example, why is transport just about cars?

I’m sure some of these issues will be resolved in time, others we will get used to, like the pound coin.

Now this is just about the “front page”, public-serving, transactional part of GOV.UK. As noted the Inside Government section, for insiders and professional users, which will replace almost all departmental and other public body websites, is still a work in progress. Is that GOV gone mad? Read Jeni Tennison’s Precious snowflakes.