Gov.UK - A Review
The release of GOV.UK Beta, the test version of the UK government's web presence, is a big step towards rationalising the complex network of departmental and agency websites.
According to Mike Bracken, Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office the objective is 'to make public services digital by default, and we are relentlessly focused on user needs.'
The new government portal is certainly an enormous improvement on Directgov which it will ultimately replace. Whereas Directgov presents a fragmented view of all the endless minutiae of government, GOV.UK is very straight forward, presenting a search dialogue and a handful of links to popular content. How intuitive the wide demographic of GOV.UK users will find the search lead approach is heavily reliant on the effectiveness of the internal search engine. In this release search works well, returning relevant results quickly, but it is essential that this precision continues when more, and specialist content, is brought into GOV.UK. But in a world where 'to Google' has slipped into the language as a verb it seems a fair bet that this approach will work.
Designers at the Government Digital Service (GDS) have responded well to the call for a relentless focus on user needs. Information is presented in an economical way, and content is edited well. Information is presented using simple short statements, more complex situations resolved by answering short series of questions, some content accompanied by short video guides. A government website is not a place users wish to linger and window shop, and the design and the editorial strategy enables the user to find what they need, conduct their business, and leave quickly.
The use of multimedia is limited but effective when used. Search for 'registering a death' and the resulting page includes a video guide on the things one needs to do after someone dies; obtaining the death certificate, arranging the funeral , etc. The animation is well judged, sensitive, and evidently mindful of the end user, and their state of mind at an emotional time. It would be good to see more of this.
The ambition of GOV.UK extends beyond central government, after registering your location, searches for services provided by local authorities return links to the appropriate council. For the most part this navigates directly to the correct part of the site. Admittedly in the test version this isn't yet wholly consistent. There are other issues to be ironed out as Phil Dawson, a digital media expert from Birmingham’s Boilerhouse Media, points out: ‘The site is pretty basic, which is no bad thing. It is accessible, but there's a lag before some of the accessibility options are chosen. It's early days, but for such a well publicised site this needs to be ironed out as soon as possible.’ The team at GDS seem to have taken this on board with a positive response to feedback posted since the launch. There is evidently a well resourced and skillful team behind GOV.UK, but the speedy release of fixes and improvements is to be applauded.
This launch represents much more than a digital housekeeping exercise. Behind GOV.UK sits a new, open source, delivery platform. The philosophy of open source, that design standards and source code are freely accessible, can transform the supply of digital services to government. Opening up the market to small scale innovators, increasing the speed of delivery, and reducing the cost of deployment. It seems that GDS want the small developers on board, the first change by a member of the open source community has already been included in the code, and the launch GOV.UK's open platform should energise the growth of innovative digital business.
GOV.UK Beta is a major public demonstration of the vision to transform online government services and represents a very promising start for the new digital team at the Cabinet Office. Time will show whether the strategy of central coordination can hold firm and not be diverted by departmental special interests. But the energy and clarity of vision evident in GDS give every reason to be optimistic.