Gov.uk went live the other day. It was a big day. Another chapter of user-led government opened. A new phase that brings us bang up to date as a country. And I’m not just talking about a nice new clean interface. This is not a cosmetic shift. The behind the scenes work involved here will have been considerable.
Government tends to the complex, like my kids tend to the nutella. To get one page of simple plain English content published will have taken multiple drafts, professional reviews, discussions to calm those reviewers, and redraftings. I know cos I’ve been there. I once argued with the owner of the Cider and Perry regulation over the phone for an hour. My suggestion that her 80-page regulation could be reduced to 1 side of A4 was literally heretical. That it was ‘impossible’ was one thing, but she also insisted that it was nigh on illegal. Her view was that government was obliged to lay down every fact, and it was the responsibility of the reader to learn, discern and take action. There was no sense that 80 pages of lawyer-level language was a barrier to some chap wanting to make and sell a bit of cider. That it was holding back UK PLC. That – far from being a civil ‘servant’ – she was actually hindering opportunity. (I never said that by the way. That wouldn’t have gone down well). Eventually I got her agreement on the basis that I wasn’t replacing her 80 pages, just preceding it. And she finally conceded that getting someone to understand the key points in 2 minutes meant they were more likely to read her lovely words in full – or something like that. Either way it was a small victory, and those days of early ‘transformation’ were built on small skirmish victories like this.
Hopefully this gives you a sense of how tough it was. And this was around 2002. There was little-to-no sense of ‘the user’, or their ‘user experience’ in government. We at businesslink.gov.uk had to run these arguments on a daily basis. We scraped through. We couldn’t point her to many universally recognised examples of user-led brilliance like Amazon. She probably hadn’t bought much online. There was no Apple back then. ‘Platform’ wasn’t even a word. We were still guerillas in the mountains of Whitehall. (he he – honest, it did feel a bit like that).
So Gov.uk’s launch has had a long trajectory. Thousands of sites, down to three sites (labelled – I always felt quite ridiculously – as ‘supersites’), and now down to one. This is an important history and one that many other countries are watching with interest. But I have to admit to some reservations, initially triggered by some of the language being used. Reading some of the coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing had come before gov.uk. References to the supersites always had the whiff of the “carriage clock gift” after 20 years of service. ‘They’re valuable websites. But they’re of their time. And times change.’ I paraphrase. I can’t deny any of those points, but emotionally I feel like Schmidt. In contrast, the language used to describe the gov.uk initiative has on occasion had the sort of breathless air of that which surrounds Silicon Roundabout. So I guess this post is part feedback, part air brake on things.
The overall look and feel is fantastic. It’s how government should be. Simple clean and with all unnecessary obstacles removed. It’s a site that gets out of the way. I had no problems at all using what was there. Getting the next bank holiday slap bang in the middle of the page is great. When it comes to interface – this is a great step forward.
My problems popped up with the content. I picked the ‘do I need to pay VAT?’ question as it was always a highly ranked search at businesslink.gov.uk. I browsed first, got to the Business Tax page and couldn’t find a reference to VAT. This was weird. So I searched ‘do I need to pay VAT?’ – again, no joy. I got ‘Pay your VAT bill’ on the standard search and ‘Amusement Machine Licence Duty’ on the detailed guidance.
This was even more odd, because the VAT decision marks a pretty major life stage for a business, so to leave it unsupported like this was strange. Also, businesslink.gov.uk had a pretty good interactive tool that helped you answer this question in a couple of minutes.
More worrying was where you go from there. The VAT helpline was listed a couple of page scrolls down the search results. But that kind of undermines the intent of digital by default (a call costs ££s, a web visit pennies). With a bit more creative searching I eventually found a “When to register for VAT” page, but the content on it was so light it didn’t really answer the question. The 2002 civil servant responsible for VAT would be turning in their grave! So… what do you do at this point? Well… you type ‘do I need to register for VAT?’ into google and then… well, god help you, it takes you here…
I haven’t had much time to dig further, but this example reinforces some discussions i’ve had with folk in this area – that there’s still a challenge that gov.uk still needs to address. One which is an inevitable challenge given the Digital by Default pledge. And it’s this – the long tail.
Government can only be simplified so far. You can take the top tasks and clean them like a whistle, so that 80% of users skim through happy as a lamb. But government is complex – starting a business is complex – VAT is complex. If you run race horses in the UK, you will pay different VAT to a baker from Cornwall. You can’t fix this with a better interface. In one way the Cider and Perry lady was right – somewhere, somehow government needs to publish all the facts. This is a big hairy content problem.
In a digital by default world all of this content needs to live somewhere. And I want it all to live on gov.uk – it has the right philosophy, the right team, the right interface, the right mandate. But I don’t see it there. The current site feels a little too neat. A little too tight in scope. I know Direct.gov shouldn’t have had content on bee keeping. That’s proper ‘deep in the long tail’ stuff, so i wouldn’t expect to see it here. But not being able to answer my VAT question is more troubling, as that is arguably a ‘long neck’ business task.
Digital by default is about user experience, but really it’s about saving government pots of cash. Gov.uk is way cheaper than any of the supersites it has replaced. But we need to be careful that it’s not a false economy. The reason those big old expensive sites cost so much was (partly) because they required an army of people to work the content, and keep that content in-step with regulatory change – which was costly to track. (Government doesn’t have a team tracking changes. I had to commission a legal team in the private sector to track changes and notify me so I could keep my content up to date. To the point where – ironically – I often knew about a change in regulation before the originating department official did).
I don’t see any radical new way of handling that. I’m sure there’s a MUCH better CMS in there somewhere, with a MUCH better cross-departmental review process. But people still need to do the words. Agile UX will not help resolve that. Someone needs to argue with the 2012 equivalent of my Cider and Perry lady. If they don’t, then the service never gets beyond the cosmetic – it helps you get to and through the basics quicker, but it can’t help with the detail and the complex. So you end up back at the big old flabby departmental website, suffering through a tricky UI. And so we’re back with lipstick on a pig. A more glamorous, 2012 brand of high-sheen, uber-gloss lipstick – but still lipstick.
Since leaving businesslink.gov.uk I’ve graduated from guerrilla tactics, though only a bit. I still feel most of my work happens in the trenches. Multichannel service design in the public / private hinterlands is a tough gig. It’s upstream from the interface. It’s trying to get user-centred practice injected directly into the DNA of the organisation. Nirvana for me is changing the pig. This will not happen over night.
I feel a strong kinship with gov.uk. We’re fighting on the same front. We carry much the same kit. But I worry that thus far – after quite a long prototype cycle – they haven’t tackled the big hairy content issues, of which my admittedly singular VAT example appears illustrative. (Incidentally – I am probably a bloody awful reviewer of gov.uk. Having spent a chunk of my career running businesslink.gov.uk, I am always going to be a bit defensive of it, and perhaps sharply critical of any replacement – but equally, I hope that experience can provide a useful vantage point).
But it’s early days. And there’s plenty to indicate a possible win in the long-term pig-changing battle. Major air cover from Maude. An inspiring and talented front lady in the form of Martha Lane Fox. An experienced and energetic team who’ve now cut their teeth. Every win they have on this front will help all of us involved in building better services. Getting gov.uk to this point has been a considerable achievement. I don’t want to take from that. I just hope that there’s a programme manager in there somewhere, already limbering up for phase 2 / eternal beta, supported by a crack troop of ninja-like content editors, ready to do Cider and Perry battle, and laser focused on answering my VAT question in under 2 minutes.