Don’t look back in anger. least not at old Government websites.

There was an interesting debate online last week for anybody interested in digital government and particularly the work of the ‘Government Digital Service’.

Chris Cook, an editor on Newsnight and formerly at the Financial Times, wrote an article on the BBC website that lambasted the work of GDS in relation to moving Government departments and ‘arms length bodies’ to the single domain. It basically accuses GDS of destroying data or at best making it near impossible to find. He is dismissive of the need for all Government departments to follow a common design and, rather unfortunately, calls for a return to the pre-GDS sites of ‘2009’.

The article was not without (high profile) supporters and they debated the matter heartily with the many advocates of the work GDS have done. Despite being on leave (in theory) I followed the debate closely and was pleased, if amused, to find ONS on the different side of an online debate about Government websites — we were being held up as a positive example (or rather the Alpha was)!

It was not an uncommon set of complaints to me as similar concerns came up regularly during our research for the Alpha. GDS have themselves admitted in the past that the strong focus on the needs of the ‘mainstream’ user had left the site a bit deficient in supporting more specialist requirements and the arbitrary date cut-off for historic content has never worked well and pointing people to the National Archive copy of sites is rarely a good enough response.

Not for the first time Stefan Czerniawski from the Cabinet Office summed it up best on Twitter;

“we shouldn’t tell people not to be frustrated when they are — and iteration is absolutely the solution”

I have every reason to believe that GDS will respond in time and provide something that works for the wide range of users who visit the single domain but the reality is they are a finite group, albeit a talented one, and their priorities have been elsewhere to date. The move of 300ish websites from across the Government web estate was completed last week — a Herculean task (whether you agree with the necessity or not) and the ‘exemplars’ covering transactional services are well established now so maybe the changes are just around the corner. I don’t know. GDS have an ever increasing remit it seems and I have no special insight in to their priorities.

I will say this — without the work of GDS and the lessons and approaches they shared there is no chance our Alpha (and hopefully everything else upcoming) would have been a success. The fundamental difference, and the one that has pleased the very critics of GOV.UK, is that we are building a website for specialists from day one and we are doing this because following the GDS blueprint confirmed for us that it is the right thing for us to do. The prominence of making decisions based on user research and data is very much a GDS legacy — while it had advocates before in Gov circles it is now virtually impossible to consider working on a digital project without that activity — and it is that research that allowed us to make the case to not try and be all things to all people.

The existence of the Service Manual, the ‘high-minded design principles’, the Digital Marketplace, the agreements with Treasury to accept agile projects and a hundred other things have made it possible for my team and I to try and build a website that is targeted at making the life of users like Chris Cook easier.

Anyway to conclude I understand why Mr Cook is frustrated and I know many people both in and out of the Civil Service who share his concerns but I trust in GDS. In the people and the processes they follow. In the meantime I will continue to work on making our little corner of the Gov web estate as useful as possible.

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