Turning Government inside out

Inside Government landing page on gov uk

Inside Government is the latest addition to www.gov.uk, a website that is testing the future of how Government information and transactions will be delivered online.

As well as delivering transactions online; better and more efficiently, gov.uk also aims to consolidate existing Government websites. Anyone should be able to find out about policies and the working of Government, and get involved in consultations, without having to know which department is responsible for the areas they are interested in.

This is where Inside Government comes in. Anyone can visit this part of the Beta site and find out the latest news, policies and publications from a handful of early adopter departments. There is also basic information about every other Government department too.

The team at BIS have worked hard to ensure content about subjects such as trade, apprenticeships and science are part of this.

This is no copy and paste job. Content is added according to gov.uk principles about language.

For me, this is the biggest story behind the gov.uk project so far. Translating the cautious, corporate language of Government into clear English, and mapping content against a department’s business plan is, as far as I can tell, entirely new.

Colleagues at the Government Digital Service have described the approach as ‘shining a light’ on activities across Whitehall and, in my experience, the Beta is already producing a bright beam.

Take a look at the way policy content is broken down in to simple sections such as ‘issue’ ‘actions’ and, most importantly, ‘impact’, in simple language too.

Like the rest of gov.uk, Inside Government is putting users (taxpayers like you and me) first and approaching the task of presenting policy with refreshing simplicity.

This project is presenting some interesting challenges for managers like me, with teams who are already handling huge volumes of corporate content. There is also a certain amount of shock and head scratching among colleagues in other parts of the department, for whom their website may have been traditionally viewed as a basic publishing channel.

Gov.uk is far more than a website. It represents a fundamental shift in the way civil servants right across the public sector will think about the presentation of their work in the future.

Welcome gov.uk

Gov UK home pageFinally, the wraps are off the latest version of the new Government website. Yes, it’s a Beta and yes, it is far from complete in terms of design or content.

But, and forgive me for sounding so gushing, already it is a thing of wonder.

Not because of the technology, or even the tools it now offers (although I am reliably informed by a young mother and someone who plans Bank Holidays months in advance that these are good too).

The real win, as far as I am concerned, is that it demonstrates how websites in the public sector can be delivered: iteratively, efficiently and completely focussed on the audience.

Web teams in central Government and the NHS could learn an awful lot from this. The GDS blog is very transparent about their approach since day one.

I am very excited about the things the new website is not promising to deliver any time soon. The things that can’t demonstrate a need from the audience. Nor is the Government Digital Service going to try and sort out conflicts between different parts of Government, or overlaps in policy areas. As I’ve said before (inspired by GDS and @hmshale) these things are not for websites to solve.

Anyway, its easy for digital people to gush about projects from other digital people. The real test will be from those young mothers, car owners, bank holiday fanatics and people generally doing the things we all need to do online from time to time.

Anyone can feed back and I urge you to do so: https://www.gov.uk/feedback

And don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the Financial Times has to say.

Moving on…but sticking with the Civil Service

I’m leaving the Department of Health in a few weeks time, to join the digital team at Business, Innovation and Skills. I am very excited to be joining BIS, but at the same time sad to leave Health.

I joined the Civil Service in 2009, and this was my first foray into the public sector. I didn’t know what to expect other than a massive change in working culture and practice.

I came from a background of journalism, small publishing businesses and creative agencies, where I’d be tasked with everything from writing interviews, to managing cashflow, human resources and making tea. Sometimes successfully, often by the skin of my teeth, and with some notable failures too (an upside down magazine and the web project from hell among them).

But I was wrong about the ‘massive change’.

In actual fact, the challenges of communicating information, of publishing, of embracing new technology, are pretty much the same. Sometimes I miss not having a profit margin to focus on, but I don’t miss the roller coaster of small business.

Sure, I still get frustrated by some of the bureaucracy I encounter. However, it strikes me that these same mechanisms ensure staff and suppliers are, for the most part, paid on time, and contribute to a professional atmosphere. These are some of the things that create tremendous pressure when running a small business.

Bowler hat on a bench
I've seen very few of these around Whitehall

And the Civil Service isn’t the old fashioned institution that my friends would have had me believe, back in 2009 when I told them where I was going. I realise I am lucky, because digital is interesting, evolving and Government has a reputation for innovation. But I also spent a short time in private office and never once saw a bowler hat or anything produced in triplicate.

Call me naive or challenge me on any of this. I’m keen to hear your experiences.

I hope I can bring a bit of my first-hand experience of the front line of business to my new role in the Civil Service, and build on the good work that’s already happening. If you’ve got ideas about business, Government and the web, then drop me a line.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicohogg/

Common questions for a Government digital team

Here are some of the most common questions, in my experience, faced by a digital communications team working in Government.

Some will be familiar, some will be more specific to digital health. None are supposed to be a rant, apart from number ten. I hope some of the answers will be helpful to my colleagues now and in the future.

Piece of paper that reads help

1. Can I have a new website?
Perhaps. But first let’s have a chat about:

  • who you are trying to communicate with
  • where these people might expect to find your content right now
  • your aims
  • the content you have prepared
  • how frequently you will be updating the content

It’s likely that what you need is a way to help people find your information more easily through better use of tags or categories, rather than a separate site. For limited communities a simple collaborative tool like Yammer may suffice.

2. Can I have a Facebook group/Twitter account/blog?
Yes. But have a think about the points above and be prepared to generate lots of content, on a regular basis. Social is personal so you will also need to put some faces and names to these profiles.
Take a look at our attributed content policy.

3. How do I respond to these comments on our article?
Ask yourself: Do they really need a response? Are you engaging or defending? (please say engaging). Do you have time to deal with follow up responses?
Take a look at what the US Air Force say.

4. My policy area is called the same as XYZ. However, we are more important than XYZ, so I need to make sure that we appear top in all website searches. Can you do that?
No. Content on our website is published based on categories that make sense to the broadest possible audience, and are not a reflection of the organisation’s structure.
If you share the same name, or very similar terminology, with another team then the website can’t solve that problem. First, you need to work with your namesake to sort out your shared taxonomy.
We can help you to make your content more engaging and cross-link with similar policy areas.

5. Here’s a draft of something. I don’t know exactly when it will be finalised but it must be published by XYZ. Can you guarantee that?
No. But send us the complete, final information as soon as it is ready and we will turn it around as quickly as possible. If it’s late, it may not appear in the place you expect it to, to begin with, but people will be able to find it quickly and easily from our home page.

6. How can we deliver this consultation online?
Take a look at our consultation space. Remember that your consultation needs to be kept clear, simple and relevant to maximise response.
We can help promote it through forums, blogs and social media, but the product itself needs to be simple and easy to navigate.
Wherever possible, make sure you have an easy-read summary of the main points and questions.

7. I am developing a strategy for social media – can you give me some pointers?
Yes. Have a think about your audience and objectives; what you want to achieve. Before you write anything though, take a look at all the other strategies already out there, including the Department’s own, pick some objectives and activities that sound relevant and we’ll help you turn it into something useful.
Don’t forget to consult with specialist online communities like #nhssm too. They’re full of ideas and pointers.

8. Please can you give me the number of hits, clicks and referrals for this page for the past two years?
Yes. But it is going to take ages. Tell us more about why you need this information and we can probably give you more relevant stats, something useful to compare with, and some honest analysis of how well you’ve done and what we can do together, to help more people read your content.

9. How can I correct this content on someone else’s website?
Get involved. Leave a comment on the site, speak to the author and make the correct information easy for them to link to and extract.
Be completely transparent about who you are and why you are asking for their content to be updated. Be friendly and collaborative, not defensive or confrontational.

10. Please can you fix my computer?
No. Call IT.

Obviously these are only my top ten. Feel free to add your ‘favourites’ below.

The Department of Digital

I came across this interesting study from Booz and Company, examining where social media sits within organisations; how aware the CEO is of digital, which department owns social media etc.

It is a US study, and I think primarily focused on the private sector.

But it got me thinking about some of the results, particularly where digital lives in an organisation (slide 3). The report shows eight per cent of respondents citing IT as the home of digital. I’m willing to bet this is greater in the public sector, and particularly the NHS.

I’m not sure how much faith I put in slides that tell of increased spend and resource. No-one wants to be the person to say ‘we’re don’t know how useful it really is’.

It’s an interesting snapshot though. How do you think these results might contrast with the UK public sector?

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