Happy Birthday gov.uk

Can it really be a year since gov.uk was officially launched? Yes it can.

October 17 2012 feels like a very long time ago. Goodness knows what it must feel like for the Government Digital Service.

I am grateful every day that I do not have to run a big corporate website anymore. We obviously have to take responsibility for content on gov.uk, but aside from a couple of cheeky campaign sites, there’s no more worries about hosting, security and contracts. None of which makes me want to leap out of bed in the morning.

Instead, digital teams like ours are free to use the rest of the web to better effect: for communicating policy, listening to our audiences and sharing content in different ways.

This, along with a revolution in editorial content, huge consolidation of costs and, most importantly, a much improved user experience, is what gov.uk has delivered in the past 12 months.

There’s also much greater transparency around content. Gone are the days when departments could publish content in odd places. And we have a whole raft of very clever and talented new people to work with and learn from.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. For me, the real story behind GDS’s achievements will be the cultural shift inflicted on the civil service by gov.uk. Unfortunately that story isn’t complete yet, which means that the past 12 months have been spent trying to quickly help colleagues less focussed on user need to understand – and accept – how people use the web. We definitely haven’t got there yet.

In an effort to help people understand and love gov.uk, it feels like there has been the odd compromise along the way, which is understandable but also a bit of a shame. The original vision was so pure, but the home page, certain landing pages, use of video content and so on, have diluted this.

Sometimes I also have a sense of unease about the volume of work gov.uk has created outside of GDS. I guess this is inevitable when an organisation and its product grows, but I feel that as the numbers of gov.uk-related emails, meetings and paperwork goes up, the passion with which I can speak about the site is slightly diminished.

All of which is pretty irrelevant in the context of what has been achieved for the British public. I will be putting my own user needs first on 17 October, and visiting the pub. But I’ll be sure to raise a glass to gov.uk and GDS.

If you have a WordPress problem, and no-one else can help, maybe you should hire…

We’re going to lose a much-valued member of the team soon, and its a real shame. Anthony O’Malley has been with us for 12 months, helping to run our bit of web estate that hasn’t yet made it to gov.uk.

He’s done a brilliant job of managing the BIS digital estate: archiving, converging and pruning a plethora of websites, updating campaign pages and setting up some clean-looking blogs for our policy teams.

The best bit is that he has done most of this on his own, calling on Helpful and dxw if needed. When I’ve thrown my arms up and fled into Victoria Street, Anthony has calmly sat down with people, filtered their requests and ideas, and come up with stuff that works.

It won’t feel at all comfortable without Anthony around. But he’s leaving us a neat platform to get on with, and gov.uk continues to offer us more of what we need.

Unlike the A-Team, Anthony doesn’t reside in the Los Angeles underground. You can hire him here. And I recommend that you do.

‘Selling’ gov.uk

Do civil servants need to be good at selling things?

Traditionally a civil servant provides advice and recommendations, which I suppose are a form of 'sell', by way of a carefully crafted submission. Internal comms team might be expected to promote values and ways of working, and policy teams may wish to raise the profile of their work with colleagues.

What about other changes within Government organisations? I am, of course, thinking about a single website for Government.

gov.uk is all about users. It needs to work for them, not for civil servants.

But for the project to really fly, it needs civil servants to come with it. The people who will continue to make policy and deliver information. For those people who have been comfortable with a fairly direct write-and-publish model, largely unchallenged, the idea that there will be a new way of doing things isn't entirely comfortable. A bit like when organisations are told they have to hot desk. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is disruptive and a break from convention.

Some seem to like gov.uk just because it's new. Others aren't bothered either way. Some are cautious, but accepting. And for some the change brings uncertainty, which isn't comfortable.

How do you get colleagues on board?

The case for a single website is strong. But it still needs selling to bring people with it, and selling requires confidence. Confidence in the knowledge you have, and the product. Confidence that this is the *right* thing.

These talking points seem to work best, and enthuse colleagues about gov.uk:

  • Users first: no-one will tell you that they don't care about their audience. gov.uk is user focused so there's very little not to agree with here.
  • Evidence and best practice: the research has been done, the user testing is constant. Google is most people's starting point.
  • It's personal: talk about real examples of tools and services that are better in a gov.uk world. Think tax discs, red tape and crisis loans.
  • Everyone can be a part of it and provide feed back (but they need to look at it first, before commenting).
  • Reassure people that content won't just disappear from the web forever.
  • There's more to life than websites. We need to break the old fashioned 'write once, publish once' model. Where should we be telling people about this policy/service/consultation? There's a whole world of digital opportunity out there, to help us meet the needs of our audiences. Websites are only one part of that.

This may be too simplistic for some, but there's plenty more detail elsewhere for those who want it.

Do civil servants need to be good at selling things? If we want progress, then yes.


For once, I feel like a website customer

gov.uk home pageFrom today, you will now be able to find advice and guidance about starting and running a business on the new single Government website.

I’ve worked in and around digital for some years now, but rarely do I feel like one of the users we are working for. I am often too close to the content, the delivery, or the aims.

When I’m not dabbling in digital for BIS, I am a company secretary for the property management business, in the block of flats where I live.

It was a bumpy road to setting up the limited company, and understanding all the things we have to do each year. There’s plenty of advice online, but it sure took some sorting out and judicious Googling.

The new business content on gov.uk looks like it would have saved me a lot of time and effort and probably given me more confidence too.

This latest iteration of the site also offers a bunch of user-friendly tools to help people like you and me book a driving test, or apply for student funding.

Take a look and tell them what you think.

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.

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.