If you’ve recently used any government service online you will probably have been directed to GOV.UK. On 17 October 2012 it replaced Directgov and BusinessLink as the place to go for government services. And on 15 November the first government departmental and agency websites started their migration to the Inside Government section of GOV.UK. As of 4 March, 13 of 24 government departments and 30 of 300+ agencies and other public sector bodies have migrated; all departments are due to have moved by April 2013 and (with exceptions) all other public bodies by April 2014.
First, we must ask, why the caps for GOV.UK? Must be because it’s BIG; an Ã¼ber site brought to us by the Single Government Domain project, born out of a report by Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox and delivered by the Government Digital Service, a new team within Cabinet Office tasked with transforming government digital services … aka Digital by Default.
It is early days yet. All departmental corporate websites have not yet moved over to GOV.UK, but the site has officially launched and has replaced Directgov and BusinessLink, so what are first impressions?
Well, shock, for starters. Why doesn’t it look like a grown-up website? Where has everything gone? Why are the lists so random? Why can’t I find anything?
I turned to the Government Digital Service website for explanation. They publish a blog about the ongoing project.
The intention of the new sites is explained by Mike Bracken of GDS. Compared to Directgov and BusinessLink, GOV.UK addresses “667 of the most common and important mainstream user needs … with a product that is redesigned, rewritten and rethought to offer a simpler, clearer, more consistent design, properly managed search and a user-focused service experience.” But I’m a user and I have serious problems. Here are just a few of mine and others’.
Whether browsing or searching, result sets are in apparently random order; relevance is impossible to gauge. How does the ranking work?
An article on economia criticises the information for businesses as littered with errors and using “noddy style” language. Others have criticised the website design as being simplistic. And it certainly doesn’t feel like everything is there. For example, why is transport just about road traffic?
It’s fair to say that some of these apparent shortcomings are in fact features (consider the underlying Design Principles). Issues of accuracy will likely be resolved promptly; and improving search is a priority. Other design issues will be softened over time; or we will just get used to them, like the pound coin.
A closer look
The top section of the home page presents links to a set of 12 topics under which government transactional services have been classified. Each leads to a page with a clear set of links to sub-topics, the busiest section being Businesses and the self-employed with 18 sub-topics. Each then leads to a list of links in apparently random order.
These pages provide most of the information and services that were formerly available via Directgov and BusinessLink, rewritten and reorganised. Pages are of three types: “Quick answers” to questions on a single page; more detailed “Guides” comprising several pages of information (Parts) and links to relevant internal sections and external sites; and “Services”, guiding one to the relevant transactional process (usually on an external server).
Let’s take the route Crime, justice and the law > Your rights and the law. From the results:
- Consumer rights provides a one-page Quick answer, linking us to the Consumer section on the Adviceguide site
- Disability rights leads to a six-page Guide with other relevant links in the right sidebar, eg the Financial help link leads to a Guide to benefits for the disabled from the Benefits section.
- Legal aid eligibility calculator leads us to a Service page, linking us to the calculator (currently still on the justice.gov.uk site).
Now let’s try a search (top right) for “legal aid”. Search results are divided into three tabbed sections:
- General results provides links to pages from the sections we have been considering. But looking further down the list we find a link to a page on “AIDS and driving” which has no relevance whatever to legal aid.
- The Detailed guidance tab provides links to guidance provided by government departments.
- The Inside Government tab provides results from the corporate pages labelled according to types such as Organisations, Speech, Publication, News articles.
GDS have acknowledged that this search functionality needs improving and are working actively on improving it.
Let’s move on to look at the Inside Government section. In little over a year this will have taken over from all 24 government departmental websites and almost all the 300+ agency and other public sector body websites. This is designed for insiders and professionals who need to know in detail what government is doing rather than just tap into government services. Inside Government will house a huge amount of information but is designed to make all this information simpler to access by providing a consistent browse and search interface to all government information across all policy areas.
Inside Government’s top menu offers access to content via three routes: Departments, Topics and Content by type.
The Departments index page lists all government departments and agency and other public sector bodies. Department links expand to show all bodies falling within its remit.
The Topics page provides a list of links to 34 topic pages which uniformly offer links to Policies, Publications and Announcements on that topic.
The Content by type menu offers the drop-down selections for a slightly extended list of content types: Announcements, Consultations, Policies, Publications and Statistics, each of which leads to a generic page showing results for the selected content type and offering drop down selections to search and re-filter the list of documents required by Type, Topic, Department and World Location. You need to click back and forth to view the full list of Content types.
In time, once all public sector content has migrated to GOV.UK, you will be able to browse or search across all government-produced content here.
Each department and other agency or other public body has its own “home” page whether or not it has yet migrated to GOV.UK. For example Department for Education (which has not yet migrated) is at www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-education and the short-form URL www.gov.uk/dfe also redirects to this.
For bodies that have migrated, corporate home pages uniformly offer links to and latest headlines for the Topics they work on, their Policies and published Documents (announcements, consultations, statistics etc) and details of ministers, management and contact information. See, for example, Department for Culture Media & Sport. All “sites” follow a similar template.
The old departmental and other public body sites will not exist except in archive form on The National Archives (see eg the DCMS archive).
There is a huge amount of information of use to lawyers already on the Inside Government section of GOV.UK. All departmental websites will have migrated their content there by the end of April and almost all agencies and other public bodies will be there by 2014. So getting to grips with how Inside Government works is vital.
Nick Holmes is joint Editor of the Newsletter.