Getting the best from GOV.UK

The Government has been transitioning its published web data to the GOV.UK platform over the last few years. Since the move of departmental websites over to GOV.UK, which completed in December 2014, documents and information have become increasingly hard to find. Collections of information on certain topics that previously could be browsed on departmental websites have mostly disappeared and the emphasis seems to be on the user to use the search function. Information also went missing in the transition, with decisions made not to move certain documents to GOV.UK, allowing them to be found and accessed only via the UK Government Web Archive. Yet the search functionality of GOV.UK is not particularly sophisticated, with minimal filtering options (the only current filter is “by department”) and you’ll need to navigate through the Archive to re-find information you may have bookmarked previously.

Members of the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL), of which I am one, probably have to use GOV.UK more often than most and we are well aware of its foibles in trying to track down and keep on top of where the specialist information lies. Whilst I would advocate using your information professional to help you get the best from GOV.UK or using a paid-for subscription service, for the times when you don’t have information support in your workplace, here are some tips on locating information on GOV.UK.

Google is still your friend!

As Nick Holmes wrote in September 2014, Google is your friend. Before GOV.UK came along, the Google site: search command was invaluable in order to be able to quickly search across a government department website for what you needed. Whilst the command is not as effective as it once was, it produces a set of results in a familiar format with additional tools to narrow down results. Prefixing a search term with the site: command forces Google to bring back the results only from the domain you specify, eg, parts of department websites that are still live like or, or pretty much any open website (ie not hidden behind a log-in – this search doesn’t work on LexisLibrary!). I like to use it mostly on websites that either don’t have decent search functionality or are frustrating to browse, and it works on the majority of websites I’ve come across.

As a simple example, say I’m looking for the recent consultations on trade unions and I forget which department has issued them or what the official title of the consultation was. A search on GOV.UK for trade union consultation brings back a page with the Trade Union Bill eighth in the list – the top results are pages on being in a trade union or employing someone in a trade union rather than any policy document. The same search on Google using trade union consultation brings back the Trade Union Bill second in the list. On Google you also have the Date filter (click on Search Tools and select the drop down under “Any time”) to limit the results to pages updated in the last hour, day, week, month or year (or custom time range).

Note that, although with the site: command, you would not normally need to enter the www. domain prefix, to search only GOV.UK, it needs to be included otherwise you will retrieve results from any website ending in

The site: command can be entered directly into the search box, as shown, or it can be found via Google’s Advanced Search that assists in building your search.

Of course, using Google to search GOV.UK assumes that the document you want has actually been transferred over. More on what to do about that below.

Stay up to date

Now that you’ve found the information you need, it’s a case of staying up to date and knowing the latest changes. You can subscribe to updates from your favourite departments either by email or by RSS. I prefer using Feedly since Google Reader was discontinued a couple of years ago, but there are other RSS readers available. See also Nick’s article on RSS in the November 2013 issue of the Newsletter which covers GOV.UK RSS feeds. As consultations and responses generally come with a press release, you will be notified of anything new. The downside to subscribing this way is that you will get everything else from that department, whether of interest or not.

I’ve found certain tools that monitor changes in webpages to be useful for when there is just one consultation I’m interested in from a department, and not every item of news or update they push out through email or RSS. These tools watch only the pages you’ve listed and then notify you (either by email or RSS) when a change has taken place. My personal favourite is which gives you options to only be alerted to sizable changes or when text is added/removed.

It is usually best to select the “sizable change” option, otherwise you’ll be notified each time any change is made on a page, no matter how small, and that can generate frequent notifications. I’ve found this useful on certain consultation documents when I need to be alerted to the response and also, for example, on the consolidated list of financial sanctions – I am alerted when there has been a change and also what that change was.

Another option is combining the site: command mentioned above into a Google Alert. Google Alerts allow you “to monitor the web for interesting new content” and can be useful for an easy (and free) way to receive alerts on whatever you have searched for. You just need a Google account and then decide how you’d like to receive the alerts – either by email or by RSS. In the search box, start off with the command followed by your search terms. Save the search, and then select your preferences for how often you wish to be updated.

Finding old information

As we’ve found, when departments moved over to GOV.UK, they didn’t take all their information with them. Some pages were not moved, and this could be for any number of reasons. See, for example, Karen Blakeman’s comments at

The Government Web Archive is an archive of discontinued government websites, pages and documents and is where you should be able to find old pages. I’ve found browsing to be the better option here, rather than searching, even though it might be time consuming to wait for each page to load up. There might have been a sensible reason for not moving the documents, or maybe they have just been forgotten or the department may not realise the importance of the older documents to certain professions. If you think a document should be reinstated and kept “live” on GOV.UK, then try to get in touch with the department in question. If not, use the A-Z list of topics or departments to find the information you need.

Getting in touch with GDS

The Government Digital Service (GDS) encourages users to report problems to them about GOV.UK (see “GOV.UK isn’t finished”). This can be done anonymously via the “is anything wrong with this page?” link or sending a question via their contact page. I am in favour of reporting incorrect or missing information, to be proactive in having the problem resolved not just for yourself but also for other users. The contact page is supposed to send your request to a “dedicated team who either answer it directly, or route it to the right people in GOV.UK or departments and agencies who can help”. The downside of this contact page is that this is not always the case. In my personal experience, I was told to contact the department in question directly, with a link to the Contact page for that department. All very well and good but there then wasn’t an appropriate person/team in that department to actually contact about the issue in question. This was certainly not what I call “[routing] it to the right people”. That said, a little rant on Twitter later and I was contacted by someone in their digital team, with the problem resolved shortly afterwards. I’m not saying that Twitter is the most appropriate way to get things done, but sometimes (just sometimes) it’s the fastest.

Final thoughts

GOV.UK isn’t finished. There are still pages to be moved over to GOV.UK, notably many pages on (and for that, I’m keeping a watch on their digital team’s blog for updates).

Even once all the information has been moved over, I imagine there will still be developments and changes done to GOV.UK and how it works. Frustrations with the service are likely to continue but I hope that, using the tools mentioned above, you will find using GOV.UK to be a smoother experience.

Anneli Sarkanen is Chair of the PR Committee of the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians and Senior Knowledge and Information Officer at Fieldfisher.

Email Twitter @LibrarianNelly.

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