The replacement for the ugly and expensive direct.gov site launched today – imaginatively called gov.uk
We are told that the new site is cleaner, faster and cheaper. With an advertised cost of £4.6m compared to the predecessors annual cost of £70m there is clearly scope for large savings. Without clarification though on what gov.uk is doing vs. what direct.gov did, it is not clear whether this is a pure saving, or a slight of hand with costs simply being apportioned directly to departments. This question becomes relevant later in this post.
If you have followed the increasingly frequent social media updates from the development team, you will have seen that user centred design principles have played a key part in the development of the service. The development team has embraced an open development model as well as open source software.
So how does the service measure up?
It is certainly cleaner and more up to date in design. This is not hard as Direct.gov was frankly terrible from a usability and aesthetics perspective. The main page of gov.uk is uncluttered … well apart from a massive banner covering about 1/3 of the main page telling you about the site that you are already on!!!
Clicking the tour button launches another page (why not just run in a window as you already have the massive window) which presents a picture of Mike.
Once you click on it (no autorun – why?) it show a picture of Mike, then the logo (editing error), then has Sarah talking, then back to Mike as they introduce three examples of what the site can do. The first example is employing staff. Great, but not a common consumer function (which questions the logic of adding business and consumer information within a single site with no high level navigation to select your context). The second example is a maternity pay calculator. Admittedly this is an important feature, but primarily of interest to one half of the population. The final example tells you when the next Bank Holiday is. Whilst useful is hardly a demonstration of what the platform aims to achieve. It does provide the ability to download .ics files, but adds no information on how to use them. Presumably if you know what they are, then you know what to do with them, but if you know that, then you are likely to know how to automatically add these from within Outlook itself anyway without needing to visit gov.uk.
So how does the site manage common queries?
I performed three random searches to see how the site can help me:
1) I am thinking of extending my house and wanted to know about planning restrictions. I typed “home extension” in the main page search box and clicked ‘search‘
From the 99 results that were presented … none of the first 20 in either category showed me the information that I wanted.
The results were completely useless. How can home extension be in anyway like home education? The context is completely wrong.
So, I ran the same query on Google to see whether the results were better. The results page gave me a collection of valuable links – with the second one providing the information that I wanted. This ironically linked to a Government site that gov.uk didn’t point me to.
2) Like many people, I worry about the economic climate, so wondered what happened should the worst happen. I searched on “lost my job“. Surely this is an area that gov.uk will triumph and help me. This must be a common query given our unemployment rates!
The result was again disappointing. NONE of the top results gave me the information that I wanted.
A quick search on Google shows the information that I want as the first link!
3) One final test. A common query. Help me understand what benefits I can get. So I typed this in, “what benefits can I get“.
GREAT the first link is exactly what I wanted.
A link to a tool … or so I think.
So I clicked on it.
And then things went downhill. A error page from Directgov … I thought this was no more, but apparently not. It is just not working. Directgov lives!
I was using Chrome on a Mac, so decided to use Safari and see if the results were different.
They were. At least, it worked. This is not encouraging, but these things happen.
But … this is the old Directgov service.
So Directgov is still live; still very orange, and still very unfriendly and still ‘olde worlde’ with the only means of contact being a telephone number. No online chat, no request for a callback, no other contact channels such as email or the opportunity to leave a question … just a telephone number. No change here.
So is gov.uk merely a skin?
Is this the same for all services?
One final test …
Back to gov.uk, and a search on “PAYE error“. This is one of the most common problems for employees in dealing with HMRC and presents a major problem for employees and government.
Surely this must be improved?
Not really, but the link that I wanted was at least on the first page (as the 4th link), so I clicked on it. I was hopeful about the improvement, as I am painfully aware of the limitations of the current service – which essentially a non-existent online service. As PAYE problems are a major source of frustration and also cost for citizens and government, I was hoping for an improvement.
And the results …
Your online service options … a telephone number or a postal address. Not even a freepost address!
The new gov.uk service provides …
- No help
- No guidence
- No information
- No online contact form
- No email
- No live chat
- No callback
At this point, I am drawing some negative conclusions about the service and finding it hard to understand exactly what is improved. Yes, the main pages are cleaner and better designed, although they make some design choices which others would disagree with. The menu structure is clear and works as far as it it can. As soon as it starts to link to other Government services the experience falters … badly. Look and feel, colouring, layout, formating … in fact everything seems to vary as soon as you leave the gov.uk pages. Several of the Local Authority links I used simply didn’t work. Others which did work, resulting in me navigating through several levels of menus when Google found the direct link much quicker.
This is not the primary issue though. The core problem is much more fundamental than that.
The core problem is nothing has changed.
Not to me as a user.
Yes, the starting pages are cleaner, and load faster, but the results given are terrible and beaten on every test I did by a search on Google.
This begs the question why Government doesn’t avoid the cost of developing a solution and simply use Google search. There is a logic to keeping search in-house, and it can [needs to] improve, so lets move on …
Combining citizen and business functions means that there is a single site, but there is no opportunity to identify the context of the search – so most searches combine both the citizen (Direct.gov) AND the business (BusinessLink) results. This is useless for both parties and in my admittedly limited experience gaves poor results. As a citizen I don’t care about business information, but there is no way for me to tell the service this. It cannot learn, it never asks me and has no concept of a profile.
Even as a business owner, I would be operating as either a citizen or a business – not both at the same time. So the logic of combining results appears flawed to me.
Despite these frustrations, they are symptoms of a deeper issue.
Government doesn’t want to change.
Despite what I read (and have been promised since 1999), the transformation to online services is not happening. Yes, departments are putting information online and implementing simple front end processes, but the machinery of how government works is still locked into the old way of working. We are not transforming our processes, we are adding electronic services around the old ways of working, without redesigning them to benefit from technology. This costs more not less. It doesn’t save money. It gives a minor benefit for a large costs and delivers high ongoing costs as you maintain the inadequate online service and the inefficient old service. The worst of both worlds.
Positive next steps
Telephone and post continue to reign and there is no evidence in this release of a fundamental rethink of how services need to be redesigned to make them fit for purpose and as efficient as they can be. For all the excellent work that the GDS team have done in building a positive vision, the improvement seems to stop there. Unless there is a fundamental drive into the main departments as well to redesign working practices and become ‘electronic by default’, then we are not going to see the changes that are possible.
Given the posts from GDS, the openness in communication and the willingness to engage others, my guess is that the team are doing as much as they can. So now comes the real test. Does the Government drive the philosophy, design principles and change that GDS have pioneered deep into the functional departments, or does it stay at arms length, prevented from delivering true change, but offering a pretty website?
Simply cascading the design philosophy, layouts, colouring and fonts across other Government sites will improve the overall experience, but the cost/benefit of this could be hard to justify. At the end of the day, it will look better, but be just as broken.
So how will major improvements happen?
In the past, the scale (and therefore the complexity and cost [and risk] of implementing the digital vision) has stopped any real progress. It is the ‘boiling the ocean’ problem. So the question to Frances Maude is whether he will allow the GDS team to pick one service and transform this to prove what can be done. This is not adding sticking plaster as most Government websites are, but truly digitally transforming it. This means designing and implementing a digital service fit for purpose. A service that is engineered for user interaction and performance. It can be done; banks have done it. Energy companies have done it. Most retailers have done it. All new businesses see this as a core function of how they need to operate and engage with their customers. All of these companies allow you to manage your relationship fully online. In Government though, as we can see from the PAYE example, it has stayed immune to digital interactions. The reality may be that enterprise sticking plaster is employed behind the scenes in many companies, and this has certainly been the case in many banks, but as new services are developed and legacy platforms are replaced the old platform is removed and the service becomes increasingly efficient (and keeps the company competitive).
Staying locked into outdated ways of working prevents any efficiency savings and removes any opportunity for service improvements to citizens (or Civil Servants who have to take the complaints about the service from the public).
The decision about the future strategy of GDS and its role could be made for it though. Falling tax receipts and demands for budget reductions may make this decision much easier as the option of continuing the old way of working is simple unsustainable. There will be no option but to embrace digital transformation.
And it couldn’t come soon enough.