Friday, July 02, 2004

There Can Be Only One

Ian D over at PSF was creative enough to pick up on a post here from earlier in June that noted that the battle was over for whether there would be only one government site or not, but that people hadn't figured that out yet. He did am ad hoc survey of the regular visitors to his site who filled it up with great comments, coming out roughly 50/50 I think in either total support or strict opposition to the idea.

 I've been meaning to take the debate a stage further for a couple of weeks but time has just not been there to do it. I thought I'd do it a stage at a time and respond to a few of the more provocative and interesting comments that were made. First up though, the thing that gets me the most is we seem to have an acceptance of either 1 site or 3000+ sites.

 I've always thought that aspirationally "one" was the right answer, but I'd settle for 100 or even 500 on the basis it would reduce the problem of information fragmentation. Noone else seemed to want a different number, from the posts that Ian summarised.

 One post notes that "The portal partners can't even agree what should be in the A to Z which, I guess, just shows the absurdity of letting government design websites. A while ago there was an A to Z on a central government site. Where do you think the "Treasury" were filed? T? Ha! It was under "H", for "HM Treasury". People don't think in alphabets and, if they do, they don't think in government alphabets. Besides, with hundreds of services, each set of topics under one letter will cover 3 pages.

An interesting idea was this one "One site implies one entity, one controlling force, no local democracy. How about 4 sites - My Country, My Region, My County, My Local Council !". Whilst I disagree that one site implies one entity (when you read a newspaper, apart from the Daily Mail, do you expect to get only one point of view from it?) as authorship can and would be spread across the entire constituency, I do like the idea of this kind of disaggregation. There's probably a "My Community" site as well - people in or near my area with my interests. I wonder though how many people care what happens in their region versus their county, unless they're local councillors? Or how about this one "The practicalities of a central organisation doing this for the country make this idea a joke" - this is back to another comment that communism was as good an idea as the Sinclair C5 or the millenium dome.

 One site doesn't mean one controlling entity - it might mean one "voice" in terms of style of writing though. We have 5,000,000 pages of content in government across 3,300 sites. How many of those pages are written in any kind of consistent, understandable, accessible style?

 One person, obviously well connected, said "like Andrew Pinder, I grew to realise that Departments will just not allow themselves to be joined up". Tell that to the Inland Revenue and HM Customs (Filed under "R" for revenue and "H" for HM in the A to Z). The Government Gateway joins up a dozen departments today, the Knowledge Network over 40.

The days of Fortress Government or Super Silos are declining. The Roman Empire eventually fell (all because of the lack of a zero in their number system some people say, it won't be anything so quaint for silos).

And, of course, I'm wrong because "Most people look for something via Google or some search engine or other" - go type in "disability living allowance" in google and restrict it to .gov.uk and count the occurrences (16,900 today, up from 9,900 a year ago). Tell you what, type in "I'm a new parent, what can government do for me?" and see if it works. Search engines are great when you know what you want, but they don't find what you don't know nor do they intuit what you might want. But, actually, "The more there are the more competition there is, the better sites become". I'd missed that - I hadn't realised that government entities were supposed to compete against each other. I thought we were in the business of serving the public and making it easy for them to find things. Besides, the more money we spend competing, the better, right? We must spend north of £1/2 billion a year on websites right now - another couple of hundred million widely spread would get us what exactly?

 I'm delighted that so many took the time to respond and I have, in turn, responded largely in the spirit of the posts that were made. My contention is: - 3,000 sites is too many; the right answer is closer to 1 than 3,000.

5,000,000 pages is too many; too many are out of date; too many are never looked at; the cost of maintaining a page that's never used is infinite as a ratio against usage.

A central site doesn't have to do all things for all people, it just has to get most of it right and hand over to specialist sites for things it can't do - just like the tiers of operation in a call centre, e.g. 80% of calls by first line, 15% by second line, 5% by third line. If the third line sites were specialist ones for specific local scenarios, wouldn't that make more sense?

Duplicating content tens of thousands of times increases the risk that it's wrong, increases confusion for the customer and reduces the chance of landing in the right place first time, wasting time (for the customer), money (for government) and bandwidth (for everyone).

There can be only one, but I'd settle for 50 or a 100 to start with. I'd like there to be another round of comments on this, that would be fun.

2 comments:

  1. Most parts of Government regard a website as a communications/marketing/profiling activity, rather than a service. Until Departments run their websites as a service rather than a comms. vehicle it will always be difficult to cap the spontaneous eruption of websites.

    Unfortunately I don't think this will ever happen. So the energy put into trying to stop the proliferation of brochure websites would be better spent on reaching the goal of 1 in another way - by making it possible for me to bring all my transactions with the Government into a single place.

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  2. Surely the issue isn't about the number of sites, so much as the number of sources of content?

    Create it (info on cold weather payments, say) once, display it n times; on DirectGov, on my local authority's site, and on yours, on the Citizen's Advice site, etc.

    This doesn't require us all to use the same CMS, or whatever. It requires us all to reach agreement on the standards for creation, maintenance, description, and disclosure. e-GIF does some of this, but there's more to do.

    Different users engage with different 'presentation services' at different times. For many, their local authority is more relevant or accessible than national government, and why should they need to know when an issue is national and when it's local, anyway? There are also a large cohort of potential users for whom either national or local government are not natural places to turn. They need access to the same authoritative content through other sources. Because if we don't provide that authoritative information to them, someone else will try... and they may not get it right.

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