I've been catching up on posts from Emma Mulqueeny (who, amongst many responsibilities, is at the sharp end of moving content to the core handful of websites that will be government's public face) and Jeremy Gould (who noted in a post about transforming government that it wasn't about closing down websites, which, of course, it isn't - but one sign that you've grasped the fundamental point about joining up government, thinking like a citizen and making life easier for them is that you, inevitably, reduce the number of places someone has to go to get whatever they need done).
[This was the team goal back in 2001]
I've been writing [ranting?] about the need for website rationalisation for a long time, nearly as long as I've been blogging here (about 7 1/2 years I think). I remembered a post I'd written - in July 2004 it turns out - called "There Can Be Only One." It pretty much says everything that I would say now - but I've made a couple of updates, pulled out inside [ ] and added some new charts and slides.
[This slide made its first appearance as far as I can tell in November 2002]
So, this is the post with the edits:
Ian Dunmore [picked 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.
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. 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.
Or how about this one "The practicalities of a central organisation doing this for the country make this idea a joke." 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?
[Out of interest I searched for the number of times "accessibility" is mentioned on gov.uk websites and was more than a bit surprised to see a count of nearly 1.5 million come back. I wondered how many sites have figured out A or even AA accessibility now - not long ago it was single digits percentage for even just a single A. Sitemorse's survey says things have changed ... bravo!]
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.
"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.
[I used to track this kind of statistic out of mild interest but long ago stopped. I just ran "disability living allowance site:gov.uk" through google and the answer astounded me: 156,000. Wow! 93,000 of those are in the last year. The good news is a large chunk of page one's results were on direct.gov, but not a large chunk of the ones from the last year. Google also has a new thing called a "wonder wheel", which looks like this for DLA]
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 don't have details on the current web spend and I'd like to think it's a lot less now, but I wonder with all of the effort going into twitter, social networks and so on whether we have slimmed the technology cost but massively increased the human spend. That might be no bad thing perhaps]
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.
[I was wondering how to count how many web pages government has now. Dan came up with a way once - I think he searched for a specific word that we thought might be in the footer of every page. I just tried with ' home - "home office" ' and got 21,600,000. If you have a better idea, I'd be interested]
[Google also has a timeline graph - this is all new to me, I haven't noticed it before so call me an idiot if it's been there for ages. This is the timeline for DLA again. The first reference is to a document published in 1991. I don't know for sure, but I am pretty sure, that DLA guidance changes every year and so much of this historical data is irrelevant. Why no one made any updates in 2005, I don't know. Data doesn't necessarily cost anything to keep online of course - but it will cost something when it gets looked at just as someone decides whether or not to migrate it to a central site; and it certainly cost something, both in human and technical spend to get online in the first place]
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?
[And a slide from a May 2002 deck
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.
[And just to finish, here's a slide from the business case for direct.gov that was written in 2002
Anyway, to my mind, how many websites a [central] government should have is a tired old debate - the answer is one(ish). And, just to be clear, I'm zeroing in here on how the citizen (you and me) finds out information about government - what it can do for us. I'm not going for the "we need one place where all of our data is and then we can just hand the keys of our lives to government." That's a different topic, and one for another day.