Hold The Press – Version 9,002,473

Oh. Another one. I see that James over at VoxPolitics has stopped posting for the holidays so I thought I’d sneak in with this one. Hedra, the management consultants (and one of the biggest suppliers of ‘consultant bodies’ to government) have been doing some surveys on government websites. The results are not encouraging – only 1 in 20 Internet users regularly use any of the 3,000 government websites; the survey of 600 (which, they say, is statistically valid) couldn’t find anyone over 65 or from social groups DE that used any of the sites regularly. The press release on the Hedra site concludes with this piledriver quote “Hedra Deputy Chairman Stuart James said: The Government needs to look carefully at ways of driving more traffic to its sites, such as discounts on taxes, like those already available to those who pay Council Tax by direct debit. Design and functionality are also important issues. The Government needs to find ways of managing relationships with IT suppliers to get the most from the Internet”. The BBC also picked up the story and added a few gems from the recent PAC report that’s been covered elsewhere.

I’m on the record here and in a variety of other places with my thoughts on government websites. Indeed, I’ve been speaking at conferences since January 2001 and have often talked about what I think is wrong with what we do, what we need to do about it and how we might do it. I’ve done this in front of audiences anywhere from 50 people to 6,000 people; in countries as diverse as Japan, Romania, the USA and, of course, many times in the UK itself. So, don’t for a minute think that I am shying away from this issue. But also, don’t for a minute that I think another survey list this adds any value at all.

– I’m no expert on statistics, so I can’t guess whether 600 is statistically valid. Instinct says it isn’t. But that’s hardly the point. I do know that there aren’t 3,000 websites though, so if they’ve got this wrong, I start to question all the numbers. When I checked at the end of November, there were around 2,200 registered domain names for government. Stripping out duplications (e.g. inland-revenue is not a different site from inlandrevenue) gives us about 1,800 sites. There are a few (but not many) .org, .com and others, so maybe we have 2,000 sites. So the survey is 50% high. But that’s still not the point.

– The figures I have seen, that are from samples far in excess of 600 (and I will track down the sources when I am back in the office) tell me that, in aggregate, government websites attract about 5,500,000 individual visitors per month from the UK – that would be (by my maths anyway) about 10% of the total UK population and about 18-20% of the online population (a bit more than the 5% claimed). This is something close to Amazon and also to the BBC (for UK visitors only) so I’m told. Two thirds of that traffic is garnered by about 20 sites – the top 2-3 usually have about 10-12%, but which ones they are vary. So during the exam problems this summer, DfES was high; during September, the Inland Revenue is high because of Self Assessment. Before any of my colleagues accuse me of hypocrisy, I’m not a fan of research – I like cold, hard numbers like visitor counts because as long as I always count the same way, I can tell what’s going on. I know, for instance, that traffic on ukonline has increased by 10x this year (end January to end November) – from a low base to be sure, but still a 10 fold gain is impressive. Ukonline is now one of those top sites. My usual quote about research is that it “is like a drunk with a lamp post – more for leaning on than for illumination”. But that’s still not the point.

The real point is that government’s progress with websites, whilst enormously beneficial in terms of the potential for the citizen to access raw information, has not been sufficient, has not driven the usage that it should have done (versus the pounds spent) not has it directly benefited the citizen in terms of faster processes, better services or, more aspirationally, transformed government. I haven’t met the deputy chairman of Hedra and I’m sure that he doesn’t write the quotes that are attributed to him, but he should probably check them before issue. All of these surveys usually come up with some inane recommendation, a snappy one-liner about how government could overnight improve its web offering – in this case, all we have to do is give some discounts on taxes. Oh, he says, and by the way, design’s quite important too. So maybe we should do something about that. Oh and lastly, perhaps we ought to manage our relationships with suppliers. And none of those are the point either. So strike three for another survey that adds data to support a well known conclusion but adds zero value to the debate on how we should progress. So, let me get to the point at last:

– Government’s web presence is designed around government. That’s fine for government, but not much use to the citizen. Noone knows or cares how to navigate around the 700-odd entities within government. Why should they? Do you know that the Inland Revenue administers Child Tax Credit, but the Department of Work and Pensions administers Child Benefit? No? Thought not. What you want to be able to do is go to a site, tell it a few things about yourself (either anonymously or not, as you wish) and then have the site tell you what you need to know. That is pretty achievable today – but it would mean linking to lots of different sites for you to get the information you need and each of those sites looks different, works differently and doesn’t know who you are (even though you told the first site a little). This makes it hard to gain “mind share” (and I’m grateful to colleagues in Opta for putting this concept firmly in my mind). The average person has room in their favourites menu or their links toolbar for perhaps 10-12 sites – the ones that they visit regularly. One will be google, one yahoo, one the bbc, one Amazon, one the local football team, one perhaps tesco.com and so on … that doesn’t leave a lot of space for “government”, especially when it is so fragmented on the web (by the by, ukonline could be a nice placeholder in this space as it will get you to all the others).

– Because our web presence is designed around government, every website looks different. By that I mean the search button is in different places, the menu buttons aren’t always where you think they should be (can you imagine trying to use Word and Excel and having to remember where “save” was because it moved each time?) and so on. But, worse still, each site will have a different view of who you might be – some will be structured around the departments within the department, some will have gone so far to think about you as a customer, some will just be lists of items. So you’ll have to spend time on each thinking about how to use the site rather than thinking about how you get what you need – which is, after all, what you went there for.

– Your interactions with government are probably pretty rare as it is – maybe you pay Self Assessment, you probably have a council tax bill, perhaps you claim child benefit. But it’s quite rare that you actually deal with government – you probably renew your tax disc at the post office, your garage sorts out vehicle registration when you buy your new car, your doctor’s known you for years and so doesn’t ask for your NHS number (and you’re not often sick, so you don’t go to hospitals) and so on. So what you need is for most of the other interactions to be taken care of for you – just the way the post office deals with the DVO (bet most of you don’t even know that DVLA is DVO now. Why should you?). And they ought to be taken care of, in many cases, by intermediaries that you already deal with – the banks, the building societies, the post office, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and so on. That’s a big step for government, but one that is coming. What seems like a long time ago I published a graph of how I thought goverment’s web presence will go – it will shoot past the present 1,800 odd, then level out and start to reduce rapidly. The mid end-point is perhaps a dozen sites. The end end point is none – because everything will be dealt with as you need it through a variety of intermediaries. At the time, I don’t think I made the “end end” point clear, but that’s where I think it will go in the very long term.

– Because we don’t treat “you” as an individual, it’s hard for you to figure out what exactly it is that government can offer you. So, unless government knows something about you and how it can contact you (so that when something changes – like a new tax credit being introduced) it can contact you, it’s hard to see why you would even visit more than a few government websites. This is an argument for personalisation – the kind of thing that Amazon already does (‘people who bought this book also bought this one’ – although Amazon persists in recommending me every new edition of something called Farscape, even though I keep telling them that I don’t want them). Personalisation is hard. Hard because you need a big store of data that is stored with information that lets you break it into individually relevant pieces of information; hard because you need some pretty standard definitions (a child must always be a child – but different bits of government use different threshholds which makes life complicated for the technologists); hard because content syndication and aggregation is not yet mature enough to do this well (more on this another time); and hard because it requires a full rethink of the way government manages its web presence – it would mean individual departments giving up control of some aspects of their world and handing them over to central administrators.

– Once the information is there and personalised so that you know what government can do for you, the next stage is to deliver transactions (obviously these happen in parallel in an ideal world, but some things are harder than others). Transactions is where things get messy – you have to open up those nasty old backend systems and tinker with them so that people on the “outside” can put things in them. That exposes all kinds of new weaknesses about business rules, availability of the systems and so on. Transactions are hard. When the Government Gateway launched, there were 3 – PAYE, VAT and IACS. Today there are over a dozen (with some transactions having several parts to them – e.g. PAYE is not a single transaction but about 30). By the end of Q1 2003, there will be about 30. Simply, this is happening faster now because departments have spent time opening up the backends to support these new ways of working. It’s by no means done. But it is working.

– Finally, to my earlier point about who owns Child Benefit versus Child Tax Credit, without a single brand that everyone knows (that mindshare point again) – so one that is marketed, advertised, linked to, referred to, referenced in the press and so on this won’t happen. Where “this” is online take-up. It doesn’t matter if there is more than one site after the intial entry point (at least initially), but if I (as a citizen) have to decide which government site might do what I am looking for, then all is already lost because I don’t speak “government”, I only speak “I want” or “I need to”. So I need a place to go, that is on my favourites or my Links toolbar, that will help me get around the rest of government. That already exists today – it’s ukonline – and maybe that’s the right place for this ubersite to be in the future, or maybe not. But there does need to be one such place. Underneath that single entry point is all of government, with its own brands and specialisations – because we know that individual departments already have their history, credibility and brand presence online and should not disturb that. But we do need to bring people to a place where they can find those specialists.

The benefits that come from doing all of this are that people find information quickly, get access to services that they need when they need them, gain real financial benefits (in the shape of tax credits or whatever) that they didn’t know they were entitled to etc. Gradually, government transforms its backends, reduces its cost of handling, delivers more efficient government and then the benefits flow from that transformed government. That latter point isn’t a 2005 goal, indeed it will take many years to achieve fully. But it will happen. On my watch too.

Rant over. Nearly. One last thing, the supplier community (as I will soon outline in my “Seven Deadly Sins of Suppliers”) does its level best, for the most part, to persist this state of affairs by failing to leverage solutions already developed (often within any given supplier let alone when two suppliers are involved); by failing to deliver robust and reliable services (think PRO, think Inland Revenue, think all the others that you’ve heard about); and by failing to take the business side of implementation – because nearly all the issues that I outline above are about business, not technology. Dealing with government is not easy, I know that, but the lack of creativity, vision and capability within large numbers of suppliers to the public sector is not helping.

Of course, to use a quote from before, “a consultant is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today” … and who did I say was one of the largest supplier of such to government?

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