Mixed views of .gov websites

If this week was also a week for online democracy stories, it was also a week for people to take a renewed interest in the state of .gov. Although the reports were negative they weren’t quite as bad as I’ve seen in the past which might mean that progress has been made, that the writers have gone soft or that there’s a move to encourage to exploit rather than discourage to destruction.

The main pieces were two from Michael Cross in the Guardian, one titled “On a quest“, the other his regular “Public Domain” Feature. The former was a brief review of a report published by Socitm (SocItToEm?) and the Citizens Advice Bureau (who published their own report on e-government issues some weeks ago and this report echos many of the same points). Kablenet also covered this report, in a similarly (relatively) upbeat tone.

Some quotes that will put them all in context, first from Mike Cross:

The survey is significant because it … test[s] e-government from citizens’ points of view … [rather than by] agency

[On disability benefit] … the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) … won praise for clarity and forms available for completion online

[But] the effort was marred by a notice at the foot of each page warning the site was likely to go out of date as legislation changed

Local authorities did less well: only two of the 15 reviewed were able to point people to the DWP for benefit.

But the bad news is

The government has a double target for going online: by the end of 2005, all its services (where possible) must be available electronically and the most important must be heavily used. David Harker, chief executive of Citizens Advice, says the way electronic public services are designed make it unlikely the target will be achieved.

Kablenet say

The evidence from the research shows that government websites have some way to go before they will be able to fulfill citizens’ needs for information and services in the areas tested, says Socitm. People using search engines are often taken to inappropriate websites if they use everyday language in their search terms.

One of the interesting things done with these tests was that they were “subjective” tests. So many reports on government websites to date have said that they’re slow or have HTML errors or don’t cater for accessibility standards and so on (all of which are important, but second order) and this may be one of the few (first?) to say “ok, I’ve got this problem that I want government to take care of”. The use of the Google search engine to help find the answer is also good – after all something like 85% of Internet searches are carried out from Google (either using its own site or through a rebadged instance of it).

Earlier this year (April), using Google, I did some analysis on the mindshare of government sites, i.e. how well linked to by the outside world are they. For Google, the number and weight of links to any given page (or publication) are part of the key drivers that get the information bumped up the rankings. The data showed that government sites have fewer external links than many commercial sites, although I couldn’t figure out the weighting of those links.

Late last year, if not before, I also talked about the need to rationalise websites in government to make it easier to find specific content. Fewer sites hosting less duplicated content also leads to a better concentration of links, more targetted search findings and less navigational inconsistency.

The UK’s position on website proliferation and design is not unlike that of every country. Even those that have imposed rigid standards have many sites (Canada), just as those with highly centralised government (Dubai). Some countries are making progress anyway, although perhaps not the progress that might be made given a different web environment for government.

Perhaps another way to look at this is that the public sector offline infrastructure has evolved to its present form over a long period – decades or possibly even centuries for some departments. Although there have been shifts in departmental structures here and there with one agency separating out some functions and merging them into another or a new agency being created to handle new functions, the overall structure (for any government in any country) has changed little – departments are in place to carry out functions and they do that. In many ways you could say that the offline structure of government works fine – after all, the country ticks over, tax is received, benefits are paid. Many people have learnt the modus operandi of government – they know which office renews their driving licence, where to get a new passport, how to claim benefit and where to send their tax cheque. But you could also say (and I would, have and will regularly do so in the future) that it doesn’t work well enough and the technology that we have available today gives us a chance to pretend that we have something different online versus offline.

Online doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be the same as offline. The reason that public sector websites don’t score well in surveys like this is because of the inevitable mismatch between “everyday language” and government-speak. The kind of words that people put into search engines aren’t the kind of words that appear on government websites, especially if that search engine is a commercial one versus a public sector one. Simple english words put into a search engine rarely lock onto the right results. It’s a rare talent to think of the kind of things people might ask for in search engines and then (a) ensure that those words are well situated in the government website and that (b) that they rank highly from within a total of thousands of websites.

Consolidating the sites and reducing the amount of duplicated content, but that is no easy task. First, there are lots of sites that must be archived off, second auditing the content that is there and finding the best of the best and eliminating the rest is no simple task, but starting from scratch will take longer and cause confusion (because new content will overlap with old content and the “right” content might not be obvious to the reader). Once the plan to rationalise is underway, the editorial processes to create and manage the right content get underway – and again these are not simple. Writing everyday-readable content that navigates the legislation and steers the citizen or business where they need to get to is challenging initially. Keeping it going through successive editorial teams, changes in leadership, changes of policy and so on is a yet more dramatic challenge.

It’s all achievable and clearly work is progressing. Mike Cross even mentions the Online Government Store as a “coming soon” feature that will take us down this path in the UK. Sadly though, I think that there are enough surveys of this sort, enough articles of this type. The effect of the early ones was to shock a reaction, the later ones were post-anaesthetic – immunisation had taken place. Focusing in on “what to do” rather than inane comments about “it” not being achievable by 2005 will take us further forward. The list, for all governments, is simple:

– Fewer websites not more. Kill 50 websites for every new domain name.
– Less content not more. Delete five (or fifty, or five hundred) pages for every page you write.
– Solve the top 50 questions that citizens ask … and structure your content around those first. Then do the next 50 and the next. The people who know these questions are the ones that answer the phone in your call centres, the ones that write in to your agency and the ones that visit your offices for help; likewise, they visit accountants, advice bureau, charities and so on.
– Test search engines to see how your site ranks – both from a mindshare side and for individual queries.
– Impose rigorous discipline on use of “words” – plain speak.
– Impose even more rigorous discipline on the structure of the content, including metadata so that it’s easy to read – by people and by search engines.

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