Hurtling down Whitehall the other day in a rather battered, flea-bitten London taxi cab, I was surprised to see a bright orange bus, plastered with the direct.gov logo and web address. This must mean the website is finally official. Two years on, it can be launched.
Later, listening to Classic FM, I heard two quick ads in quick succession, one about parenting and one, I think, about being a student. My mind was elsewhere to be honest – I listen to Classic FM for the music, not the ads. But this direct.gov going mainstream after all this time.
Today, parliamentarians, according to the Independent, are huffing and puffing about the idea that the model/tv presenter/race car driver Jodie Kidd might have been paid a sum in the “low six figures” to advertise DVLA’s new service to apply for your car tax online. This was announced back in January. Supermodels don’t come cheap and low six figures (which I assume is anything from £100,000 to £149,999) would seem a bargain for the press coverage, plus they get extra free during this, doubtless short-lived, scandal over how much Ms Kidd was paid. Hey, even Vogue ran the story about the new service – surely the first time e-government has made it into the pages of the fashion press?
Does government actually need to advertise it’s online services? In the past, I’ve calculated that something like £1 billion of the Post Office’s annual revenue comes from government – and I’m not including the old benefits over the counter payments or the sub-post office subsidies. A big department, like HMRC or DWP, will send over 200 million items through the post each year (I know, you get most of them, heard it before). Admittedly, not all of those items hit the right person in the right address, but let’s say that 70% do (a 30% error rate in government address databases would probably be about right, but it could be a little more or a little less). So something like £700 million is spent on sending forms and information to and from the people. If each and every one of them were stamped with a single web address – http://www.direct.gov.uk – would there be any need for additional advertising? But, instead, every bit of paper from every different department has different addresses – departments even cross-advertise. I saw an ad for the blood donor website with my self assessment form once. That’s good – it means that government isn’t paying to insert ads in other people’s mail and it’s bad, it was yet another website address.
I guess there would be occasional campaigns – not everything is launched with a mailshot. So Talk to Frankm, a “non government, government” service would be a good thing to advertise.
I suppose it also depends on what the point of the campaign is. Does it try to get people who are offline online and using government services? Or is it about getting people who are already online to make use of them? You’d have thought orange buses (and, I hear, orange milk or, at least, orange milk boxes in Tesco) would be about the offline folks being persuaded to go online – but it would be a brave government policy that thought availability of e-government services would be the trigger to get people to go online.
If it’s about getting people to switch to e-government and they’re already online, then perhaps online ads are a better way of doing it? Government used to have an ad server that displayed ads on various government websites for other government sites (I know it did, I put it up), but it has long since been discontinued (since about the time of direct.gov funnily enough). Harnessing those who already use one service and getting them to use another ought to be a good and cheap way of driving traffic.
Informal analysis of traffic to direct.gov shows that unique visitors are up 7-15% over the period since the campaign started (compared to February 2006 average traffic). That doesn’t sound too bad – unless, of course, the sums involved were multiples of low six figures.
Personally, I’d rather see pictures of Jodie kidd on orange buses given the choice, but I’m not sure even that would encourage me to make the switch if I wasn’t already using online government services. Just so you know what I mean, here’s a picture of her not wearing orange:
Now that we’re seeing such a splash launch, it makes sense that welsh was recently introduced to direct.gov. Rumour has it that the platform on which direct.gov sits, dotp, will soon be pushed out to pasture. I wonder about the thinking behind a major translation effort (welsh), a major media launch (orange buses) and a platform switch all in short succession. Doing a platform change is no trivial task, it would be a shame if the good work done so far was undermined by instability during the transition.