A good albeit apparently justifiably anonymous comment on a recent post, “What’s a Website Worth?”. I’ve edited out the bits I thought worth airing and commenting further on:
Let’s leave aside the design/navigation issues the site still has to overcome – it’s a big task, and the site is making progress against a tough objective.
But even if Direct.gov were a fantastic, robust, easy to use site – is it still right to turn off all the others? Isn’t there something to be said for promoting competition in approaches to government on the web along the ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ line of thinking? With a single CMS, a single set of editorial guidelines, a single design template – how will central government sites keep pace, innovate, and become better still?
Sure, having more sites will cost more money, and the argument for smart cross-linking is undeniable. There’s also definitely a case for culling the existing jungle of government sites, but why not cull the weakest 25% year-on-year, and support the brightest 5% to see what we can learn from them?
In my quest to keep things simple, I’ve always gone for “one site” because it cuts the debate down. As soon as you say “ok, we can have more than one”, then everyone wants their site included and we argue indefinitely about what the criteria for inclusion are (believe me, I’ve been there). I realise that “one” is not the right answer just as “thousands” isn’t. The important thing is to recognise where you’re going to invest and where you’re not going to invest. Everyone who runs a website in government believes that they can have the one of the “brightest 5%” if not this year, then next year, with just a little more money.
I absolutely buy the idea of seeding some sites with funding. Let’s say we take the top 5% by market penetration. We’ll keep that simple and say it’s the number of customers they could have times the ratio who are online. So direct.gov would be 2.8 million out of 36 million (60 million times 0.6, where that’s the ratio of the country online, give or take), or 7.77%. That sounds good, but, Hitwise figures for November 2006 show google.co.uk at 8.06% and ebay.co.uk at 2.98%. A year ago, the same source had direct.gov at 2.8%. With direct.gov’s traffic roughly doubling over the last year (I’m being only a little generous) then somewhere around 5-6% probably isn’t out of whack.
That works for established sites. It also works for sites that have a chunk of marketing money. It’s hard to imagine, say, www.salt.gov.uk (one of my favourite domain names) getting much marketing or much traffic, so it should rule out the obviously banal sites. But what about a sexy new site? How would it get launched? How would it make its case so that it could be one of the 5%? And who would it displace? Nobody objects to the rule of let’s fund, say, the top 50 sites only, until you meet the guy who runs the site at #51 – you’d better be ready for some stiff criticism at that point, because he’s going to question your maths as well as your parentage.
Let me go a bit further and look at 4 models in industry and government. The first is Amazon.com. Amazon sells everything you could ever want (ok, most things). It’s easy to navigate, has a great search engine and lets you put everything you want to buy in a single basket. But not all the items that you buy are sold by Amazon – there are thousands of third party suppliers and, indeed, millions of customers who are selling previously bought goods (whether bought on Amazon or not). As a customer, I’m largely oblivious to this. There is plainly all kinds of integration and face-painting going on, but it doesn’t matter to me. This seems to be the ultimate business model for aggregation of services under a single brand. Would anyone say that Amazon doesn’t innovate? I doubt it – free shipping, new products, recommendations, gift wrapping services, buy new or used, 1 click purchasing (don’t rag on about that patent stuff please).
Then let’s take itunes. Great interface, oodles of tunes of all genres, not so great at classical music sorting (something about composer/orchestra/conductor/soloist being hard to map I guess), ties in perfectly to the ipod (shuffle/nano/video etc), does podcasts, videos, even games. All the time you’re oblivious to it as a customer. Except when you try and put your bought and paid for itunes music somewhere else – whether that’s another player or even a Sonos. Never mind that I’m not trying to copy it, I just want to play it. This has turned out to be a genius business model for Apple but isn’t that great for the consumer. Anyone who remembers how hard it used to be to switch from a Nokia phone to an Ericsson phone, if you didn’t have all your phone numbers on the SIM card will recognise story. Eventually it breaks and all kinds of things emerge that let you get round it until the companies sort it out properly.
Lastly, there’s google. It creates lots of beta services, bundles them under its own domain name but makes them pretty hard to find unless you’re dedicated (how many people even know google suggest exists, let alone orkut or google directory); Google buys new things that it can’t build, like picasa or youtube and doesn’t even bring those into its own brand structure initially. Eventually all of these things will be harmonised and just like the reason we fell in love with Microsoft Office was that we never had to wonder where the “open” button was or where the recent files are or whether spell check was consistent or whatever, it will all just work.
And then there’s UK government which did a sort of google thing early on, i.e. as you said, it let one hundred flowers bloom. If you’ll forgive me a digression:
Originally said by Chairman Mao Zedong”Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”, this slogan was used during the period of approximately six weeks in the summer of 1957 when the Chinese intelligentsia were invited to criticize the political system then obtaining in Communist China.
It is sometimes suggested that the initiative was a deliberate attempt to flush out dissidents by encouraging them to show themselves as critical of the regime. Many of those who put forward views that were unwelcome to Mao were executed.
So should we let them all bloom, or use a liberal dose of DDT, a la Mao? That isn’t meant in poor taste.
We need to encourage innovation – but we need to stifle the weeds. In the mess that is online government – and the UK is not alone in having this problem – we’ve grown a multi-headed monster that we can no longer control. Thousands of sites exist, new ones pop up most weeks with ever more bizarre names (I notice an increasing trend to use .com now to bypass government domain naming standards), they’re rarely accessibly and probably rarely used. And, for the most part, we have no idea how much they cost – parliamentary answers provide the data that they have but most of the data is too difficult to get and, unless the question is very narrowly defined, the answers can be misleading and difficult to compare (I used to look at the data and try and draw comparisons; rarely did I get anywhere).
Directing both new and existing sites towards direct.gov will help contain the problem – it won’t solve it; no-one is going from 4,000+ sites to 1 or 2 anytime in the next 5 years. Figuring out the business case for which ones to let flourish independently will be difficult, but it is worth doing – perhaps using a venture capital style model (hence my interest in how much a site is worth, using the BSkyB link as a prompt) where money is provided for certain deliverables, perhaps market share, perhaps transaction count or whatever. At the same time, money is spent on direct.gov to bring it up to pace – we can agree or disagree about navigation and so on, but whatever the right things to spend on it, again subject to a good case (which need not be monetary), are spent on it so that it too is innovative. Believe me, when it was fired up, it was definitely innovative. All the work on accessibility, style sheets, single route to any device, search engines etc were all nowhere to be seen anywhere else (not claiming credit here, I was an interested watcher).
Personally, I like the Amazon model. For the most part, I believe people want to come to one authoritative place – after all, it’s unlikely that they “shop government”, looking for differing views or better benefit assessments. The information there should be in a common voice with simple navigation that lets me get through the hierarchy quickly. The information that I have to provide, I want to give once and once only. I don’t want to fill in 61 forms for government benefits – actually, I really don’t want to fill in any forms, but that’s a topic for another day.
Certainly, the idea of a single central site would scare everyone else in the opposite direction at great speed. It would quickly be criticised as slow, unwieldy and lacking in innovation. And it would be all those – but, for the right aggregation of content and with the right adoption by the rest of government (the way the DVLA now routes you to it with every letter they send), it could be the new ebay, amazon or google. The place where everyone goes first – and where they branch away from only when it can’t help, but using seeds placed in direct.gov to find where they need to go. So, I’m with you, almost. Kill the bottom 75% or relegate them to policy and position paper locations only; invest in the 5% of new business cases that you see every year, with a finite innovation budget; keep direct.gov in line with the best of the innovative ideas after they’ve been proven in the wild, again, on a finite budget.