An email forwarded from a colleague today, reminded me of this article that I wrote for Computing magazine in October 2002. The online version seems to have ditched the accompanying photo, for which I’m thankful as I remember it being particularly grim-looking.
Government websites need to be consistent, relevant and personalised – not just a representation of the offline world with a thin e-veneer.
Dictionary.com defines a website as ‘a set of interconnected pages … a collection of information’. By that measure, our e-government efforts appear to be successful.
More than 1,800 websites exist in the .gov.uk domain, with perhaps 40 going live every month. But adding ‘directly relevant’ or ‘highly personalised’ to the dictionary definition shows that we have a long way to go. Efforts so far have concentrated on replicating what we already have; leafletsonline.gov.uk, perhaps. But electronic government is about transformation.
It’s not about putting lipstick on a bulldog, covering up the fragmented nature of the offline world with a thin veneer. Consistent and coherent presentation of government information, across all departments, makes for a better customer experience.
We must allow customers to easily find what they are entitled to, from where and by when. Today, too much customer brainpower is used to figure out which bit of government does what and how a particular website works.
Amazon.com lets you shop in a certain category – just books, say – or search across the whole product range. Whether you are buying electronics or books, shopping with Amazon or one of its sublet stores makes no difference. The experience is consistent, relevant and personalised.
Imagine this model applied to government. It shouldn’t matter where you are when you look for something. Typing ‘child support’ into any government site would bring up a set of topics, including details of eligibility, how much it will be and, most importantly, a set of related options.
These would be from across all of government, perhaps including child benefit, registering a birth, or applying for a student loan. The tabs across the screen could just as easily be government departments as stages in your life.
Achieving this demands content management software. A hundred software salesmen will be rushing to email me with the latest guaranteed one-size-fits-all solution. Sadly, there is nothing ‘out of the box’ about this.
Content management is not something that you buy, it’s something that you do and keep doing. It is a business discipline underpinned by strict standards.
It will take a big effort to go through all of the information that is already online. Achieving consistent labelling alone is hugely challenging: there are more than two dozen definitions of ‘a child’, for example.
Taking action now would mean a relatively short step to an effective, useful set of websites that present clear information, directly relevant to the customer. I am not claiming that tagging content, loading it into a system and presenting it differently transforms government, but it is a necessary first step. It will allow us to build on all the effort that created the websites in the first place.
It is a bigger step, of course, to a ‘one click: having a baby’ transaction, where everything that you need to register your newborn is taken care of.
This is the vision we are working towards and must be in the mind of every government employee working on website design. We may still be putting lipstick on our bulldog, but it will be a much nicer shade.