AlphaBeta.gov …

Is what Alpha.gov.uk (and the soon to be beta.gov.uk) are doing really different? I mean, it’s a website, right?  We’ve had a few of those before, more than a few (thousand) in fact.  As someone who used to do, in the Office of the e-Envoy, what the Government Digital Service (GDS) team (formerly the alphagov team) are doing, I watch their progress with interest, applauding the successes and wondering about the things still to do, occasionally scratching my head.

I was part of a team a lot like the GDS team.  We had a bunch of hugely talented people drawn from inside and outside of government (plus quite a few secondees from major technology companies too); we published a lot of what we were doing; we took on some difficult projects (some right at the very edge of what was going on in industry let alone in government); we worked hard to draw other departments in (we often had to pitch for them to use what we were doing during a competitive tender process;  we used open source products; we did work for other departments who commissioned us to build things; we put in place things that, 10 years on, are still in place now and drawing ever greater usage; we built things from scratch, used beta products, and integrated some complex stacks; we even used the first cloud service in government in 2001 when we paid by usage and didn’t own any assets; we worked across government to write and edit content; we dealt with accessibility from day one with the aim of creating the most accessible sites; we tried to lead the way in doing things in a different way; we, too, dealt with the long tail of the vast range of services that government offers; we did things, like MessageLabs anti-virus, that weren’t strictly in our remit but felt like the right thing to do; we lived and breathed our services, taking it personally if there were problems or if customer were not happy.

eDt vision, September 2001

So are GDS all that different? My sense is that they are, and they aren’t.  They’re doing what we did, and more, and better.  And they have some things to work on – based on current progress, I’m pretty confident that they’ll sort those out too.

The team – there is a greater focus on people already inside government.  In 2001 we tried hard to recruit civil servants into the team but often failed to attract many (or, indeed, any).  The Cabinet Office wasn’t seen as the place to do what we were trying to do; it wasn’t a delivery department.  We had some great civil servants for sure, but not enough to make them the core of the team.  The GDS folks, and the Alpha team in particular, have attracted some terrific people into the team, even converting some outsiders into insiders along the way.

The process – this is open government in action.  From 2000-2005 we published almost everything we did, but almost always to those inside government.  We were amongst the first (and probably actually the first) to make available every detail of the volumes, the service delivered, the product roadmap and so on; the team often spoke at conferences but the audiences were mostly other government people (and the larger suppliers). GDS are publishing pretty much everything they do, including decompositions of decisions made (particularly the ones that have attracted criticism), via blogs, twitter, the press and doubtless other routes.

The roadmap – I get the sense, and I don’t know this for sure, that the alpha team don’t know where they’re heading with each piece of work they start, and I mean that in a good way.  When we started work we had to bid for money, build requirements list, test the requirements with customers and deliver what we said we were going to deliver.  We wiggled a little as we went but we pretty much got to where we had said we were going to, for better or worse.  These guys are working in a much more iterative way, shifting left and right to work around some problems or to add in new capability.  The beta will, I hope, evidence that approach even more.

Things still to see

Alpha tied itself closely to politics – the PM and Deputy PM were pictured smiling on the front page.  The GDS blog has a banner picture of Francis Maude:

If we’d had any obvious political link there would have been a lot of trouble.  Things change, of course, but my view is that these two shouldn’t mix (and I don’t mean the PM and Deputy PM).   The public ministerial support is, though, a brilliant thing to have in your pocket.

A single great website is, of course, essential for government (I think my position on that has long since been clear).  27 million people a month visit the existing direct.gov.uk but it has remained largely untouched since I left it in 2004/5 (it’s had a technology refresh and significantly increased functionality, but it still looks and feels largely the same – that is meant as no slight to the team who have worked diligently to upgrade it and keep it fresh, just an observation that it’s still orange and looks much the same).    For instance, the screen shot on the left is from 2007, the one on the right from 2011.

But transactions are where it’s at.  We built the government gateway to support both single transactions and joined up transactions (that is, ones that would link more than one department and send each of them the relevant data.  The vast bulk of those transactions come from sites other than direct.gov; the vast bulk of direct.gov’s transactions are for Car Tax.  That all needs to change.  We didn’t ever crack it.  It needs cracking – integrated transactions, simple pan-device (and even pan-channel) authentication, pre-population of data that government already knows about you and so on.

We built tools and services for all of government to use.  Our aim was to massively reduce spend on technology by building something once that could be used by many.  It was a great aim then and it’s still a great aim.  I don’t yet see where the GDS team are going with this.  Folks in government are still building and rebuilding websites – I know of a dozen that have gone live this year alone and that’s only the ones that I know about.  As Simon Dickson has argued before, there’s a great case for a lightly centralised service supporting government entities that still need their own site. I say “lightly” because I think there’s a need for two or three competitive offers working from consistent templates with each innovating and improving as well as co-operating and sharing.

We regularly confronted the question of whether to build something ourselves or to use existing products.  With the gateway, we used a not-yet-released to market Biztalk which needed around 100,000 lines of custom code to get it to do what we wanted.  Microsoft took all that we had done (under licence) and released a new version a year or so later which did all that we needed and left us with only 8 lines of custom code.  When looking at the engine for direct.gov (and later dh.gov and several other sites), we looked at Vignette, Stellent and others but went with a custom build – that was a difficult decision and one that proved wrong in the end as the engine was subsequently scrapped and replaced by Stellent.  GDS look to be going custom again which is likely to prove interesting perhaps 2 or 3 years from now.

We also confronted the issue of how much to do in-house and how much to outsource.  We were lucky to have a great skunkworks team who could rapidly build proofs of concepts, but we went with suppliers for all of our production versions (and we hosted with them too, not having a real cloud supplier at the time – plus we were also tied in knots by the Critical National Infrastructure badge, one that we wore with pride at the time but one that, in hindsight, was plainly an albatross).  Keeping everything in-house, managing turnover of staff, staying on top of emerging developments, dealing with 24 hour support, knowing that the only people in the way of criticism is your own team etc is a tough place to be – we were there too, but we had dozens of supplier people working for us too, so at least the load was spread.

In the end, GDS will make their choices on each of these and a million more decisions.  I hope that they recognise that, whilst it may all feel new/different/special, some of what they are doing has been done before (not just during the time of the Office of the e-Envoy around but by people in the 25 years before, dating all the way back to the computerisation of major transactions like PAYE).  Lots of lessons were learned and lots more will be learned from here on.  It would be good if the ones learned again aren’t the same as the ones learned before.

We, too, made decisions that attracted flak from armchair commentators, professionals and the press.  Perhaps the largest flak resulted from choosing Microsoft to deliver the gateway (when the previous attempt had failed dismally).  Microsoft were the only company willing to step into the fray – others suggested we scale down our ambitions and make use, for instance, of Windows NT and e-mail.  That decision proved to be the right one, despite the seemingly endless flak,

Alpha and all that follows it needs to part of a long-term delivery plan, one that shows how the Government’s ICT strategy will be implemented (a document describing that is due out any day now I believe).  But it also needs to be part of a wider delivery plan that shows what will happen within and across government where the real world services will be challenged in the same way as the technology ones are being (and have been).  Technology can create a veneer of joined up capability but it can’t truly transform the services in and of itself.

I will keep watching with interest because the challenge they’re taking on is the right one to undertake and because I believe in it too.  This is a new time in government.  Maybe it’s even a new 50 year storm.

Does The Web Need An AppStore?

I’ve had a new part of my daily routine for a while now … on top of take vitamins, clean teeth … I have “check for updates” on iPhone and iPad. I even have a sense of regret if there’s nothing new. Even the news that some favourite app has added support for Chinese and Korean is enough to create a frisson of excitement. The AppStore is truly a wondrous thing – even though I may now have to check on iPhone, iPad, MBA and iMac.

Yet, on the web, there’s nothing to create that sense that there’s something to look at (unless your only source of content is Google Reader). The number of sites I visit just once is a far, far higher number than the number I regularly visit – the 10 most used of which are permanently pinned open in Rockmelt (and before that were faviconised in Firefox). Yet those other sites, just once visited, are doubtless spending money upgrading, iterating, improving user experience, adding content, enhancing functionality. If I only knew.

So does the web need some kind of AppStore? Not to deliver apps particularly, but to tell me when something new has happened at a site that I’ve visited. Where “new” means an upgrade rather than some new content.

Of course, endless update notifications could drive me madder than Jack McMad of the planet Mad. But, judiciously used, I might return to visit those sites that hadn’t enticed me to register properly – but had piqued my interest enough to have me leave something that okayed updates. If they abused the privilege then they’re quickly deleted. But, if they don’t, they might gain repeat business/

On Direct.gov

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I’ve been hunting for where the single web portal is in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory and Effects of Good Government (to be found in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy). The frescoes date to the early 1300s and there are a series of 3 panels (in the Sala della Pace, or the Hall of the Nine as it is also known). Why am I hunting in seven hundred year old frescoes for portals? Because there are no good ideas, only good implementations. And, of course, because Martha Lane Fox’s report on the future of direct.gov (and perhaps more precisely on the future of the whole of online government in the UK) has been published. The recommendations are not new – indeed I had a small hand in publishing a similar report, then known as “Transformational Government” in early 2004 (tricky to find online now) which was followed by a different “Transformational Government” report in November 2005 (around a year after I had left goverment) which was, in turn, followed by the Varney Report aka “Service Transformation” in December 2006 which recommended, amongst other things:

… moving customer facing content across to two supersites www.Directgov.gov.uk for citizens and www.businesslink.gov.uk for businesses. Both sites involve substantial process re-engineering behind the scenes to produce high quality information in language targeted at the customer, not the producer.

It feels a little like the old saw of “everything that can be invented has been invented” attributed to Charles Duell of the US Patent Office (and, as far as I know, a complete misquote of what he actually said, in 1843, which was “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.”
My views on this topic are well known. I’ve been writing them here for getting on for 10 years (in a few weeks, this blog will be that old), for instance:
From my own blog in October 2002

… we need to decelerate the rate at which we acquire domain names. And, as quickly as possible, slam the engine into reverse and start shedding them, merging several together and generally thinking around how the citizen might want to access data rather than how we might want to organise it. It’s not tagged correctly. Most content is tagged with the basics of the “dublin core” – i.e. who edited it, when etc. But it’s not tagged with anything that we might recognise as being customer focused. Our metadata standards will need to be expanded to pull this off … in fact, we will need to accelerate the rate at which we develop the standard, so that it quickly becomes sufficient to describe client segments and sub-segments, geographic locations, age groups and so on. It’s presented badly. Well, not badly as such. Presented differently every time. Every department has its own look and feel – their own style, navigation, templates and so on. As you move from site to site, you have to look for how to do things; not for what to do. That’s not an easy thing to address.

A move to content management (remember, something you do, not something you buy) is overdue for the big departments – for it is they that have the biggest problems (and, I suspect) the same holds true for most government sites around the world. I don’t see much evidence yet of dynamic content management, although I do see a lot of procurement requests for them coming out. These issues, as far as I can tell, apply pretty much globally – most governments have 100s if not 1000s of websites; few orient their content to “needs” and fewer still do anything more than aggregate lots of links to point to the variety of content.

And then, this slide, the first outing for which I trace to November 2002 at a conference in Northern Ireland

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From The Guardian, April 2002, quoting the NAO:

Just 3% of services allow the public to conduct internet transactions, such as providing grants or benefits, even though these offer the most potential for efficiency gains. At present there is no service that allows collection of revenue online.

“The major challenge is to get services online and to encourage and enable people to use them. Otherwise the considerable potential gains in departments’ efficiency will not be delivered and large amounts of public money will have been wasted.”

So, to the report itself … Broadly, I agree with the recommendations – after all I’ve been saying roughly this kind of thing for 10 years so how could I not agree? Well, I don’t agree in toto – and, inevitably, it’s about the implementation. Where is the plan for how these recommendations will be made to happen? Is Martha Lane Fox staying on or is this considered the sign-off point? There is form behind these kind of reports – they’re published and then forgotten when the publisher is no longer around. It’s good though for successive reports to say the same kind of thing – and for them to introduce new twists on the ideas and thinking from previous iterations so that they try and figure out why it hasn’t happened so far and then solve those problems. This report really needs an implementation plan.

The recommendations from the report, along with my comments on each are:

Make Directgov the government front end for all departments’ transactional online services to citizens and business, with the teeth to mandate cross government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens’ experience of key transactions.
This is hard to disagree with. Indeed, for me to disagree would go against everything I did in government from 2001 to 2004 (and quite a lot since then). But it isn’t the whole story. Direct.gov absolutely should be place where the average citizen goes to find out what they can get from government and how to get it. Likewise, it should include all of the content that the average small business needs (i.e. a business of less than 10 people perhaps). That said, there are specialised areas of content – detailed policy on tax, information on grants for landscape conservation, specifics on how to apply for additional funds to support R&D that are best left to the experts in that area. Sure the content can be provided to direct.gov but it will be much more likely found if it is in the domain of those who own it. The specialists will look where they know where to look. If everything moves, they will be more than a little surprised and the benefits will be reduced because everyone is hunting. Just as, later, the report recommends that data be made available on a publish and subscribe model from direct.gov, the same should apply to direct.gov. It doesn’t have to host everything in other words.
Many will say that the graph above (and many subsequent blog posts) suggest that I believe that there should only be ONE government website. I don’t and never have done. In the same way that I believed strongly in announcing a target to have 100% of government services online, I believe that the stark message of a single aspirational site sets the right tone. If, in OeE days, we had said we want 75% of services online, we might have ended up with 30% (see this post from October 2002 or this one from April 2003 ). If we’d said we want 100 sites, we might have ended up with 1,000
Back in 2001 I used to introduce the 100% target by noting that we had figured out that there would be a few services we were pretty sure we wouldn’t be putting online. One was burial at sea (see this post from February 2006 for instance and the same one from October 2002 I refer to above). I vaguely remember that something like 8 people a year choose to be buried off the shores of the UK. The return on investment for putting that online didn’t seem great – and it might be that had we made it more widely available, more people would have been encouraged to think about it, leading to a booming industry of sea burials (imagine my surprise to read in the FT this weekend that burial at sea is up 10% in Shanghai because of the shortage of burial sites – let’s hope they don’t put that online)
I was surprised to see a suggestion in the report that there might be other choices for the single domain name for accessing government content – hmg.gov.uk is suggested. We looked at a lot of those in 2002. We registered (it seems to be gone now), www.gov.uk for instance. But we also tested all of the other possibles you could come up with along with a thousand you wouldn’t. Direct.gov won the day – and, notwithstanding it being a reminder of John Major’s Direct Access Government of 1994, it still does, for me and for millions of others.
The question then, for me, is not really about the content – I think that battle is done with. Direct.gov has, Martha says, 28 million visitors a month (we used to publish the stats every month on the cabinet office website for how many visitors, how many page views, what was searched for and so on – I haven’t seen that data for a while, except in the COI reports which don’t appear too regularly). The question is about transactions. As my graph above shows, the focus on transactions only comes when the focus has shifted away from content proliferation. The bulk of the transactions served by direct.gov, possibly even all of them including car tax, are handled by departmental systems, but front ended by direct.gov with a simple style sheet. This was our plan at the outset anyway; I assume it is still the case. There isn’t any way that direct.gov should provide all transactions – it needs a way to display them and make them easier to find. And, above all else, it needs to find a way to make the Holy Grail of online government happen, joined up government. For some years I have had a blog post in draft that paraphrases Martin Luther King, Jr. and starts “I have a dream that one day this loose confederation of departments which operate inside government will rise up and join up”. I suspect I’m right never to have finished it.
Back in 2001 we looked at what Canada was doing with its “stripe” across every website, we looked at the BBC in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 and we looked at every organisation grappling with large scale content management problems. Many were using bespoke tools – we too had been down the path of Vignette, Stellent and others and found them wanting – and just as many were trying with combinations of static and managed tools. Things have moved on since but I don’t think the problem has gone away. Much as I admire what Simon Dickson at Puffbox can do in his wizardly ways with WordPress, actually the entire technology toolset doesn’t yet seem to be mature enough to pull this off.
We are falling foul of each of the 3 great lies of technology (as told by Jean-Louise Gassee) still, (1) it’s compatible, (2) we’ll be in RTM tomorrow, (3) you can do it (out of the box). Direct.gov is, and should remain, the front end for all text interactions with government. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only place you can go. If you want to know information, you should go to direct.gov – or to a place where direct.gov has seeded the content (as the report says). If you want to transact, you should also go to direct.gov, but only because it has amalgamated all of the services that you will need to access and has sorted them in a way that you can easily find them. The joy of transactions is, though, deeply embedded in the very next recommendation.<<

Make Directgov a wholesaler as well as the retail shop front for government services & content by mandating the development and opening up of Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) to third parties.
 
I believe it was John Yard, then Director of IT (in the days before CIOs) at the Inland Revenue, who first coined the “wholesale / retail” model in government terms. There is a little confusion in here in the example that is used in the report, of HMRC. HMRC doesn’t actually open up APIs – you don’t get direct access to its systems (which is how I understand an API to work, as technically incompetent as I am). When I was at the IR in 2000, I worked with many very smart people, drawn from inside the Revenue and across the IT industry, to look at the various schemas that would need to be put in place to allow 3rd parties to submit Self Assessment, PAYE and Corporation Tax online. The IR was the first to do this – we went live with the SA schema somewhere in late 2000, and PAYE was not far behind. The rules for validating the forms were published, although perhaps not all of the rules. All of the Revenue’s forms (not initially, but eventually) were then submitted via the Government Gateway with, hopefully, the right level of authentication (at least one chose entirely the wrong level of authentication and has never recovered from the consequences).

But yes, I agree completely with the idea that every form available from government should be made available at a schema and rules level to the outside world. Sadly, though, that pre-supposes that what we have offline will then be made available offline. I believe that only government can provide the joined up services that need to be made available to truly simplify goverment – because only government can establish the rules that run across and through departments and take the steps to resolve the differences.

We have, though, been at this for very nearly 10 years. The dictums proposed in 2001 that would have allowed online services to catch up and then overtake offline services by now have yet to be applied. As a result, we live in a world designed, for the most part, to be completed on paper – at a trivial level, try applying for a shotgun licence for instance. But what I really mean is that the world of government is still the world of forms: name, address, reference number, details and so on. Few transactions are truly transformational – the shining example is perhaps applying for your tax disc which truly links up different worlds and makes them seamless. I wonder, still, why we have a tax disc at all given that the police can rapidly check whether you do or don’t, but I do marvel at the change in the process.

What the report is asking for, though, is for transactions to be hosted anywhere. Again, the much-maligned Inland Revenue did this first – they put SA on various sites and within various programmes and did the same for PAYE. Few other government services have achieved the same level – despite our plans in 2001/2 to do the same for, amongst other things, pension calculations (so that you could compare public and private options side by side). We imagined, back then, that banks would do the authentication for you – after all, if your bank trusted you and government trusted the bank, then government should trust you. In 2002 that made sense. Perhaps in 2010 it makes a little less sense, but it is still something to go on.

Transactions must be made available in pieces that can be combined in different ways by different sites in ways that paper forms would never be able to manage. Perhaps one for the folks thinking about cloud-based services to resolved – circumstances engines, data owned by the citizen and so on. It’s a big task. It’s also not a self-funding task. There will need to be seed money and there will need to be a recognition that many government systems just aren’t up to this – that the very best that can hoped for is a veneer on top of a decades old IT system that really needs to be replaced, yet can’t be because the risks are just too great for now – especially in funding-constrained times

Change the model of government online publishing, by putting a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments.

Tom Loosemore has already clarified what he says was meant by this. He says that “The *last* thing that needs to happen is for all online publishing to be centralised into one humungous, inflexible, inefficient central team doing everything from nots to bolts from a bunker somewhere deep in Cabinet Office”. That’s good. The direct.gov team should commission the content that they need for their own site; they shouldn’t go anywhere near what HMRC are publishing for accountants on the implications of the latest change in tax policy, or what defra are describing in detail on trends in Environmental Land Stewardship. Tom said it all really so I will leave this one be

Appoint a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs) and the power to direct all government online spending.

Big call. “Absolute authority … across government”. Well, there isn’t anyone with that in any other function right now, not that I know of. I like the idea though, but what would the controls be? A BBC-like trust? A board (oh wait, we tried that with direct.gov)?

This appears to be going the whole centralisation hog, consolidating power in a single individual yet where the true power will lie at the far end, within the departmental organisations. What sanctions would apply if, in a department, you went your own way? What would the true definition of “user experience” be and how would the remit be governed? what would the strict rules around “all government online spending” be – all new spending, all old spending, all capital, all opex? Very, very big topic. And a very interesting one that needs something thinking about.

And Then There Were None?

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Mr Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said he would be scrapping three quarters of the Government’s 820 websites.

Whitehall sources were reluctant to name which sites will close although one suggested that www.lovechips.co.uk – a website run by the marketing department of the Potato Council – would be unlikely to survive the cull.

Mr Maude said all of the sites “will be subject to a review looking at cost, usage and whether they could share resources better”. The review, which will report back in September, will aim to close 75 per cent of them, and halve the costs of the remaining websites.

No new Government websites can now be set up, the Cabinet Office said, without the permission of a new Whitehall efficiency board, chaired by Chancellor George Osborne and Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury.

Mr Maude said: “The days of ‘vanity sites’ are over. It is not good enough to have websites which do not deliver the high quality services which people expect and deserve. That is why we will take tough action to get rid of those which are not up to the job and do not offer good value for money and introduce strict guidelines for those that remain.”

A report from the Central Office for Information, published today, found that £94 million was spent on the construction and set up and running costs of just 46 sites. The Government also spent £32 million on staff costs for those sites in 2009-10.

The most expensive websites were uktradeinvest.gov.uk which costs £11.78 per visit and businesslink.gov.uk which costs £2.15 per visit.

Authenticating to Government

I was hunting for some slides from a presentation I gave a while ago. I didn’t find the ones I wanted but I thought these slides on authentication (and a little content info) at the end were interesting (as a throwback). It struck me that many of the issues identified here – lack of crosstrust, persistent use of userid/password, insufficient integration with private sector authentication methods – are still with us and that government(s) could do with another go round at resolving them once and for all.

Distributing Government Content

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In 2002, the team I worked with in UK Government (the e-Delivery team, in the Cabinet Office) pitched to HM Treasury for an allocation of funds for delivery a content management solution that would have the potential to be used all across Government. This eventually became DotP (variously short for Dot Productisation – i.e. the ability to reuse it – or Delivering On the Promise, depending on who was making it up at the time).

We suggested to HMT that we might be able to do lots of different things given the chance, many of which were not being done in UK government. Trawling through the bid document today, I alighted on this paragraph:

1) Rich Site Summary (RSS)/SOAP.This will allow content to be pushed to other parties/sites when it’s published and pulled from our content repository by commercial and partner sites and incorporated directly into their web pages. This will enable full content syndication. A partnership with intermediaries is a critical step in achieving the levels of ‘take-up’ of Government services on line expected by the modernising Government targets.

Why is this interesting?

Well, because as Simon Dickson tells us, direct.gov.uk now has a content syndication API. We didn’t pull it off back in 2002, or any time after that. There were several good reasons and perhaps some less than good including a lack of obvious customers, a lack of demand from the UK citizen to present content in such a manner, a lack of funds (our bid was supported but with something like half what we had asked for, and we had a long do list). I suspect the real reason, though, was that we didn’t have the faintest idea how to do it (and whilst we had alighted on RSS as a possible way, I don’t think it would have worked – we couldn’t figure out how someone would ask for a given piece of content and then get it back nor how we would deal with updates and how format or length changes might look if someone else presented our content). I think we always thought it was going to be a necessary capability and so I’m really impressed that the dg team have pulled it off – and I hope that they’re seeing real demand for it.

Direct.gov have published a guide for how to use the syndication capability which looks pretty straight forward – my guess is that if you’re in the market for syndicating government content then you either are already technically literate enough to do it or you have people working for you who are.

By the by, I note that NHS Choices has a similar syndication capability. Well done to all those working on these two sites:

At the end of that quote from Gordon Brown in the captured picture above it says DG now has 25 million visits a month. Hopefully, given the new administration’s approach to data transparency, they won’t mind me publishing this graph:

201006122310.jpg These are the figures for ukonline and direct.gov in the month when we switched from one to the other, May 2004. Six years ago, then, ukonline was seeing perhaps 500-600,000 unique users a month and 700-900,000 visits.

72 months later, volume is up around 40 fold. 25 million visits a month!

That’s really quite stunning. At the time the resistance to the continued idea of a single (central) government website was strong, everyone (including me) had an opinion that they wanted to share on how it should work that was often different from the chosen direction – and almost everyone hated the distinct orange colour palette that was chosen (it grew on me in a surprisingly short time I believe).

At the time, another site that we hosted on the same infrastructure, dh.gov.uk, was seeing well over a million visits a month. We often wondered how quickly direct.gov would overtake dh.

I have fond memories of our vision slide that laid out what we wanted to accomplish. Here’s a version from early 2002:

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“tag and grab” – it has a nice ring to it. Perhaps nicer than “syndication API”! The keen eyed will see the 3rd iteration of the ukonline.gov.uk home page in that slide.