I’ve been thinking a lot about the new experimental government prototype website www.alpha.gov.uk and the ripples it will create among web developers and designers in the UK public sector and beyond.
I’ve played with the site and found it very usable, others have commented that it doesn’t look like a traditional government website (which is good) and it is clearly focused on what people are trying to do and reduces and strips out pretty much all of the content which simply get in the way of conducting a transaction.
So what will it mean for the rest of the public sector, in particular Local Government, well my personal view is that it will have a profound effect on how local authority sites are designed and developed over the next few years.
One council who I feel are already doing aspects of what Alpha is looking to prototype and demonstrate is Liverpool City Council. A site which has stripped out content and focused on what people are actually coming to the site to do….an excellent example, I’m sure (hope) there are others.
What I think has been the barrier for anyone doing this before is a legacy mindset from eGovernment and the 100% of services online ethos. This was right at the time as it pushed councils to actually create an online presence, but for those that has already built a successful online presence it merely handicapped what was already a reasonably good formula – invest time and effort the most popular services and do just enough for the rest, and when stats show services becoming more popular find out what people want and then deliver it. That was the approach in Devon anyway, and it had its flaws but it worked, probably better than now if I’m honest…but we are where we are and we move on.
The key thing is we *must* recognise that old approaches are not supporting new organisations.
We all need to be *Brave* and use the stats and evidence that we can all access reasonably easily to demonstrate to our council managers and leaders that delivering 100% of effort on 100% of services online is not only pointless, but it reduces the ability to improve the services which are actually used by people and will support cost savings in organisations – So we need to ensure that we spend the majority of effort on the most used and popular services.
It is this break from tradition and a return to “old school local gov web” values that Alpha is demonstrating for central government as well as providing *permission* for local government to follow a path it has previously been on…
However this time we can benefit from a wider set of learning around open and linked data, social web, content standards, accessibility.
I remember when I first started as the Corporate Web Manager for the council back in 2003 I considered the local government information architecture question – the same question that Andrew Beeken mentions is his blog post:
Wasn’t all this information, to all intents and purposes, the same? Sure, everyone had different rates and some councils provided a different range of services but, ultimately, everyone had the same set of information.
Pay council tax, apply for benefits, planning applications, yadda, yadda, yadda. “So,” I asked. “If we all do pretty much the same, why do we all run wildly different systems?”
The answer was, simply “Because that’s the way it is.”
Whilst I still broadly have this view, my thinking now is that – Yes we do fundamentally all have the same services and a consistent approach would certainly help citizens in engaging with local government – but the residents of Devon will naturally have a different online behaviour to other parts of the country and this will in turn mean that different services will be more popular here than in other places.
What should be consistent in my opinion is the user experience at the transaction and service level…this is where I think Alpha can provide some lessons for local government.
All in all, this is an exciting time and I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more about how Alpha informs and influences the future of government online in the UK.