Doing Government Websites Right

Today, I have a piece over on Tech President about how the new UK government website – Gov.uk – does a lot of things right.

I’d love to see more governments invest two of the key ingredients that made the website work – good design and better analytics.

Sadly, on the design front many politicians see design as a luxury and fail to understand that good design doesn’t just make things look better, they make websites (and other things) easier to use and so reduce other costs – like help desk costs. I can personally attest to this. Despite being adept at using the web I almost always call the help desk for federal government services because I find federal government websites virtually unnavigable.  Often I find these websites transform my personality from happy affable guy into someone who teeters between grumpy/annoyed on the mild side, to raving crazy lunatic on the other as I fail to grasp what I’m supposed to do next.

If I have to choose between wasting 45 minutes on a website getting nowhere versus calling a help line, waiting for 45 minutes on hold while I do other work and then getting my problem resolved… I go with the latter. It’s not a good use of anyone’s time, but it is often the best option at the moment.

On the analytics front, many governments simply lack the expertise to do something as simple as Google analytics, or worse are hamstrung by privacy and procurement rules keep them from using services that would enable them to know how their users are (or are not) using their website.

Aside from gov.uk, another great example of where these two ingredients came together is over at Honolulu Answers. Here a Code for America team worked with the city to see what pages (e.g. services) residents were actually visiting and then prioritized those. In addition, they worked with staff and citizen to construct answers to commonly asked questions. I suspect a simple website like this could generate real savings on the city’s help desk costs – to say nothing of happier residents and tourists.

At some risk of pressing this point too heavily, I hope that my TechPresident piece (and other articles about gov.uk) gets widely read by public servants, managers and, of course, politicians (hint: the public wants easier access to services, not easoer access to photos and press releases about you). I’m especially hoping the good people at Treasury Board Secretariat in the Canadian Federal government read it since the old Common Look and Feel standard sadly ensured that Canadian government websites are particularly terrible when it comes to usability.

The UK has shown how national governments can do better. Let’s hope others follow their lead.

 

12 thoughts on “Doing Government Websites Right

  1. David

    For too many people, a website with “good design” is one that “looks good”, with lots of pretty pictures. I’m glad that GOV.UK has been a model for the other, more important kind of good design for a website – one that works well.

    Reply
  2. Amanda Clarke

    I’m glad to see someone in Canada bringing attention to the work being done on gov.uk at the Government Digital Service. I’ve spent some time chatting with the people there, and was certainly surprised by how un-Government they were – working in an open concept office with managers next to interns, teenage coders next to seasoned bureaucrats. The key ingredient for them, from what I can gather, is that they have political cover and, by virtue of this, financial cover for their work. With Francis Maude and the Coalition’s “Digital by Default” agenda on their side, they’ve got the kind of free rein that civil servants are typically denied. If this political backing is key to their innovation, then it will be interesting to see what happens to GDS should the next election bring in a different government. Although I doubt that the work done on gov.uk will be undone by a subsequent government, there is reason to question whether or not GDS will exist as it currently does under different political leadership, something that people within GDS have suggested to me is a real concern. In any case, they are definitely doing something that the Canadian government should pay more attention to, especially if the promised cost savings of their website consolidation comes through. I suppose the question is which minister will provide Canada with this kind of political leadership. Maybe Clement? 

    Reply
  3. Amanda Clarke

    I’m glad to see someone in Canada bringing attention to the work being done on gov.uk at the Government Digital Service. I’ve spent some time chatting with the people there, and was certainly surprised by how un-Government they were – working in an open concept office with managers next to interns, teenage coders next to seasoned bureaucrats. The key ingredient for them, from what I can gather, is that they have political cover and, by virtue of this, financial cover for their work. With Francis Maude and the Coalition’s “Digital by Default” agenda on their side, they’ve got the kind of free rein that civil servants are typically denied. If this political backing is key to their innovation, then it will be interesting to see what happens to GDS should the next election bring in a different government. Although I doubt that the work done on gov.uk will be undone by a subsequent government, there is reason to question whether or not GDS will exist as it currently does under different political leadership, something that people within GDS have suggested to me is a real concern. In any case, they are definitely doing something that the Canadian government should pay more attention to, especially if the promised cost savings of their website consolidation comes through. I suppose the question is which minister will provide Canada with this kind of political leadership. Maybe Clement? 

    Reply
  4. Amanda Clarke

    I’m glad to see someone in Canada bringing attention to the work being done on gov.uk at the Government Digital Service. I’ve spent some time chatting with the people there, and was certainly surprised by how un-Government they were – working in an open concept office with managers next to interns, teenage coders next to seasoned bureaucrats. The key ingredient for them, from what I can gather, is that they have political cover and, by virtue of this, financial cover for their work. With Francis Maude and the Coalition’s “Digital by Default” agenda on their side, they’ve got the kind of free rein that civil servants are typically denied. If this political backing is key to their innovation, then it will be interesting to see what happens to GDS should the next election bring in a different government. Although I doubt that the work done on gov.uk will be undone by a subsequent government, there is reason to question whether or not GDS will exist as it currently does under different political leadership, something that people within GDS have suggested to me is a real concern. In any case, they are definitely doing something that the Canadian government should pay more attention to, especially if the promised cost savings of their website consolidation comes through. I suppose the question is which minister will provide Canada with this kind of political leadership. Maybe Clement? 

    Reply
  5. Amanda Clarke

    I’m glad to see someone in Canada bringing attention to the work being done on gov.uk at the Government Digital Service. I’ve spent some time chatting with the people there, and was certainly surprised by how un-Government they were – working in an open concept office with managers next to interns, teenage coders next to seasoned bureaucrats. The key ingredient for them, from what I can gather, is that they have political cover and, by virtue of this, financial cover for their work. With Francis Maude and the Coalition’s “Digital by Default” agenda on their side, they’ve got the kind of free rein that civil servants are typically denied. If this political backing is key to their innovation, then it will be interesting to see what happens to GDS should the next election bring in a different government. Although I doubt that the work done on gov.uk will be undone by a subsequent government, there is reason to question whether or not GDS will exist as it currently does under different political leadership, something that people within GDS have suggested to me is a real concern. In any case, they are definitely doing something that the Canadian government should pay more attention to, especially if the promised cost savings of their website consolidation comes through. I suppose the question is which minister will provide Canada with this kind of political leadership. Maybe Clement? 

    Reply
  6. Amanda Clarke

    I’m glad to see someone in Canada bringing attention to the work being done on gov.uk at the Government Digital Service. I’ve spent some time chatting with the people there, and was certainly surprised by how un-Government they were – working in an open concept office with managers next to interns, teenage coders next to seasoned bureaucrats. The key ingredient for them, from what I can gather, is that they have political cover and, by virtue of this, financial cover for their work. With Francis Maude and the Coalition’s “Digital by Default” agenda on their side, they’ve got the kind of free rein that civil servants are typically denied. If this political backing is key to their innovation, then it will be interesting to see what happens to GDS should the next election bring in a different government. Although I doubt that the work done on gov.uk will be undone by a subsequent government, there is reason to question whether or not GDS will exist as it currently does under different political leadership, something that people within GDS have suggested to me is a real concern. In any case, they are definitely doing something that the Canadian government should pay more attention to, especially if the promised cost savings of their website consolidation comes through. I suppose the question is which minister will provide Canada with this kind of political leadership. Maybe Clement? 

    Reply
  7. Laura Wesley

    Hey David,

    The good people of Treasury Board Secretariat (myself included) updated Common Look and Feel already. Three new Web Standards – on accessibility, usability and interoperability – are being implemented across all Federal Government websites. You can read them in detail here – http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/ws-nw/index-eng.asp

    You can also see examples of them starting to pop up everywhere (http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/icgc.nsf/eng/home for example) since the deadline to implement the first 2 Standards is July 2013. 

    In an effort to reduce the cost to implement these, the Web Standards Office at Treasury Board Secretariat has led the development of an open source toolkit. An expanding number of collaborators, including developers, designers and testers from federal, municipal and international governments, as well as private sector and even academia are constantly improving on it (as you can see from the hundreds of tickets in the issues list).

    The Toolkit is managed on GitHub – https://github.com/wet-boew/ and works with various programming languages and content management systems (including Drupal and WordPress).

    If you want to learn more about the project, I invite you to join us via web cast for a panel discussion on November 7th at GTEC (http://www.gtec.ca/conference/conference-overview.php?session_id=54).

    You may have also seen on Twitter that Tony Clement recently announced that the Government of Canada will be reducing the number of websites from the approximately 1500 it has now to 6 or fewer (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vurww9ggzas). So it looks like there are more improvements on the way.

    Cheers,
    Laura

    Reply
  8. Laura Wesley

    Hey David,

    The good people of Treasury Board Secretariat (myself included) updated Common Look and Feel already. Three new Web Standards – on accessibility, usability and interoperability – are being implemented across all Federal Government websites. You can read them in detail here – http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/ws-nw/index-eng.asp

    You can also see examples of them starting to pop up everywhere (http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/icgc.nsf/eng/home for example) since the deadline to implement the first 2 Standards is July 2013. 

    In an effort to reduce the cost to implement these, the Web Standards Office at Treasury Board Secretariat has led the development of an open source toolkit. An expanding number of collaborators, including developers, designers and testers from federal, municipal and international governments, as well as private sector and even academia are constantly improving on it (as you can see from the hundreds of tickets in the issues list).

    The Toolkit is managed on GitHub – https://github.com/wet-boew/ and works with various programming languages and content management systems (including Drupal and WordPress).

    If you want to learn more about the project, I invite you to join us via web cast for a panel discussion on November 7th at GTEC (http://www.gtec.ca/conference/conference-overview.php?session_id=54).

    You may have also seen on Twitter that Tony Clement recently announced that the Government of Canada will be reducing the number of websites from the approximately 1500 it has now to 6 or fewer (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vurww9ggzas). So it looks like there are more improvements on the way.

    Cheers,
    Laura

    Reply
  9. Laura Wesley

    Hey David,

    The good people of Treasury Board Secretariat (myself included) updated Common Look and Feel already. Three new Web Standards – on accessibility, usability and interoperability – are being implemented across all Federal Government websites. You can read them in detail here – http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/ws-nw/index-eng.asp

    You can also see examples of them starting to pop up everywhere (http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/icgc.nsf/eng/home for example) since the deadline to implement the first 2 Standards is July 2013. 

    In an effort to reduce the cost to implement these, the Web Standards Office at Treasury Board Secretariat has led the development of an open source toolkit. An expanding number of collaborators, including developers, designers and testers from federal, municipal and international governments, as well as private sector and even academia are constantly improving on it (as you can see from the hundreds of tickets in the issues list).

    The Toolkit is managed on GitHub – https://github.com/wet-boew/ and works with various programming languages and content management systems (including Drupal and WordPress).

    If you want to learn more about the project, I invite you to join us via web cast for a panel discussion on November 7th at GTEC (http://www.gtec.ca/conference/conference-overview.php?session_id=54).

    You may have also seen on Twitter that Tony Clement recently announced that the Government of Canada will be reducing the number of websites from the approximately 1500 it has now to 6 or fewer (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vurww9ggzas). So it looks like there are more improvements on the way.

    Cheers,
    Laura

    Reply
    1. John J

      Yes there are new standards for the Government of Canada and they are an improvement on CLF 2. However they still envision the web as a digital brochure. Not a digital service delivery channel for transforming citizens experience with government services. Simple example. Why is there a “date modified” on the bottom of each page. How does this help or make sense on pages which are dynamically constructed … Like search results pages. Implementations within Departments are still mired in very prescriptive processes and further restrict flexibility to create great user experiences as it tends to be communication groups that control the web channel (hence focus on photo ops for Ministers) and they don’t own and aren’t responsive to the service delivery units. The service delivery folks should own the user experience as they are actually accountable for the service! So the combination of standards that have a limited vision of the web as a digital service delivery channel, poor governance structures that take user experience out of the hands of service delivery organizations and, to top it off, very limited experience and/to tools in the technology organizations of Government creates a very challenging environment in which to transform a citizens digital experience with their government to something resembling satisfying. We need to keep pushing as David suggests for better user experience and analytics to prove what works and what doesn’t. This has to be something that service delivery organizations are accountable and measured on.

      Reply
      1. Annie Crombie

        The extent to which government websites are a brochure (or campaign tool) versus service-focused depends a great deal on the priorities of the government that is in power. Analytics on what makes for a good user experience is different from analytics on what gets a government re-elected. I wish that wasn’t true and that it wasn’t a driving force behind decisions about government websites, but it is what it is.

        Reply
  10. Jacky Tweedie

    Hmmm. Crappy (let’s be brash and frank here) websites will be here for a while, more’s the pity (I often use the UK gov risk sites, and weep bitter tears of joy and sadness…so useable) in part because of the yawning chasm between comms, IM, IT – when those guys can’t function together, abandon all hope.

    This in addition to the usual suspects listed above such as cover, budget, willingness etc. On the upside, posts such as this, and any other sunlight from the Canadian citizen, can only drive the push towards innovation. One can hope. I hope.

    If nothing else, we should soon be sufficiently embarrassed by our international peers’ performance in this regard, which will then unlock resources and commitment.  [crosses fingers, does not hold breath]

    Reply

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