Profoundly non-trivial: Martha Lane Fox review of Directgov

A big day today in digital government. In case you missed it, the Martha Lane Fox review of Directgov and the wider government web estate went public  along with a response from Cabinet secretary Francis Maude, so ending a period of furtive speculation by those with a keen interest in the way UK government does digital.

Here is a quick link round-up:

As an insider, I’ve known what’s in the MLF review for a while and so am watching the online reaction with interest, especially in regard to recommendation 3 which, if taken forward, will have a direct affect on my work.

And, as an insider, I won’t say too much more about it in case my words are taken to be anything other than my personal view by the mainstream press, especially while the review is still being considered by Ministers. (And at the risk even that last sentence is open to misinterpretation: anything I would say would in any case be positive and constructive. MLF FTW!)

So I will say just two slightly tangential things:

1. I joined the civil service in 2003, having previously led a small web development team building sites (actually, e-zines – remember them?) for the likes of BP, Shell, Glaxo and Pfizer at a corporate communications agency in the Docklands. More often than not, any product we built for those big corporate clients was based on strict brand and layout guidelines, enforcing a user experience and navigation in common with the parent site. As such, my first impressions of how government was using the web were coloured by that experience and, coming to it cold (I guess like Coalition ministers, Martha and many others besides) I wondered why there were quite so many different looking sites doing quite such similar things across the estate.  For me it has long felt like a question of when rather than if the government would become more BBC-esque in its online presence, and the work I’ve been leading at BIS (using consistent templates and a universal top bar to unify multiple sites on a shared CMS) has been a step in that direction.

2. It’s abundantly true that implementing MLF’s third recommendation will be “challenging”, as the Minister acknowledged in his response. Another phrase that has stuck in my mind today from an internal document is “profoundly non-trivial” – which I think I might start dropping into casual conversation whenever I can. Generally speaking though, projects that are the most challenging tend also to be the most worth doing. Complexity and risk are reasons to be careful rather than cautious – and some excellent careful thinking is already going on both inside and outside the machine about how to avoid the pitfalls and realise the opportunities in taking this bold ambition forward. (Although personally, while I’d like to be all strategic about it, it’s just about all I can do to stay my hand from working up wireframes for what a common look and feel across a single domain for government might look like.)

I’ve thought of a third thing, sorry:

3. One of the aspects I love most about digital is its tendency to lead the customer-centrification of organisations. We digital practitioners have been doing this on a micro level for yonks, persuading colleagues to structure intranet and website content based on what users want rather than organisational hierarchies; and reflecting customer feedback and insight back in. You can’t help but wonder where doing this on a macro level across all of government – not just with services à la Directgov of today but news, consultations and policy information – might one day take us.

As to what it means for us digital practitioners in government Departments and our jobs, it’s way too early to say. But – taken alongside the other announcements today about shifting more and better services online – there will surely be no immediate shortage of demand in Whitehall for people with practical digital expertise and the on-the-ground experience of getting things done in a public sector environment. It’ll take plenty of that to steer this thing home.

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I know nothing about gov web site development but I am a user of these sites. All I can say is keep everything as simple as possible, which I am sure you mean to do… flashy stuff does not impress us little people in the final third, because it means sites timeout, we lose what we have input and we resort to analogue. If you want to engage us then you have to keep loading times to a minimum. Don’t forget many of us are still on dial up.
We can’t get decent connections, so just keep that in mind. ;)
thx, great blogpost and good links, as usual

Like you and Steph I did find alot to like within the report and Toms comment has eased my (considerable!) fears about that section of the report as well.

I’m going to take alot of convincing about the idea of a single uber domain but am willing to be convinced over time and if this does get the go ahead the technology choices will be interesting (and challenging).

Not sure how this is going to effect those of us a level or two beneath Department level but I’m sure someone will tell me..

I’m very impressed with MLF’s report, and I hope nobody underestimates the challenge of implementing its recommendations, or the benefits of doing so. It really helps when somebody well-respected with the attention of the PM has a chance to publish a report like this.

I have worked on web development projects in three different Whitehall departments, and the observations I would make are:

1) content management is a different discipline from technology management. Your architecture should aim for loose coupling between the two.

2) Do not think of the end-user as a ‘citizen’, sitting solitary at home at a computer. many government services are delivered with the help of private sector agents, like accountants, solicitors, architects, and banks. We need govt-to-business as well as govt-to-consumer.

3) Government services have to be accessible to all. Paradoxically, that means ‘one-size-fits-all’ is almost always wrong. (I never tired of explaining this to civil servants.) We neeed services that work over dial-up, on broadband, in the home, on the farm and in a big city office, on a mobile phone, and a giant screen, and for people with a range of disabilities.

I like your use of the BBC as a paradigm or role model for how government can improve its approach to digital. The Beeb has a very good track record of combing a pub lic service ethos with creating well-designed web stuff that people find a pleasure to use.

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