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GDS isn't working (part 2): The content mystery



Guest blog: Alan Mather says central government has not made enough progress in the creation of online transactions, APIs and the ‘kill or cure’ approach to content


In Martha Lane Fox's 2010 report that in effect led to the creation of GDS and set out its mission, there were a series of recommendations. These seem like a reasonable place to start in assessing GDS' delivery track record.

The recommendations were:

1) Directgov should be the default platform for information and transactional services, enabling all government transactions to be carried out via digital channels by 2015 ... must focus on creating high quality user-friendly transactions ... scaling back on non-core activities.

2) Realign all government delivery under a single web domain name ... accelerate the move to shared web services.

3) Learn from what has been proven to work well elsewhere on the web ... focus on user-driven and transparent ... implement a kill or cure policy to reduce poorly performing content.

4) Mandate the creation of APIs to allow third parties to present content and transactions. Shift from "public services all in one place" to government services "wherever you are".

5) Establish digital SWAT teams ... work on flagship channel shift transactions.

Not surprisingly, I agreed entirely with this list at the time  ̶  nearly a decade beforehand I'd produced the picture below to represent the e-Delivery team's (eDt) e-government vision  (eDt was a part of the Office of the e-Envoy when the late Andrew Pinder was in charge).  I think it captures Martha's recommendations in a page:

In slide format, the picture evolved to this:

Now, nearly seven years after Martha's report, we have a new flagship website. (Whilst the report was strong on making use of the brand name, given the investment in it over the previous six or so years, a decision was made to use a different brand. You'll see that we had suggested that as a possible name in the 2001 picture above; it's in the very top left).

Here are three pictures showing the journey we have made over the last 13 years:'s home page in May 2004:

The same site, in January 2007:

GOV.UK in June 2017:

Thirteen years of user needs, iteration, at least three different content management tools and, branding and size of search bar aside, do you notice any major difference?  Nope, me either. 

Interestingly, encouragingly (because admitting the problem is the first step to solving it) and depressingly (because it's not like there haven't been plenty of opportunities before), after I'd written this post but before I'd published it GDS had also noticed the problem and seem at last to be taking recommendation three, ‘kill or cure’, to heart.

The first iteration of was run under a contract let to BT and run by the Central Information Technology Unit, before the Office of the e-Envoy (OeE) was really in existence, although it went live on the OeE’s watch.

Buying time

When we envisaged the second iteration we saw it as a way to join up important content across government, creating a veneer that would buy time for the real engineering to take place behind the scenes  ̶  something that would result in joined up transactions and a truly citizen-centered approach to government.  

Life events  ̶  important interactions with government  ̶  were synthesized from across all departments and brought together, by skilled content writers, in a way that meant the user didn't need to traverse multiple government websites: the aim was to give them everything in one place. We (OeE as a whole) continued that approach through successive iterations of UKonline and on into its successor, (which started life as the Online Government Store, or OGS, a shopfront where all of government content could be accessed).

Thirteen years after the launch of, it looks like there have been successive iterations of that approach along with a wholesale migration of much of government's content to a single platform. But there hasn't been any of the real heavy lifting needed to join up the content and the transactions. 

This is shown by the very existence of all of those other government websites, albeit as sub-domains on the same platform as GOV.UK. That wasn't the vision that we were after and, based on the recent GDS blog post, it seems not to be the one that GDS are after either. But we had around seven years before GDS and we've had nearly seven years since, so clearly something isn't working.

My guess is that the lessons that we learned from 2002-10 have been learned again from 2010-17.  Sure, some new lessons will have been learned, but they will be largely the same  ̶  many of the new lessons will have been technology and methodology related, I suspect.

Looks the same

Despite everything, it all looks the same and that, when poking behind the front page, all that's revealed is more design changes  ̶  bigger fonts, simpler questions and cleaner lines. As poet Alexander Pope said:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again

The creation of GOV.UK has been a massive job; huge amounts of content have been moved, sorted, consolidated, re-written and, doubtless, re-written again. It all feels like marginal change though  ̶  more of the same. Heavy lifting, yes, but more of the same, incremental changes, with some big parts still to move, such as much of HMRC and still no real home or consistency for business related content

The real mystery, though, is where are the transactions?  The new ones I mean, not the ones that were online a decade ago.

Looking back at Martha's recommendations:

1) Single platform and transactions. This is at least partly done, but transactions have advanced little in a decade.

2) Single domain. This looks initially to be a success (and one for which I do not underestimate the huge effort that has been required), but there isn't much else in the way of shared web services (I'll be coming on to Verify and other common platform technologies soon).

3) User driven and transparent / Kill or cure. I'm going to score as strong effort, but not nearly enough of an advance on what was done before. 

We have a huge amount of content piled on a single technology platform. Disentangling it and ensuring that there's only one place to find the most relevant content on any given topic is not well advanced.  If you're a business, things are even more confusing. And if you're a sole trader, for instance, who hops between individual and business content, you're likely more confused than ever.

4) APIs. Beyond what was done years ago, I don't see much new. I would love to be pointed at examples where I'm wrong here as I think this is a crucial part of the future mission and it would be good to see successes that I've missed.

5) Flagship transactions. I'm not seeing them. The tax disc is a great example of a transaction that was started years ago and that has been successively iterated, and I don't want to undersell the monumental shift that getting rid of the disc itself, but it's an outlier. Where are the others, the ones that weren't there before 2010?

The critical recommendations in Martha's report, the ones about flagship channel shift transactions, creating APIs (other than in HMRC, most of which was completed in 2000-04) and "government services wherever you are" are still adrift. 

Martha's goal of "enabling all government transactions to be carried out via digital channels by 2015" seems as far away as it was when, in 2001, the then prime minister, Tony Blair, exhorted us to put joined up, citizen focused services online by the end of 2005.

Tinkering mystery

The real mystery is why we are tinkering with content instead of confronting the really hard stuff, the transactions.  As I said in 2012: “GDS' most public delivery is ‘just another website’  ̶  those who know (and care) about these things think that it might be one of the sexiest and best websites ever developed, certainly in the government world.  

“But it isn't Facebook, it isn't iTunes, it isn't Pirate Bay. It's a government website; perhaps ‘the’ government website. Once you've packaged a lot of content, made wonderful navigation, transformed search, you end up with the place where government spends the real money  ̶  transactions (and I don't just mean in IT terms).”

And now we have a Transformation Strategy that promises it will all be done by 2020.  I'm not seeing it.  Not if we follow the current approach.

That sounds snarky and perhaps it is, but it's really the fundamental point of centre's digital efforts - joining up what hasn't been joined up before.  Content, as has been well proven for the last 15 years, is the easy bit.

Transactions are definitely the difficult bit, and they're difficult in two ways: the creation of an end-to-end service that goes all the way from citizen possibly through intermediary (everything from PAYE provider to accountant to Citizen's Advice Bureau to me doing my mother's tax return); and the rethinking of traditional policy in a way that supports government's desired outcome, meets user needs and is also deliverable. 

From 2001, we started putting transactions online and, for the most part, we put online what was offline.  At the time, a good start, but not one that fits with current thinking and capabilities.

Alan Mather has held several digital roles in central government, including chief executive officer of the Cabinet Office e-Delivery Team (a predecessor to GDS), and is now director at Ardea Enterprises. This has been republished from his In the Eye of the Storm blog and conveys his personal view. There’s scope for alternative perspectives, or agreement, through his blog page’s comment function.

We're publishing the rest of the series throughout this week.

Part 1 - The Emperor and his clothes

Part 3 - The reboot

Part 4 - GOV.UK Verify

Part 5 - No vision, no ambition

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