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November 26, 2010

Digital by default

This week saw publication of Martha Lane Fox's report, and the associated government response, about the future of the UK government's web presence, Directgov 2010 and beyond: Revolution not evolution:

The report, and the Government’s initial response, argues for a Channel Shift that will increasingly see public services provided digitally ‘by default’.

Hardly an earth shattering opener! I'm stifling a yawn as I write.

Delving deeper, the report itself makes quite a lot of sense to me, though I'm not really in a position to comment on its practicality. What I did find odd was the wording of the key recommendations, which I found to be rather opaque and confused:

  1. Make Directgov the government front end for all departments’ transactional online services to citizens and businesses, with the teeth to mandate cross government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens’ experience of key transactions.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

As has been noted elsewhere, it took a comment by Tom Loosemore on a post by Steph Gray to clarify the real intent of recommendation 3:

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.

The review doesn’t recommend that. Trust me! It does, as you spotted, point towards a model which is closer to the BBC – a federated commissioning approach, where ‘commissioning’ is more akin to the hands-off commissioning of a TV series, rather than micro-commissioning as per a newspaper editor. Equally, it recommends consistent, high-quality shared UI / design / functionality/serving. Crucially, it recommends universal user metrics driving improvement (or removal) when content can be seen to be underperforming.

So recommendation 3 really appears to mean "federated, and relatively hands-off, commissioning for content that is served at a single domain name". If so, why not simply say that?

One thing I still don't get is why there is such a divide in thinking between "transactional online services" and "information" services. Given the commerce-oriented language used in recommendation 2, this seems somewhat odd. When I use Amazon, I don't go to one place to carry out a transaction and another place to find information about products and service - I just go to the Amazon website. So the starting point for recommendation 1 feels broken from the outset (to me). It is recovered, in part, by the explanation about the real intent of recommendation 3 (which simply draws everything together in one place) but why start from that point at all? It just strikes me as overly confusing.

As I say, this is not a criticism of what is being suggested - just of how it has been suggested.

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