Disappointingly, the article is written in a brash and sensationalist manner. But it is interesting because it is the first example of negative coverage of Gov.uk (and the Government Digital Service team behind it) that I have seen.
Normally, Gov.uk is seen as a shining example of what a digital project can achieve. It is seen as the gold standard by which other institutional digital teams judge themselves.
But the Register piece appears to have struck a chord, because many of the comments on the article are borderline vitriolic about Gov.uk. Some of the Twitter commentary has been more mixed. Nonetheless, it is the first time I have seen such a widespread negative reaction to Gov.uk.
So what’s going on? Is Gov.uk really failing its users? As an industry, are we wrong to laud it as a successful model for doing digital?
One or two “failed” projects out of over 300
The first thing to note is that the Register article appears to be based almost wholly on the experience of one particular project within the wider Government Digital Service programme.
Gov.uk brings 300 separate government websites into one standardised system. The article focuses on one of those website migrations.
In truth, it does sound like it was a particularly badly handled project. But in the context of the scale of the task, and the broad achievements of Gov.uk as a whole, the Register appears to wildly blow it out of proportion.
Internal stakeholders fearing loss of control
A further clue to the true source of the discontent is found towards the end of the article:
HMRC’s Transition provides some useful lessons, as management at the Revenue wrestled some degree of control away from GDS’ “Shoreditch types”.
This is classic “who moved my cheese?” stuff. Staff at HMRC appear to have felt threatened by the change.
The use of the word control is very telling. Talk about power and control is familiar at my workplace as well.
Running a website is not about control or power or who should manage what. It is about creating a good experience for users.
That internal stakeholders are objecting to Gov.uk is not news. For instance, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills pondered the issue two years ago.
It is also not surprising. Every large institutional digital project faces the same sort of criticism.
A focus on real end users
The charge that perhaps sticks the most is that Gov.uk fails specialist users. A major part of the programme is to simplify processes and content for the end user — in other words, to use plain English.
Striving for this kind of accessibility should be part and parcel of a government’s work. It also chimes with the democratising spirit of the web. Of course a government website should be written simply.
— Glyn R Jones (@GlynRJones) February 18, 2015
Many of the negative comments about Gov.uk are coming from subject matter specialists such as tax advisers. People like this have a very different need to the regular people who make up the vast majority.
In fact, it is not difficult to see the vested interest here. Tax advisers and other such professionals thrive on the complexity of information. They like it to be difficult to access. Because if a government website can make tax easy for everyday people to understand, many tax advisers would be out of a job.
A lot of people have talked more broadly about how Gov.uk has “dumbed down” the content. It drives me nuts when people talk about things being dumbed down. Making information easier for people to understand is something to strive for. Clarity in communication should be celebrated.
If you think “dumbing down” is a problem, you are exposing yourself as an elitist.
@spartakan that piece should be taken in mind of the sheer number of noses put out of joint by their work, which killed a gravy train.
— Heather Burns (@idea15webdesign) February 18, 2015
Website redesigns are never popular
It is worth remembering that website redesigns never go smoothly. And it’s not just “big bang” relaunches that go down badly either. Witness the howls of disapproval every time Facebook tweaks its news feed.
Some of the comments surrounding the Register article have used it as a jumping off point to complain about the new beta BBC News website as well, saying it is a step backwards from the current version.
What is forgotten today is that the current version of the BBC News website was also subject to some extreme criticism when it launched. But once people got used to it, that was that.
So if people don’t like website redesigns, why redesign them at all?
The problem with that is, how long in the tooth do you let a website become? After a while it just becomes downright inefficient for the organisation, as well as a complete pain for new users to navigate.
If new users make up a small proportion of your audience that is all very well. But at some point, the short term pain of a redesign becomes worth the long term gain.
People have always hated redesigns
This is not a new phenomenon. It is not about trendy Shoreditch types coming in with cool designs and ruining old websites.
The thing is, people like to feel smart. So if they have some “insider knowledge” about how to use a website, that makes them feel superior. This ten year old article by Jared Spool spelled it out, talking about an intranet redesign:
The employees had become accustomed to the intranet and knew how to find the things they needed. Even when an employee couldn’t find something, there was always someone within earshot who could. New employees found complete support amongst the existing staff, making orientation quick and easy…
A new employee reporting to work on a day four years ago would have found the old design intimidating. However, supportive co-workers would have graciously helped that new employee become accustomed to the design…
It’s not that people resist change whole-scale. They just hate losing control and feeling stupid.
This is reflected in some of the commentary from the specialist users. It essentially distils down to this: “I knew how to use the HMRC website, and Gov.uk changed all that.” What is one supposed to say to that? “Well done you”?
Speaking as someone who has to painfully do online self assessment every year, I can confidently say that I personally felt the HMRC website was and is an embarrassing mess that should have been improved long ago. The sooner it fully moves into Gov.uk the better in my view.
Are there real questions for Gov.uk to answer?
— David Gibson (@turnitonagain) February 19, 2015
Much of the rest of the Register article appears to be cobbled together from various negative comments from random individuals across the blogosphere. It is a shame the article has such a vitriolic tone, because there may be some interesting home truths there.
For instance, it is legitimate to ask if the agile approach is appropriate for a government website — or indeed for content as opposed to software. For a government, the transparency and availability of all information is highly important. That jars with the agile ideal of developing a minimum viable product then building on it iteratively.
It has always been a source of wonder that — of all organisations — the UK government appeared to be able to make this approach work. So it wouldn’t surprise me if there have been significant problems with content as a result.
It would be interesting to know how common such problems are, and whether there are lessons for digital professionals as a whole to learn.