Is the Register right about Gov.uk and the Government Digital Service?

Gov.uk: Digital by Default

Is Gov.uk the most hated website of all time? That’s what Andrew Orlowski at the Register would have you believe.

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

Swiss cheese cubes.jpg

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.

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.

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?

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.

7 comments

  1. I’m not sure how helpful the Register article is – I think of Andrew Orlowski as the James Delingpole of tech journalism – sometimes amusing, very often wrong. But there is a huge need for counterbalance in the reporting of GOV.UK and the GDS.

    There have been two fundamental problems with .GOV.UK: the low quality of content written for the general public, and the transfer of specialised departmental content.

    The content written for the general public – at least in areas where I might claim to have some expertise – has ranged from the merely disappointing to the absolutely shameful (I counted five errors of fact in one sentence – some of which could have left readers seriously mislead). To be fair, there is doubtless a bias here – because erroneous content is more likely to come to my attention. And because I’m so sensitized to finding errors on .GOV.UK that I treat it with far more suspicion than other sources.

    I suspect that content designers on .GOV.UK come from a copywriting background: they appear to be greatly exercised by SEO and calls to action, but less bothered about making things true. In the early days of .GOV.UK, I reported many, many errors on the site . With a living to keep from making, I’ve more or less given up on that.

    The second problem is the transfer of specialised content from individual departments. This was done in the most ham-fisted, couldn’t be arsed way imaginable. Departmental sites which had a logical structure (some did, honestly!) were macerated and the contents dumped into the primoridal .GOV.UK as long strings of .PDFs. Geocities type frontpages were draped over the resulting mess (DCLG: this is what a house looks like!) Some content didn’t make it over at all. It’s hard to emphasize how frustrating this was.

    All this butchery took place under the cover of a relentless barrage of self-promotion. To the GDS, this campaign doubtless felt like a celebration of success and a laudable exercise in openness. To outsiders it looked arrogant and smug.

    I think there needs to be a real re-balancing of authority over content between GDS and the departments – but not a return to how things were. Clearly it will be cheaper and easier to improve a common platform. But there needs to be recognition that there are problems – and reflections upon cause.

  2. Duncan

    Although you haven’t got access to the material we have, you do actually get to the some of the core issues highlighted.

    Specifically: a major function of the British state (visas and immigration) “transitioned” in early 2014, and the transition caused chaos (this is borne out in the email chain). Immediately after this, GDS then held an inquest into what went wrong, using an external anthropologist. This amounts to 8MB of material – including all the field notes. For whatever reasons, management did not incorporate the lessons from the earlier transitions into the HMRC transition. You say yourself “it’s an embarrassing mess”.

    That, in a nutshell, is what we reported. One or two of your assertions here aren’t justified by the evidence. For example:

    “Staff at HMRC appear to have felt threatened by the change.”

    I’m not sure what you base this on, but it’s not an allegation I could find made by any GDS staff in the UKVI post-mortem. There appear to be no perceived “threat” – both sides worked very hard to try and make the new UKVI work. And as we say, there is plenty of blame to go around on both sides.

    GDS management and comms team likes to throw this assertion around a lot, usually on an unattributable basis. It implies bad faith on the part of people they need to be working with. It helps “position” GDS as a positive progressive force, fighting regressive entrenched interests. I’d take it with a bag of salt.

    The key thing is that lessons were not learned and the same mistakes that bedevilled UKVI’s transition were repeated in the HMRC transition. Perhaps GDS is an institution not capable of learning from mistakes. Perhaps it is not capable of even recognising the mistakes as mistakes. We shall see.

    “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.”

    That is a very good question, but not one we can begin to answer without more data. It is worth noting that GDS staff at the coal face did not consider Gov.uk an “agile” project. Whatever the intentions (and quantity of Post It notes used). You are spot on that this was really a publishing project as much as anything.

    You correctly highlight that HMRC’s transition failed to meet the needs of specialists, such as accountants. This is a key point. But GDSalso failed to meet the needs of “general users” too. People just like you.

    For example:
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/02/20/uks_tax_website_is_a_nightmare_but_it_could_have_been_even_worse/?page=2

    Why doesn’t the Self Assessment page refer to Capital Gains tax, alongside Income Tax? The omission implies that either the CGT form is part of a different process, or is not required at all for self-assessed taxpayers. That’s a catastrophic omission.

    (via Twitter) “If Gov.uk is to be perceived as a failure, there doesn’t seem much bloody point in trying to make a good website any more.”

    This is quite an emotive response. Why can GDS not learn from the lessons? Can anyone? The failings of the transitions to Gov.UK seem to me a publishing and content management failure as much as anything.

  3. Just a quick note on “Staff at HMRC appear to have felt threatened by the change.”

    Some staff at HMRC certainly felt that GDS had little respect for their expertise and operated in a bullying manner eg: from

    https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2014/03/14/what-we-mean-when-we-talk-about-content-design/#comment-53375

    “As somebody who works for HMRC and has been involved in the fact check process I find your comment disingenuous and unfair to HMRC. To simply pass the blame to HMRC for the inaccuracy of GOV.UK content is plain wrong.

    I’ve been involved in lengthy discussions with GDS via an HMRC category manager about the content on GOV.UK that I have an interest in and have been met with an obstinate refusal on the part of GDS to reconsider, as the changes that make the content factually correct doesn’t meet the rigid GDS style guide. I’ve correspondence from GDS telling me that we can’t say ‘may’ – we have to say ‘will’, even when ‘will’ isn’t the case.

    I won’t be giving my real name or email address as experience tells me this will cause me nothing but trouble. Sad, but true.”

    https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2014/03/14/what-we-mean-when-we-talk-about-content-design/

  4. This is an old blog post now but reading it for the first time and sad to say that GDS has not really changed – and the outcome of the PAC report seems to not have made a visible impact.

    Like those commenting from HMRC, I also object to the assumption that those who are concerned about how GDS operates are vested interests who don’t want change. I, and many of my colleagues in the Home Office, do desperately want change and approve of the outcomes that GDS want to achieve. However, they simply don’t engage in the reality of running operational businesses nor do they have any sense that staff in departments may have much better knowledge of user needs and the risks is transforming their business than the GDS army. In short, if one of their guys haven’t ‘discovered’ it, then it’s not worth knowing. The new methodologies and structures are great – the arrogance and failure to acknowledge that there are passionate people who care and already have done lots of work to understand user need is just unforgivable.

    As my HMRC colleague, I won’t give my details as to criticise the GDS army is severely career limiting.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Concerned.

    What I don’t understand is, if that’s the case, why has HMRC’s digital presence been a disaster zone for as long as anyone can remember, and why has it never shown any signs of improvement?

    From my perspective, GDS seem pretty good at delivering a decent user-focused service.

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