Gov.uk – from Alpha to Beta

We’re delighted at Francis Maude’s announcement that the GDS is now developing a beta version of the single gov.uk domain…

After digesting feedback from the Alpha.gov.uk prototype of a single domain for government, there’s now a clear next step towards the gov.uk ‘revolution’ recommended by Martha Lane Fox’s review and supported by Francis Maude and his fellow Ministers.

Hence we’re delighted at Francis Maude’s announcement that Government Digital Service is now developing a beta version of the single gov.uk domain. The core objectives of this beta are:

  1. Public beta test of the site delivering the mainstream, citizen-facing aspects of gov.uk.
  2. Private beta test of a shared gov.uk ‘corporate’ publishing platform, aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments (see alpha.gov.uk/government for a flavour) [link now archived: the service described is now at https://www.gov.uk/government]
  3. A first draft of a gov.uk ‘Global Experience Language’, to provide clear, consistent design, user-experience and brand clarity for those developing sites for the single gov.uk domain. (see BBC.co.uk/gel for an example).

The deadline for delivery of all three objectives is early 2012.

Some points worth noting:

We’ll be building on the learnings from alpha.gov.uk, while filling in numerous gaps we left. For example, we want to make the most easy to use, accessible government website there has ever been. Merely ticking a box marked ‘accessible’ isn’t enough. It has to be useful for everyone and usable by everyone.

The citizen-facing gov.uk beta (objective 1) will be an operational test, in that it will be constantly updated in order to trial the essential behind-the-scenes administrator tools & processes. While this aspect of the beta project will be a public website, direct.gov.uk will remain the definitive url for citizens’ online interactions with central government.

We will continue to base all our product decisions on a ruthlessly understanding and meeting user needs. We need to make it as easy as possible for users to complete tasks, understand information and work out what they need to do next.

We will be developing a flexible, adaptable, scalable, modern technology platform. I barely need mention that we’ll be continuing to use open source software, not because it’s open source per se, but because, at present, it provides better solutions to our needs. Naturally, where we produce new features & functionality which might be useful to others, we’ll release the code back into the public domain.

Before and after its launch, we’ll be iterating the beta and its underpinning platform based on analysis of how successfully each aspect of the site – each page, even – is meeting users’ needs. Digital product management is a continuous, iterative, adaptive process. We won’t get everything right first time, but we’ll spot what isn’t working and fix it quickly. We will actively encourage as many current users of digital public services to help us spot those issues and recommend how best to fix them.

The private beta of the shared ‘corporate’ gov.uk publishing platform (objective 2) does not seek to replace 100% of online publishing currently undertaken by departments, but will focus on the requirement all departments’ have to publish clear, accurate and timely information about their own activities  (e.g. a department’s policies, publications, consultations, business plans, speeches, announcements etc.). Hence the ‘corporate’ moniker – the audience for such content tends to be more specialist and already engaged with the work of government than most mainstream users.

GDS is very fortunate in having been loaned Neil Williams from the Department for Business to lead development of this aspect of the beta. He’s got a wealth of digital experience across several government departments, and understands the realities of departmental ‘corporate’ publishing as well as anyone.

I’m also delighted that the external developers & designers who helped make alpha.gov.uk such a success have agreed to continue onto the beta project working for the Government Digital Service. They will be at the core of the development of the beta, complementing other specialists with years of invaluable experience of running gov.uk sites such as Directgov.

We’re still only at the beginning. As GDS’s new boss Mike Bracken made clear in his introductory blog post, transforming the experience of  gov.uk transactions will require a federated identity layer across Government services. Not a trivial challenge.

Indeed, radically improving the quality of all gov.uk transactional services to the extent that citizens and businesses actively prefer to interact with government digitally will be the work of years, not months. At launch the beta will, I’m afraid, still incorporate gov.uk transactions which we all wish to see improved as soon as possible.

But there are many talented people right across government who are, as Mike wrote, committed to the radical shift towards ‘digital by default’ public services. We’re delighted that in Francis Maude we have a minister who is as committed to reform as we are. All are doing stuff that matters.

While the shift to digital by default remains a hugely challenging, complex, pan-departmental jigsaw puzzle of reform & reinvention, the commitment to its completion is real.

At the risk of stretching this metaphor to breaking point, if alpha.gov.uk was hunting for the corners of this new digital jigsaw, beta will be about fitting together the edges.

The team will be blogging here regularly, so please do share your comments and suggestions. We really do relish constructive criticism (there’s no dartboard!) Or you can follow the single domain team’s progress on Twitter .

33 comments

  1. Delighted to hear this being formally announced, will be very interested to see the progress of the GEL work as this could have a significant positive impact on the government’s image and reputation online. i wonder whether it’s scope could / should include departmental branding?

  2. ‘We will continue to base all our product decisions on a ruthlessly understanding and meeting user needs.’

    ‘While the shift to digital by default remains a hugely challenging, complex, pan-departmental jigsaw puzzle of reform & reinvention, the commitment to its completion is real.’

    First step – write like a normal person. If you really want to make a site simple for people to use then start with straight forward language.

  3. Looking forward to this. But I’d be be happier if the strawman about “accessibility tickboxes” was abandoned. That angle was only pushed by yourselves after you were criticised for calling accessibility a “detail”. It isn’t, you seem to recognise that, great. Let’s move on.

      1. Apologies for any misunderstanding. The “you” following on from “yourselves” still referred to the collective “you” that was alphagov, not you personally. And I’m afraid accessibility was described as a detail (http://goo.gl/CPpxI). This was followed by communications that talked about not just ticking boxes or going for AAA conformance, none of which had been asked for, as far as I’m aware. Hence my strawman complaint before.

        What I think would be helpful is blogging on the detail of what will be done, how and why; how it worked out and what was done with any problems. There’s plenty of interest in the project, as you know, so a good teaching opportunity here I think, and you (“you” singular this time!) have the pedigree for this.

        Best,
        Steve

        1. That’s a tweet of mine you linked to. Sorry for the misunderstanding. I believe I meant it ironically (other “details” I mentioned were mobile, which is also non-trivial, and non-JavaScript behaviour which is fundamental best-practice), though I may have just badly phrased it — it was one of many tweets on the subject months ago so I can’t fully remember. Accessibility is not something that can just be knocked together to an acceptable standard in the short timespan we had, and I hope the following post (about a different, non-government project) on my personal blog can reassure you of my thoughts on the topic: Accessibility: You’re Doing it Wrong.

          On the beta Léonie Watson is leading on accessibility, and she has an excellent reputation and a wealth of experience, not to mention that she’s a screen-reader user herself. I know she is writing a blog post on our progress so far on the beta and our plans for the future.

  4. That’s all good to hear, especially that Léonie is on board. I’m very much looking forward to her contribution.

  5. Sorry to join this discussion late. A significant omission are the business facing elements of gov.uk. Bearing in mind the myriad of difficult to use transactions (and poorly written content) can you give us any clue as to the timetable on the future development of businesslink.gov into the beta of gov.uk?

  6. I would request that when the new web site is up, it contains the required information on council tax discounts as set out in Regulation 16 of the 92 Administration and Enforcement Regs and as per the Demand Notice Regulations 2010.

    I mention this as it would appear that it is becoming the norm for councils to flout these regulations and to provide legally inaccurate information, which is not just a breach of the law but also unacceptable in terms of public administration generally.

    It is even more important as a recent Dept Of Communities consultation moves towards allowing councils to provide certain information required by law to be provided on line, and given the number of councils currently breaking this requirement then the government itself should get it right.

    For an example of bad (and unlawful practice) see for example Southwarks online ‘Guide to Council Tax 2011/2012.

    Indeed, until recently a CIPFA document on housing fraud put on the AG web site by the National Fraud Authority incorrectly stated that ‘experience shows’ that the electoral register if up to date is a reliable guide in the matter of a ‘single person discount’. The law is clear (see Williams and Horsham District Council CA case) that the electoral register, up to date or not cannot even be used to decide the question of sole or main residence, leave alone to decide whether a potential resident does or does not fall to be disregarded and therefore affect entitlement to a discount.

    The National Fraud Authority asserts that it took guidance on this from CIPFA and refuses to undertake its own review of the black and white letter of the law, which the senior person in question said she had not read, to the extent where she was ‘not sure’ whether Section 11 of the Local Government Finance Act set out the so called ‘SPD’. She then started to check her information using…. council web sites…… She is currently working closely with Lambeth whose web site in this respect is a total disgrace as they confuse exemptions with disregard categories and generally mislead anybody consulting it.

    This document disappeared from the AG web site and the NFA denies knowing whether this was the result of complaints about its legal inaccuracies.

    There should be fully open and accountable methods for people to correct legally inaccurate information on any new web site when it appears.

    1. Thanks Paul – the archived link is still there for completeness, but I’ve added a link to the current service that corresponds to the alpha functionality described.

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