Publishing the Digital Strategy as a website, rather than on one

I’m Andrew Francis and I’m a policy professional. So is my colleague Sheila Bennett. You might not have heard much from our profession here on the GDS blog recently, but its worth pointing out that the past few weeks have been a real milestone for us: we’ve been coding.

Those of you that have read the recently released Government Digital Strategy will know that it has a clear action to develop digital skills and awareness across all grades within the civil service.

Well at GDS we try to practice what we preach, and the development of the strategy itself provides an example of how some ‘traditional’ civil servants are already learning new digital skills, and crucially, different ways of working.

Coding policy

Sheila and I are not exactly digital novices – Sheila spent many years in senior management roles at Bromley Council where she was responsible for their website (amongst other things) while in the past I managed the UK website of a UN agency. We’d written for websites or about the use of websites, but neither of us had hands on experience in the construction of a website – such as determining the layout, formatting, links etc. We’ve always relied on specialists for that.

However, this strategy has been different. As Sir Bob Kerslake wrote in a recent blog post, digital by default requires civil servants to work in completely new ways.  This includes publishing strategies, such as the Government Digital Strategy, as a website rather than published on a website.

One of the most important reasons for that is so that government documents can become part of the web. That way, people can link directly to what we’re saying, rather than forcing people to download long PDFs that aren’t easily incorporated into the wider web.

To make this happen we had to develop new ways of working and eliminate the traditional gulf between ‘policy’ civil servants and the designers and developers. As Jack said in his blog post, we had to work together across disciplines to ensure that the strategy would be presented in a way that would meet user needs.

Pushing to Git

Sheila and I we were both involved in the lengthy drafting process and in shaping the strategy.  Much of the drafting was done via shared Google Docs. But when it came to producing the master version, we sat down with developers like Jack and learnt how to use GitHub.

We edited the document in Markdown, a simple markup language used on GOV.UK. This allowed us to add the copy with some simple additions (bullet points, links, etc) without having to worry too much about formatting it. This was exciting for us because we had already seen the GDS team’s great work on publishing for GOV.UK.  This was our opportunity to learn how it was done.

An example of the markdown text edited in Github

Although we were a bit apprehensive at first mastering it didn’t take long, and from this point on we made all the necessary iterations to the strategy in the code itself.  This included adding and styling text, changing layout and adding links before merging the text using Git. In fact, Sheila and I became so comfortable using it that we wound up making more edits to the online version of the strategy than anyone else in the team!

This hands-on collaborative approach was critical to making the web publishing approach a success. It saved us time. Rather than spotting something that needed changing and then shouting ‘help’ at busy developers we could log on and simply make the edits ourselves. We were able to try out ideas on text presentation and preview it instantly. It also reduced the likelihood of mistakes when making changes because nothing was lost in translation.

Writing in Markdown and using Git wasn’t hugely complicated, and it bridged the gap both Sheila and I usually experienced between policy and development teams.  In addition it helped us to think clearly about how these documents would ‘live’ online.

Where next for the policy profession?

I suspect departments will increasingly publish their own documents online in a similar way ie as web documents. The experiences of Sheila and myself could just be the start of what will be a new trend in the civil service.

And policy advisors shouldn’t be scared – we can vouch for the fact that in this digital age mastering the skills needed to publish a strategy directly online is pretty straightforward and really worthwhile.

10 comments

  1. When I read the title of this post, my first thought was not “great, they are publishing the strategy as a web document rather than a document to be printed” but rather “oh dear, yet another website?”

    I had thought that the direction that the UK was going was one of reducing and consolidating its web presence, bringing the content into a few central sites rather than scattering it as a multitude of micro-sites. Yet you indicate that the new direction is that every policy document is to be its own stand-alone site as the Government Digital Strategy is, with no visual or navigation making it part of a larger, central site. Is the intent to reverse the drive to consolidation?

    The technology behind the publication of the Government Digital Strategy sounds great. It’s a positive step that the publication is itself fully digital. But couldn’t that be done in a website, rather than as one?

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment.

      While I understand your concerns around another website, this has been an essential stopgap. The strategy is a Cabinet Office document, but there was no point adding it as a page on the existing Cabinet Office website because the latter will be moving over to Inside Government in the near future.

      However, Inside Government was not live when the strategy was launched and the strategy could not sit on GOV.UK because it is not a GOV.UK document. It is currently envisioned that when the Cabinet Office moves over to Inside Government, then the strategy and other Cabinet Office publications will move with it.

      Nevertheless, we are hoping for departmental publications on Inside Government to benefit from some of the early design and accessibility work done while publishing the Government Digital Strategy.

      Finally, the existing platform for the strategy is beneficial because various digital strategies are being published on it – including the efficiency and landscape reports, as well as the Assisted Digital Strategy, which should be published on the site in the next few weeks. We are also planning to have information on departmental strategies on the current site and it is therefore beneficial for people to have all this information currently in one place.

      I hope that clarifies.

      1. Hi, I agree with dtallan that this should not have been done as a new website. There are way too many sites and it is extremely confusing. This should have been on the existing Cabinet Office site and then when it moves, should be migrated with the rest of the content. It seems that there are conflicting messages coming from the cabinet office if they are backing this, as microsite rationalisation is something that I too thought the government were working towards?

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