design.uk

by robertmcnicol

Neither of you have likely noticed, as you are both – by my reckoning – not frequently involved in dealing with matters governmental, but the government’s website has changed. gov.uk is now the British government’s website, replacing (mainly) direct.gov.uk. And gov.uk has just won the Design of the Year award. We should all be a little bit sad about this.

Throughout my career in local government, one of my primary gripes has been about communication and how government both local and national have failed to appreciate the potential of using the internet for interacting and communicating with citizens. I don’t know when the last time was that you used a governmental website, but I’m fairly sure that it was clunky, flimsy, appallingly written, messy and confusing. And that’s probably a page I put together!

When I first heard about gov.uk maybe a year ago when it was still in beta, I was quite excited. This was mainly because they advertised their design principles at an early stage. You can still read these here: https://www.gov.uk/designprinciples. I still think these are generally good principles; except for number 2. Number 2 is this:

Do less.

Previous government websites tried to do everything. And this was a failing of them. If you were to look at local government websites, which don’t enjoy the resources of national governmental sites, these frequently take the old approach: put everything on there. EVERYTHING. Preferably twice. Given the massive range of services you get for your council tax, plus all the “back office” stuff that you might actually have some involvement with, that’s a hell of a lot of stuff. Replicated 326 times in the local authorities of England alone. So it’s understandable that the designers of the gov.uk website wanted to pare down the content to the essentials.

So why is “do less” a problem? Let’s see what gov.uk says:

Government should only do what only government can do. If someone else is doing it — link to it. If we can provide resources (like APIs) that will help other people build things — do that. We should concentrate on the irreducible core.

The irreducible core of government? Hell, that’s fightin’ talk! Or at least part of an undergrad political philosophy essay question. In fact, this whole paragraph is tantamount to an astonishing small-state retreat and a capitulation that the civil service really are running scared. They even link to a comedy example of the old direct.gov.uk site about keeping bees. The problem here is not that government should be telling us how to keep bees and now they aren’t; it’s that government should have the balls to say: yes, we know that someone else is doing this, but we’re going to do it better. Maybe not bees, but maybe, well – discovering the Higgs Boson or inventing the World Wide Web.

Let’s look at one particular area of gov.uk to see what impact this has had. Let’s choose… oh, I don’t know… planning! Big surprise there for you. Firstly, you have to know to click on the Housing and Local Services link, under which it says “owning or renting or council services”, which doesn’t really sound like “I want to build a conservatory” to me. But whatevs. Then three clicks later (fine) you get to the Planning Permission guide, which basically tells you the absolute bare minumum about what getting planning permission might be, whilst linking to the Planning Portal website, which has adverts on it and therefore feels untrustworthy, even though the information on it is sound. There’s nothing on what urban planning is, why it might be a Good Thing that governments do, how it’s come about, nothing on listed buildings, nothing on the government’s changes to planning.

This is poor design. It pretends that the organisation (in this case, the government) that makes the rules has no interest in them. It pretends that there is no flow or change to systems and processes, that the operations of government are as ancient as the black and white livery of their fancy new website. And by trying to do as little as possible, gov.uk undermines its own worth.

Of course, the real culprits here are the judges of this award, who have failed to realise this. I went to the Design Museum exhibition that features all of the so-called designs of the year. I was really disappointed; so few of them have any serious merit above looking pretty (and lots of them didn’t). Sadly it seems that, with gov.uk, the award has been given for the triumph of simplicity over content, of rebranding over passion, of cool disinterest over messy but honest helpfulness. Oh, and it really doesn’t look that pretty.

 

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