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:
- Public beta test of the site delivering the mainstream, citizen-facing aspects of gov.uk.
- 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]
- 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 .