Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Gov.uk - one website for all UK government digital services

"One Website to rule them all,

One Website to find them,

One Website to bring them all

and in the darkness bind them"

The UK Government are shutting down all departmental websites including arms-lengths-bodies (you don't use the word quango anymore) into one super-site. The question is... will it be super?  
As I often do, because I'm lazy, I've chosen to point towards someone who's said it far better than I can:

Rory-Cellen Jones wrote for the BBC:

"Can the government run one decent and cost-effective website, which gives customers speedy access to vital information and services? Unlikely, you might think given a track record of over spending on far too many sites that deliver a poor user experience at a hefty cost.
But today sees the launch of www.gov.uk which seeks to change all that. The vision is of one website to rule them all - or rather a single destination for the government's customers rather than more than 400 different addresses spread across the various Whitehall departments.
If this is to work it is going to need a change of culture, from one where the government viewed its web operations as something to be farmed out to some giant suppliers and forgotten, to something far more responsive.
When I visited the Government Digital Service - now in charge of this operation - there were some encouraging signs. At first glance the office appeared to be awash with T-shirts and ponytails, more like a technology firm than a government department, though with much worse coffee and no free food."

In theory it's a great idea. One place to interact with the Government... that means you can renew your passport, driving license, collect pension, do your tax, renew your tax disc, etc online in one place. Businesses will similarly be able to register their business, get all the permits they need to run their business, check export/import rates, etc.

Anyone who's tried to renew their driving license online will know how painful it is to have to register for a Government gateway ID and follow the process to completion. It's doable, but not intuitive. As a starter I hope that activities like this will be simpler yet still secure.

I think this site will fail for users who don't know what task or info they need. There are heaps of random pieces of legislation and guidance out there for businesses and public alike. If I'm specifically searching for something, like renewing my driving license, that task is easy to find... but what if I'm a buiness, legally required to hold permits X, Y and Z? There are many activities and pieces of guidance for business and public, regulated by various Government bodies, that people simply don't know are there. Unless I search specifically for something it's hard to find what's relevant to me... as the Gov.uk site grows these lesser known bits of information may become more and more lost.

In theory the idea of Gov.uk is great; one website to rule them all.

We'll have to wait and see what the reality is. It'll all be down to how robust the architecture turns out to be and how good the content is. It'll also be down to how efficiently they continue to improve the site and how much support they provide the 400 departments and agencies that will now be feeding into the site. They've adopted an agile methodology; if they continually invest and improve this site then they've a fighting chance but it's a mammouth task - the needs of the Police vs Defraa vs Natural England vs the Post Office vs the MOD vs JobCentre+ are all very different and the needs of the many many different customers will be massively varied. After all the UK is a very varied place.

Flood aware video

It's not often that I get to star in a video... and this is no exception.

I recently got involved in producing a video for the Environment Agency to raise flood awareness. It's all about how quickly floods can happen and how you need to be prepared.

Can you spot me in the video? More importantly are you prepared for flooding... do you know if your home or work is at risk and what you would do in a flood situation?


Monday, November 05, 2012

Why big fat IT depts suck

"I'm sorry, the outdated browser you are forced to use won't support Google docs for much longer. We know this makes your job easier but we've just upgraded you from IE6 so be happy with that. Please check back in 10 years for the next upgrade"

"The simple project you have proposed will cost £100K more than it would in the real world. We have taken 6-12 months to tell you this. We will take another 2 years to implement it by which time the project will be redundant and technology will have superceeded it by at least 4 years"

"Thank you for calling our support number. Your call is very important to us. If your problem is urgent try emailing our support address blah@blah.com. We aim to respond within 48 hours."

Do you work for a large company with a frustratingly slow IT department? Why is it that these departments seem to have unfathomably slow processes and a complete unwillingness to be flexible?

One of the most frustrating parts of working for a big company has to be the lack of control that you get when trying to interact with your own IT department. Even as a digital expert you are assumed to be IT illeterate and your computer is locked down to the lowest common denominator level. A level of assumed idiocy that even a monkey, bashing away at your computer solidly for a year, would struggle to do anything that would break the system... except that the reality is that most common error occurs when the poorly executed security controls placed on your machine bugger things up again and again.

It's pretty established that a lack of control in any situation increases stress. This is particularly true in the work place and very true when trying to use my computer on a daily basis.

The big issues about trying to get a project off the ground only to have it shot down based on rediculous cost are bad enough (why are we told that to change that sentence will cost £30K and take 6 months to implement... an inhouse developer could do it in 10 minutes and have time to make a coffee).

It's the little things that really bug me, for example, I can't:
  • Use a browser other than IE8
  • Use a USB stick without encrypting it
  • Leave my computer for more than 15 minutes without it powering down completely
  • Have more than 100mb of emails
  • Organise icons on the desktop. Make things ordered and tidy
  • Clear my cache
  • Set a screensaver
  • Watch a YouTube video, check my personal email or cheer myself up with Lolcats
It's just frustrating. Perhaps if I worked in that department it would make sense. I'm sure there are strong reasons to outsource everything and to make everything stupidly secure. I can see why everything should be tested thoroughly but then again perhaps if more was in-house we could fix and respond to things more quickly. It probably is easier to have an army of first-line gerbals providing technical support (but it would be nice if they knew more than how to click the start menu).

Even if nothing changed it would be so nice if it didn't always feel like "us vs them"... we do work for the same people with the same objectives right?