Alpha gorilla

Everybody who has had much to do with the development of government web services knows that there have been failures of imagination, failures of bravery, failures of technique and failures to seize opportunities – as well as successes in the teeth of opposition and incomprehension. Few have had the opportunity to start from scratch (though those who have have often made good use of that opportunity). So there are inevitably people who will look with envy at what the alpha gov team has achieved and, just as importantly, what it was given licence to achieve. Relly Annett-Baker caught that sense in her recent post:

The frustrating part is plenty of people before Alphagov could see the problems and probably a good few of the solutions too. They were not able to act on them (and many have privately told us of their struggles). And they probably feel like, well, like how everyone feels when the consultants waltz in and say exactly what you’ve been saying for the last however many months. We have been given the utopian blank slate that others have only dreamed was possible. To those people, I can only say this: we aren’t wasting the opportunity.

But everybody who has had much to do with the government web services also knows the complexity of forces which bear down on creativity and design choices, sometimes from undue caution but at least as often from the fact that genuinely contradictory pressures have to get reconciled.

That’s where it starts to get interesting, because Alpha gov is beginning to find itself in this territory. It has come under criticism for the choices it has made about accessibility, for compromising on its approach to UX and even for the amount of white space frivolously scattered about the site. To my mind much more interestingly, questions are also being raised about its scalability and extensibility. One commenter on alpha gov’s about page puts it this way:

It looks good. Vast improvement on Directgov. Alpha seems like a great way to test and design the public face of e-govt and I’m sure a lot of the comments you get will praise the big leap forward in usability on show here. I hesitate to say this, but that’s the easy bit. Does your remit with Alpha go as far as testing the other side of this – i.e the other end of the transactional processes, within the Departments? It’s just as important that that alpha provides Departments with the flexibility, functionality and autonomy they need to adapt and develop their products and online services quickly, as it is to make sure the public interface works well. I suspect this will be hard though – the barriers will be more cultural and political than technical.

Alpha gov is a proof of concept. But what concept has it proved? That there are more arresting and more user friendly ways of building a government navigation site? Definitely. That starting with what users actually want to do, and then helping them do it is a good and (in this context) radical approach? Assuredly. That this could replace Directgov or become the heart of the single government domain (whatever that is)? Well, no. Not because it is clear that it couldn’t do those things, but because that is not what it has been built to test.

So what, then, is this alpha? Is it an alpha gorilla, asserting dominance and superiority? Or is it alpha software, tentatively tiptoeing into the daylight for a short and critical life before being cast aside?

The name is supposed to connote the second. But because of all the doubts, uncertainties and insecurities described above, some will inevitably hear the first. Tom Loosemore is horrified by that possibility. I don’t have a scintilla of doubt in his good faith but objectively, as the marxists used to say, I think he may be wrong. The purpose of alpha gov is to challenge, to point fingers at the past and so, by implication, at those who have played parts in creating that past. The position it is aspiring to occupy is not some marginal piece of unimportant communication to a group nobody cares about, it is to be the new paradigm for the way the whole of government interacts with its citizens. It is to be the alpha gorilla, even if its chosen weapon is the alpha site. Aspirant alpha gorillas have to fight to establish their position. Some succeed, and dominate the pack (at least until the next aspirant comes along). Some fail, and are ejected. What we are seeing is the beginning of that fight.

I don’t think Tom and the alpha gov team need feel apologetic about that. But equally, I don’t think that most of those involved in creating the set of things alpha gov is there to challenge need to feel guilty or apologetic either. That’s because alpha gov is, in one important sense, a sleight of hand. It is proposing a technical solution to a supposedly technical problem. That’s good, but technology is not, fundamentally, the reason why the government’s web presence is as it is. The real problem is not technology but sociology. To the extent that the structure of government has been designed at all, it has been designed to be delivered in ways which can be managed. Government is not fragmented as an accident but as a way – for a long time the only possible way – of getting things done. One result of that, as I have argued before, there is no such thing as the government. The question then becomes, how in a world of rich and complicated public services, detailed legal frameworks (often highly specific to the service they regulate), every conceivable combination of personal characteristics and needs, and long tribal histories we can nevertheless make things better by deploying the new and more powerful tools we now have available.

From that perspective, the primary power of alpha gov is not as a solution, but as a catalyst. It does less to provide answers than those who built it might have hoped or thought. But it does very starkly pose a question and demand an answer. Who chooses to pick up that question and answer it may show who is the real alpha in the pack.


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