Do You Hear Bells?

About 10 years ago, I helped a colleague build a case that managing government websites is “inherently governmental.” A-76 (OMB Circular A-76: Performance of Commercial Activities) was rearing its head again, and some agencies were asking the question: could web management be done more efficiently and effectively by the private sector? A few agency web managers were scrambling to justify their existence. In the end, I don’t think anyone lost a job; but it was a wake-up call.

As I looked at the recently-released “Alpha.gov.uk,” that fire drill came back to me.

Basically, a high level official the United Kingdom government got disgusted with the cost and inefficiency of government websites and asked for a study. An outside reviewer concluded that U.K. government websites were a mess, that they were organized around government agencies instead of customer needs, and that the best thing to do is dump them and start over. They concluded there should be a single domain – one website – where citizens could go to find the government services they need. Oh – and PS – eliminating all these agency sites should result in significant savings.

They hired a team of outside consultants to build the site – apparently didn’t even give govies a chance to redeem themselves – and “Alpha.gov.uk” is the result.

It’s not a perfect website – and they’re very honest about that right up front – but it’s a good start. Lots of positives. For example, I really like the box, placed in the top left quadrant of the screen so my eye sees it first, asking me where I am and then explaining that if they know where I live, they can tell me what services are available to me. Spot on. That’s what customers everywhere want – what’s available to me, where I live.

Then you choose a task (and I’m hoping the ones on the front page are their top tasks), and you go to a page that has nice big print and looks easy to use. The first task I tried was “calculate holiday pay,” and – what’s this? It actually tells me how many steps are involved and about how long it will take me to complete this task, before I start. Now these folks respect their customers. They know people want to get in, get it done, and get out. TIME is critical.

Next, I chose “pay your council tax,” and – oh, look…they tell me right at the top I have to have a credit card. I don’t have to waste my time filling out the form, only to discover I can’t pay by e-check.

There are just a few “related items” links on each page – they don’t overwhelm me with choices. Whew!

Best of all – it’s written in plain language. I understood every page I looked at, first time I read it. If I were a U.K. citizen, I’d be happy with this direction.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not perfect. I’d like an option to browse topics. I don’t really like all that news stuff below the fold. It’s clunky going back and forth. And I really didn’t poke around beyond the front page tasks, so I’m guessing they have a lot of kinks to work out. But all things considered, I’m impressed.

And it’s got to be chilling for our colleagues, the U.K. government web managers.

So I’m thinking…could this happen in the U.S.? If the UK model turns out to be a success (or even just perceived as a success), will advocates or media or the public start asking, “why not us?” Could consultants come in now and do what we do, better and/or more cost-effectively?

I think we need to talk about this, as a community. We know our government is facing a huge deficit, and people are looking everywhere for ways to cut costs. 24,000+ websites…gotta be some savings there. So what’s our strategy? How can we make sure we’re more efficient and effective than the private sector could be?

Did you guess what my title refers to? John Donne’s “No Man is an Island.” Always a good reminder. Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

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6 Comments

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Profile Photo Charles A. Ray

Candi: Great post. You know, there’s no inherent reason that government-created and run web sites can’t be just as effective (cost and performance) as privately developed sites. The problem is that bureaucracies always have the unfortunate tendency to overcomplicate everything. I recall, for instance, several years ago, I went to work in a government office that had an IT system procured by our higher headquarters – it just didn’t do what we needed because it was designed for the lowest common denominator across the entire enterprise. We had to scrap it and have a whole new system built, which, alas, didn’t communicate well with our parent bureau. The story goes on and on. Problem: govie bureaucrats try to do ‘one size fits all’ solutions, or go for the lowest bidder, and the result is you want it badly, you get bad, you want it cheap, you get what you pay for.

Profile Photo Ayaan Carter

Hi Candi! I too was impressed with Beta UK site and wondered if it was something we could replicate here. I am not sure how helpful it would be at the Federal level, but I do think this would be really beneficial at the state level.

Profile Photo Rand Ruggieri

Candi, shouldn’t the real question be: how do we serve citizens and businesses best? Is it 30,000+ (yes, it is growing (http://www.digitalliteracy.gov/) every day! 24,000 is so passe! With the right structure, govies can do amazing things. Unfortunately, the right structure doesn’t exist. I don’t know how the Federal Government should structure its web presence but I do know that what it has now is as much of a mess as the UK or worse.

I’d like to see some ideas of what would work for the USG! Something has to be better than the status quo.

Profile Photo Carol Davison

I agree with Charles. No one wants cheap, junk in a hurry. I remember being told to build to the lowest common denominator vs the highest. I asked, shouldn’t I serve the 90% vs the 10? No was the answer. The customers who had to work with me on this project rebelled because they could see right through it. Ah well.

Profile Photo Kristy Dalton

Thanks for opening the conversation. I wonder what implications this approach would have for LOCAL government here in the US? There are about 36,000 cities, towns and townships, and up to 90,000 if you include other local government special districts. Lots of websites out there. But for some of us working for tourist destinations, our sites serve as more than just a tool for ‘finding services’. We use them to showcase our city and encourage tourism and economic development. I’m curious how this would fit into the picture…