This is a story of joined up government. This is a story of not very joined up government.
It is quite a long story: there are well over a thousand words here, describing a bit of activity which took no more than a few minutes to do. There are no heroes in this story, but no villains either. And since there is a lot of quite tedious detail in what follows, it’s probably worth starting with the conclusion.
I wanted to find what I thought would be a simple piece of local information. As with many apparently simple questions, it turned out to be remarkably hard to answer. That’s partly because managing information and keeping it up to date across the three bits of government which I came across in the attempt is hard. But it’s also because of a set of minor usability glitches and inconsistencies, none of them individually catastrophic, but cumulatively making the experience harder than it needed to be. It is also an unexpected reinforcement of the argument I made a few weeks ago that you can’t tell how well a service or site might meet your needs by looking at it. You can only tell by having needs and trying to meet them. My conclusion is that this is always harder than it looks. And that there is always something to be gained from being obsessive about the detail.
And so to the story.
My mother in law is less mobile than she used to be. She has recently got a blue badge, allowing her to park her car much closer to places she is trying to get to. Actually she doesn’t have a car, it is many years since she gave up driving. But the blue badge can be used in other people’s cars, so long as they are taking her somewhere she wants to go. My cousin is visiting from the States for Christmas. She wants to take my mother in law out to lunch. So is there convenient disabled parking sufficiently close to the intended restaurant?
My mother in law lives in Shrewsbury, which comes under Shropshire unitary authority. That’s an immediately encouraging start, because the Shropshire website is a thing of beauty, with clear minimalist design and simple straightforward navigation (and a project team who show their passion in making it so). What I want is a map of disabled parking bays in central Shrewsbury, so ‘Maps’ seems like a good place to start. The map tool is very well done. You can drill down practically to the level of individual paving stones, and select from no fewer than 43 overlays, ranging from the precautionary salt network to mobile library stops. Sadly, though, disabled parking isn’t on the list of 43, so I need to look elsewhere.
It’s not hard to find the relevant page – though it’s primarily about applying for a blue badge, with using it seeming to be a bit of an afterthought well below the fold. ‘Where can I park if I have a Blue Badge?’ is a promising heading, but sadly tells me only about kinds of places, not actual places. But there is a promised link to ‘Parking Benefits’ which might do the trick. At this stage the link is only promised because Shropshire seems to have a consistent policy of not putting links in the body text, but adding them in a separate box at the end of each page. That creates two significant problems.
First, there is an impact on usability. The actual links are invisible without scrolling down, creating a sense of uncertainty which, as we will see, turns out to be entirely justified. More importantly, it breaks a fundamental part of how the web works. If there is anything more fundamental to the concept of a web page than hyperlinks, I don’t know what it is. And even if you don’t accept that in principle, there is Jakob Nielsen’s law of internet user experience to consider:
Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.
I wanted to click on the phrase ‘Parking Benefits’, not to have to scroll down, find the phrase in a links section and click on it there. That leads to the second problem, because as it turns out the promised link is not there to be found, a mistake I suspect it is much easier to make if the link gets separated from the text which introduces it – there is no way of looking quickly at the list of links on the page and detecting that one is missing.
As an alternative, I followed a link which did exist to ‘The Blue Badge scheme: rights and responsibilities in England’. That turned out to be a pdf version of a booklet produced by the Department for Transport.
I thought it was rather good. It told me everything one might want to know about how the scheme works, other than the answer to that elusive question of where disabled parking bays are to be found. But buried deep in the booklet, on a page dedicated to the curious fact that four London boroughs have declared UDI from the scheme, was the line I was looking for:
You can find the location of parking bays in London and elsewhere at http://www.bluebadge.direct.gov.uk
My sense of triumph was short lived. The result of following the link was not what might be hoped for. Without even the dignity of a 404, that subdomain is stone cold dead:
This page is generated by Parallels Plesk Panel, the leading hosting automation software. You see this page because there is no Web site at this address.
There was something not quite right about that, beyond the obvious fact of the broken link. I had assumed that the Shropshire site was linking to DfT to provide the booklet, but it turns out it has hosted its own copy. But the version they have is from 2007, now superseded by a new edition dated 2011, which has neither the link, nor any promise of the elusive map. Linkrot is a pernicious business, and not generally the fault of the linker. I don’t know how Shropshire checks the validity of its links, but whatever method they use, I am not surprised that it fails to pick up non-clickable URLs buried in pdfs (and that fact is perhaps another argument against using pdfs for mainstream content). But since the booklet as a whole has been replaced, perhaps it should be taken as an instance of the more general principle that it is better to point to information which may change at times and in ways you don’t control. There is no excuse though for Directgov closing a previously publicised sub-domain without leaving so much as a redirection to where the current content is to be found.
I was also struck that the 2011 version on Directgov is much inferior as a web page than the old 2007 version on the Shropshire site. Shropshire has one page to a screen, giving proportions which are about right, so filling the screen with clear content. Directgov has a double page to a screen view, completely out of proportion to any screen I have ever seen. To complete the oddity of it all, the new version also has a link to where copies can be downloaded from. Except that it is a DfT link, not a Directgov link, despite the content being very clearly addressed to a citizen audience. And except that although the link has been made clickable, it runs over two lines, and only the first line is used, so taking anybody who tries to use to the DfT home page rather than the topic page. And while I am being pernickety, the DfT page which is, I assume, the canonical source describes the booklet as published on 23 March 2010, despite linking to the May 2011 version.
But back to Directgov, where it turns out that despite the demise of the sub-site, there is a blue badge page. It even gave me the extremely useful (but all too rarely provided) information that the thing I was looking for (even if I didn’t know that that was what I was looking for) doesn’t exist. Better still, it says it can tell me where to look instead.
If you live in England, see the link ‘Locate parking bays for registered disabled drivers’ to find Blue Badge parking bays
This is information held at local authority level, so it needs to know the area I am interested in and two screens later it successfully finds the right link – to the general blue badge page on the Shropshire site which I had been on half a dozen steps earlier. Beyond the general frustration of being sent round in a circle, it is also important to spot that this came of answering a question different from the one asked. The Directgov offer was to take me to a page where I could locate parking bays. But it didn’t – and couldn’t – deliver on that offer because it has no control over whether local authorities provide it. Perhaps other local authorities do, but that doesn’t help me with knowing where one might park in Shrewsbury.
My cousin decided they would take a taxi to the restaurant.
Did you share this with the web folks over at Shropshire yet? Would be curious to see if this post makes a difference…
Yes, I alerted their web manager (and a few others) by twitter – and he retweeted, which I take as an encouraging sign. I am confident that some of the smaller things will get fixed, but the bigger problem won’t go away easily.
This story is a very good example of why we need enterprise architecture and clearly defined models for fed, state and local responsibilities and formal methods of collaboration. The missions are muddled, and the existing bureaucracies just reinforce and magnify the issue.
Until we attack the root cause, which is the organization of government on 19th/20th century organizational models, we will continue to have the issues highlighted by this experience. It will be a long journey to solve the issues, as it is “always harder than it looks.”
I agree that this is a systemic problem not a minor web design issue. But behind that, there is an underlying tension which may just not have a solution. We want services to be local and responsive, driven by local needs and priorities. But we also want consistency and standardisation without gaps and variations which result in different solutions in different places. In the UK, monolithic government centrism is attacked. But so is what is known here as the postcode lottery – the idea that you may get a better or worse service depending on where you live. And very often, it is the same people attacking both, without appearing to realise the contradiction. For as long as that is the case, the central-local tension will never be fully resolved. Perhaps the best we can hope for – and the best approach – is small pieces loosely joined.