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Rational expectations

Sid the Slug was the one that stuck in my mind the most. That wasn’t the name of the site, of course – Sid was the molluscular star of www.salt.gov.uk – long since defunct, but it encapsulated the problem. Government had embraced its webification with gusto, and had thousands of sites and micro-sites, brands and sub-brands, scattered everywhere.

This was the late 00s, and I was working in Hercules House on something we called “the rationalisation of government websites” – an initiative emanating from the Centre (Cabinet Office) and landing in the laps of Directgov and the Central Office of Information to deliver. Always a dangerous word, “rationalisation”. Which of us thinks we aren’t already “rational”? But the steer, and the strategy, for government-meets-web was clear: stop it with the weird and wonderful URLs, and bring things TOGETHER.

We’re before the time of Martha Lane Fox’s report that led to gov.uk, but the drive was already there to corral services into Directgov – the government’s “website for the citizen” – and its business-facing counterpart, Business Link. Was this a good thing for the users of government services? Probably. Though not without some cracking of eggs (I think of niche user groups like those needing to find the minutiae of policy details – they were perhaps poorly served in the shuffling around).

Was it a popular thing with all the separate parts of government who actually provided the services? Er, not really. Some exceptions to this of course, and for a few years an unholy “franchise” arrangement existed where hybrid teams worked in a matrix structure to put together parts of Directgov’s orange Frankenstein’s monster. But of course it felt like an abduction of power and influence to take away a website you owned and controlled, and integrate it with things you didn’t.

And of course there were endless boundary discussions. Appeals for exceptions to the somewhat Stalinist-sounding “convergence” plan. What, when you thought really hard about it, actually defined a “government” service – or information – anyway? Obvious stuff, taxes, benefits, rules & regs – mostly easy to define. But the other stuff? Independent commissions, public inquiries, consultations and of course…campaigns.

Campaigns like salt-averse Sid. Campaigns that were often the Big Story for a particular minister for that quarter. Campaigns that were put together with agencies. Agencies who would be delighted to bundle in a website. Try telling a grizzled advertising exec that one of their favourite tools of interruptive marketing and attention-grabbing – a catchy URL – was off the table. Like Randi’s unsinkable rubber ducks, they’d just keep bobbing back up, again and again and again.

For bigger players in the Great Game of Government Departments, losing your website wasn’t necessarily the end of your independence as an operator, but you can see how it might feel a lot like it at times. Taking down the shop front was a Big Deal, all right.

So, lots of arguments, lots of strategising, lots of fudge, and plenty of healthy debate and opinions – I appreciated this counterpoint by Jeni Tennison – but with the heft of the Lane Fox report and a boot up the arse from the indefatigable Francis Maude in the Cabinet Office, they got there.

Sites converged to a single gov.uk domain, a place for everything (well, bar a few exceptions) and everything in its place. More than just convergence of branding and operation though – really tangible improvements like standardising the approach to content and service standards, and making sure that important stuff like accessibility was clearly and consistently supported. Perhaps it didn’t have to be all about cutting down variety and flexibility! Perhaps it was about a more structured and supported environment to let everyone be more effective at what they needed to do.

So why have I just trotted through 600 words on the saga of the Bonfire of the Silly.Gov.Uk domains? Because this morning I saw the delightful story of the collapse of the government’s bike repair voucher website. A government website? Surely that’s all looked after by gov.uk, user-tested, performance-assured, etc. etc. Ah. No.

fixyourbikevoucherscheme.est.org.uk – yep. You read that right. We just slid back 11 years to the hand-rolled campaign URL! But it’s government, yes? What’s this EST bit anyway? Ah. The Energy Saving Trust. A part of government, surely? Er, no. It’s the Energy Saving Trust Limited – an independent, for-profit company, delivering stuff for government. Complicated, this mixed-sector provision stuff, it really is. But there were pictures of the bike-loving Johnson spaffed all over the launch blurb! Surely that means it’s government? Or claiming to be?

And that’s one of the big, big problems here. If you start tinkering with things that might be government, or are on the margins of, or deliver on-behalf-of-or-in-partnership-with government, then you get into sticky territory of trust and legitimacy. One of the concerns of the pre-convergence government web estate meshugas was that people wouldn’t get an accurate picture of what was ‘official government’ and what wasn’t.

About 2 minutes after I saw the bike repair horrorshow I spotted the launch of the government’s National Food Strategy. At nationalfoodstrategy.org – ah, yes, .org. So that’s…government, or not government? It’s the independent report, commissioned by Michael Gove when at Defra, but though that may smell very governmenty to the untrained nose, it isn’t. Or at least it is when the minister needs to be seen to be doing something about food strategy, but it isn’t until it’s been received from the estimable Henry Dimbleby and team, considered, and the government response provided. That would definitely then be ‘government’ and sit happily within gov.uk. Probably. Your guess is as good as mine.

With the benefit of a day’s thought about it, I can see some benefits of having a bit of separation of the report from government until such time as it’s responded to etc etc, though some say that the neutral-sounding independent.gov.uk is a better home for such things. Clearly a bit of flux here.

It remains true that anything published as part of a drive towards public good should have an eye to the basics of good content design, including accessibility. Do these sites? I suspect not. Could there have been a better way to harness the benefits of robust design and service standards, such as those developed by the Government Digital Service, even if the URL might be a bit left-field? Maybe. I’m ten years out of this game, and have absolutely no knowledge of any discussions or decisions that lay behind today’s two examples.

Maybe I’m just being the old-timer, mourning a strategy that’s lived out its time. Maybe we are all ready for a bit of random interruption and eye-grabbing again. The Squid of Centralisation wafts its tentacles tighter and looser, rhythmically across the decades, imposing a single approach one year, letting a hundred flowers bloom the next. Nothing’s going to be the right answer for ever. But keep your eye open for other ‘interesting’ domains popping up from here on. It seems certain there’ll be more.

Update – 30 July. Since posting this, I’ve been tipped off about the following recent wonders, and assured that there are many others:

customsintermediarygrant.co.uk

workforce.adultsocialcare.uk “Official Channel for Department of Health and Social Care COVID-19 communications” – are you really sure about that??

homesenglandgraduates.co.uk

Crikey.

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