Question 1: Central Government’s objectives in digital delivery

Central Government currently uses its digital services and websites, including Directgov, for a variety of things, including:

  • publishing content (e.g. news, information and advice),
  • managing transactions (e.g. making it possible for people to buy their tax disc online)
  • getting citizens views on policy (e.g. the spending challenge)
  • making data more transparent (e.g. publishing details of salaries and government expenditure)

What, in your view, is the right way to organise and present these objectives in digital communications and service delivery?  Should these objectives be presented together (eg in Directgov), or separately?  Should they be presented as a whole-of-government view (as Directgov is intended to do for information and services), or separately?  Which types of digital content should the Government be providing more of, and which less?  What other forms of content should the Government be providing, and how?

45 Responses to Question 1: Central Government’s objectives in digital delivery

  1. Adrian says:

    The fact that you have to even ask this question is a key sign of “EPIC FAIL”. This is not about “joined up government” – thats the job of the cabinet. It is about information dissemination and interaction. If you have to ask the question in this way, its not about “open government” (here, let me photograph a police car parked on a yellow line and I will show you how open it is) -its an indication that actually, you don’t really know what you are trying to do.

    Well, that was obvious from this questionnaire. Four questions that ask search-the-naval questions without any real purpose, designed to be four different pages, with the comment section at the bottom. Egro, you are supposed to read everyone elses comments. What made you think that anyone cares what other people think – after all, you are asking for my views, not that I have a comment on anyone elses comments. So why make the comment box at the bottom? Goodness only knows what this will look like when you have a couple of 1000 comments!

    Why bother getting views on these things anyway? Even this website is a waste of time(why am I writing this …. no one will read it, let alone take any view on board). Getting joe public’s view on heathrow 3rd runway, or the siting of a new power station in some out of the way Scottish Island is not the point of the government – it is the point of your PM. Don’t get any views on things you cannot influence.

    Provide a site that means that me, the person who wants/needs something from my government, should be able to do it simply and easily. Submit taxes, claim rebates, buy tax disks, etc.

    After that, put legislation online (no, I don’t want to pay HMSO for a copy of laws that affect me – that is not empowerment) and possibly put case law next to it to say how it has been interpreted in practice.

    Oh, and just do it in English. That is English that has been written by a person who speaks it as their first language, to the level of a BBC Radio 4 newscaster. Not in Welsh, Scottish (?), Gaelic, Irish or any of the myriad of other languages the government seems so eager to pander to. Keep it simple. If you want to deal with the French government, you had better speak French. If you don’t they have no time for you. Works for them – it can work for us.

    AND MAKE IT ONE SITE – one bookmark with a search facility. One site, one look and feel, one place to go to.

    Make it simple – no flash, no fancy HTML5 custome written to only work on IE 10. Make it open so everyone can use it. So, no lock in code. Nothing that will make it launch in 20 minutes on a high speed broadband because of all the fancy graphics and movies I have to down load.

    Sorry – this is level 1 of the How Do I Make a Website course – And I really, really though that Miss Lane-Fox would have known this.

  2. rex_Imperator says:

    Any site might be criticised for offering too much or too little. What the current Directgov lacks is the ability to ask any questions of the relevant organisation. As an example, if I am going to be away with my car for a few weeks during which time the tax expires, can I tax it in advance? The site does not provide the answer, nor any way of getting the question answered. I use this only as an illustration. A “contact us” linking to the relevant department is required. My VAT return, online, is to an HMRC site. If there are questions, these link through to a Directgov site, which is written for a completely different audience. Contact details for the VAT enquiry unit are, shall we say, elusive.

    The single portal would make sense if there were one log in, and one set of personal details (as the Scandinavians do). I need:
    – a national insurance number
    – a tax reference number
    – a VAT personal idenitifer (separate from the company VAT reg number)
    – a driver number
    – a premium bond holdfer number
    – a National health number (not the one I had at birth – somehow it has been changed)
    – a local authority reference
    etc etc.

    The process of interacting with the government is still far too complex. Computerising and digitising the same processes as used on paper isn’t good enough.

  3. I very much appreciate the Direct Gov web site/s. As a benefits claimant life has been much easier when researching current regulations and locating individual agency contact details, the site has been invaluable. As a disabled person I have been able to locate information directly from my desk, as opposed to making a bus journey to an Advice Centre. Starting in business as a self employed person I have relied on Business Link web site so much, I hate to think what life was like before the web site. There is so much to know about starting a business, accessing the info through the web and having on-line tools to assist in planning has made it possible to get the business off the ground. I believe it would probably have been impossible for a person like me to do when everything was paper based and through a plethora of agencies and bureaus. My set up costs have been much lower as a consequence, the time to launch has been shorter than it would have been otherwise, plus I feel more confident that the research I have done has been thorough and that I have covered all the angles, especially regarding liabilities and responsibilities.
    Paying car Tax on-line is a blessing and I’m sure Income Tax filing will also prove to be a bonus.
    More more more, especially transparency in Local Government Spending and the ability to call for advice and support when Local Government get it wrong, would be wonderful, as would Central Governments spending on MP’s expenses, etc.

  4. Dave Kind says:

    The main issue with any of the government’s digital services as I see it is lack of confidence all round in them. This stems from lack of competence and tax payers continually seeing their money spent poorly, and lots of it.

    I think DirectGov should play a better role in getting small UK businesses involved in the creation of DirectGov services. The council and government owe it to us to be able to be more involved and its so lazy and easy to palm it all off onto large companies who are out of touch with everything other than their shareholders demand, let alone a council! We see huge useless and usually american companies spend billions on what we could deliver for a few thousand pounds. Its the small businesses that we need to get our council and government services in touch and thriving.

    What I am trying to say is that UK SME’s are the fabric of our country so use them to deliver for the people. Yes it might be harder work to manage, yes there will be some that fail to deliver and yes its time to wake up smell the roses and realise that this is what it takes to be brilliant not mediocre. Could it really be any worse when you take into account how much has been spent to get what we have now?

    You have also got to start getting into the mindset of technology and how the user uses it. The DirectGov website would be an embarrassment for us here. It’s confusing, not thought out, doesn;t even adhere to basic web values and whilst it might do the odd thing well it does many things poorly.

    Lastly I think DirectGov needs to start behaving more like a business. If I returned the value DirectGov has done for the money they charged for it I would be in court right now being asked for it back. The services and the data held is not being used to make our country any better for us, despite the billions ploughed into all these systems we hear about.

    Give the money to UK businesses who care and get good people in place who can manage the effort. Its not that hard you know, get in touch if you need some help!!

  5. Antony Watts says:

    Change the focus from Government departments pushing out data and services, to customer driven web pages offering services. One page per person would be a good idea, with ALL government offerings to me in one place. And, PLEASE, just one login/password for everything!

  6. Antony Watts says:

    One more thing. PLEASE shut down the very poor ‘myguide’ computer so called training site. It is out of date and teaching technology of 10 years ago. It costs £500,000 a year to run and cost £6M to build. A tremendous waste. A small company could do this for much less.

    • David Supple says:

      I had never heard of this site before, so paid it a visit – please tell me that your decimal points are in the wrong place for those costs – did someone who had never actually used a computer sign the contract? If this really costs £500k a year to run, then it must join some form of ‘hit list’ for online services that need to be dropped ASAP and a more appropriate and cost effective solution to learning about how to use computers be provided. Having said that, why are the requirements for new users so different in the UK that the thousands of resources worldwide aimed at achieving exactly the same thing so inappropriate?

  7. Ease of maintenance of small sites by individuals, and linking between different sites is something which the web format does extremely well. With powerful search sitting on top of it, this is probably a cheaper and more flexible way of organising as complex a beast as Government.

  8. David Supple says:

    The strategic aims of this review need to be clear about the transition between local and central government. In terms of usage (if your job does not involve regular contact with central government) if you take away the car tax service, how frequently do you need to find out information from central government? It seems that well over 80% of my government information needs are serviced by local government sites – and these have been allowed to develop without any form of central guidance – if you have a council with a good record of online communication then you are lucky. It took Telford and Wrekin council over 2 years to realise a link to the school calendar might actually be a good thing to link to from their home page.

    • As local government provides around 80% of public services to individuals, it follows that information and services provided by local government websites are much more relevant to most people than what is published on Directgov – although referral from Directgov to council websites and vice versa, and the new opportunity for councils to take syndicated content from Directgov is clearly important. Guidance on best practice for council sites is available from the local government organisation Socitm, which does an annual assessment of the usefulness, usage and usability of all local authority websites. The survey findings are published in the Better connected report, and this shows that many council websites are very good indeed – Telford & Wrekin, as you might have guessed, is not one of them, and is in fact among the worst performers. One thing we have noticed, from comparing the performance of Directgov (from CoI data) with that of local authority sites, is that although Directgov does very well on customer satisfaction (73%) compared with the best council score of 62%, when it comes to people being able to fully resolve their web enquiry, Directgov scores only 32%, whereas two thirds of councils sites score more than 50%. This is really important, because where enquirers have been unable to find all they want from websites, they are most likely to resort to the phone to complete their enquiry, and as is well known, a phone call costs far more for an organisation to service than a web enquiry. Clearly, Directgov needs to focus on its users being able to fully resolve their enquiries first time, every time.

  9. Rachel Jeffreys says:

    As a support worker, part of my job is to jump through all the hoops in the benefits system puts there on behalf of people with mental health problems. has mostly been a welcome relief from the frustration caused by this. It answers the simple questions and provides me with the appropriate forms. However it often doesn’t tell me where I need to send the form to. I usually have to phone up someone to find this out as this differs depending on the benefit and the postcode of the claimant. It would be helpful to be able to fill in a postcode and be told where specific forms need to go and who should be contacted with more complex questions.
    I believe that the most important thing is that sets out to be helpful. I know this might sound obvious, but it actually directly contrasts a culture that is evident in many government departments. Within this culture it is made as difficult as possible to access services in the hope that money will be saved. To an extent it works – The most vulnerable people in society don’t claim what they are entitiled to. Except, of course, those who have someone like me (also paid by the government) to act on their behalf. Please, please, please dont make like this.

  10. Paul Nash says:

    The current arrangement of Direct Gov is bewildering. The initial presentation is a mix of information push and application pull. The rational appears to be that the client is the Government Department not the service user. Start with the service user. The first page should be the four options: I want to know about, I want to apply for/claim/pay, I want to say something and show me what you’re doing.

  11. Chris Webster says:

    Central Government’s objectives for digital delivery should be to transform the way in which citizens engage with all aspects of government. The citizen should be able to access all relevant information and services though multiple channels (web, mobile, contact centres and offices) in a seemless experience. In this way, the government will be able to make a step change in the quality of service delivery while at the same time be able to deliver them at an order of magnitude lower cost.

    This will require a structural rethink in the way that services are developed and delivered. Governments have continued to change organisation structures but they rarely ever redesign the way services are delivered. Digital Delivery requires this fundamental redesign so that services can be migrated onto the web in a citizen centric manner which will enable the kind of channel shift which the private sector has seen. At the same time it requires cross department thinking so no single department can do this on its own.

    Directgov has a critical role to play to drive the departments to put their services on-line and to redesign them in this citizen centric manner which by definition requires cross department thinking. This kind of citizen centric design will accelerate the channel shift required to deliver the cost savings made possible through moving services on-line. Directgov has already enabled a radical reduction in the cost of government websites through the web rationalisation programme; it can do the same for digital delivery of services.

  12. We believe that the following five aims are important.

    1. To save the Government and UK taxpayer money. (We don’t believe that this is in conflict with the four further aims that follow.)
    2. To make it easier for citizens and others to interact with government when the wish to or are required to do so.
    3. To drive simplification across government, central and local (this was an original aim for the Directgov site and something we believe may have got lost).
    4. To support efficient and cost effective ways for user and government interaction.
    5. To act as an exemplar of good practice for other providers of information and services in the public and private sectors.

    The current system is currently indifferent but getting slowly better at 2 and 3, but remains poor at 1, 4 and 5. The current “objectives” all fall under 3 although there are elements of 4 in all of them. But “publishing content” etc. should not be objectives: instead the objectives should always be written with some element of “user pull” included in them. Thus “Making transactions between government and citizens, organisations and others easier, safer and more cost effective for all involved. ” Or “Ensuring citizens have access to the content they need along with data about government that is transparent.”

    Suitably rewritten with a strong “user pull” component, the objectives should then be unpacked at a lower level to include such things as

    under the second:
    – acting as a trusted formal site for interaction (including financial interactions) with central government (HMRC, DVLA etc.)
    – providing a mechanism for collecting structured views on proposed government actions (including but not restricted to policy)

    under the fourth:
    – publishing official public content and data
    – providing government data that is joined up within itself and ..
    – providing an access channel to wider content, not held by Directgov, but relevant to the user.

    There is an increasing body of research on how e-government might be developed, and “A Citizen Oriented E-government Maturity Model” by Brunel University’s Hala Al-Khatib is but one recent paper that provides an interesting and relevant synthesis .

    The emphasis in deciding priorities throughout should be driven by users, and we believe that “joined up”does not imply a monolithic system – see below.

  13. It sounds obvious, but any Govt web redevelopment needs to be driven by real user needs.

    Here’s an actual example I faced earlier this week. (It’s not from Directgov, but it’s relevant if the portal is going to become the one Govt site to rule them all).

    I’ve recently taken over the filing of my company’s annual return and so headed to the Companies House website.

    The opening page ( has a mountain of text to wade through. Not a good start.

    Page 2 lets you sign up or login (why isn’t this on page 1?) and I tried logging on with my Government Gateway credentials. These didn’t work. For some reason no one’s thought to tie these two databases together, so I had to sign up again.

    The sign up process isn’t the easiest in the world and near the end it dawns on you that you can’t complete the forms that day. You have to wait for HM Govt to post you something (in exactly the same way as you have to wait for Govt Gateway to post you something). I don’t mind waiting for the post once, but twice? Oh dear, v poor.

    If government wants mass take up of online services then it needs to join up related services (tax, companies house, VAT, business advice is one example) and test them thoroughly to make the process seamless.

  14. Zoe says:

    Frankly, I think you should do whatever is cheapest. Directgov was intended to take the burden of website hosting off of departments. Instead, it created an additional platform for which all taxpayers must pay. Essentially the same information — albeit in a different form — appears on departmental websites and Directgov. Directgov offers a nannyish ‘you’ ‘we’ ‘us’ version of what Department websites say.

    If Directgov must exist it should be little more than server and a styleguide. Departmental web teams should update it directly, without the huge layers of bureaucracy Directgov has created around itself as a form of massive, gold-plated, job security. A few people at Cabinet could take responsibility for keeping it going.

    But I still don’t see why it must exist at all. It was dreamed up in the days when Google was in its infancy. These days Google accomplishes everything Directgov does, only better, faster and for free. You want a drivers licence form? You google it. You need a passport? You google it.

    Google takes you directly to the government website that contains that information. Google IS Directgov.

    Or Bing, if you prefer. But who does?

    • Peter Jordan says:

      Yes, people do use Google and Bing to find information online, but most organisations invest considerable effort in making sure their content and services are 1) findable in search engines and 2) when you click through to a landing page it is readable and the call to action is clear. In my opinion, this is a clear part of Directgov’s role – to curate content and services to make them findable and usable.

  15. Kate says:

    As a jobseeker, I used to find easily dozens of potential jobs on the Jobcentreplus website. It was the best website for jobs in the UK. I could find any type of job in any area of the country at any salary level and get all the details in a few clicks. Since Directgov took over the site, it has turned into a disaster area, and after struggling for hours trying to find both local jobs and those within daily traveling distance, I have given up using it. Whoever designed the Directgov jobs website is an idiot, and obviously never tried actually using it to find a job.

  16. Liz Azyan says:

    Currently the public need to “find” Directgov each time they “know” they need information or a service. Directgov could be much more proactive by offering personalised targeted updates so the public are automatically notified when content that’s relevant to them changes.

    Directgov doesn’t currently put citizens in control. You could do this by letting visitors choose when, how and where they get government information and receive this automatically when new or updated information becomes available. Providing personalised automated alerts via the Directgov website, email, SMS, Social Media and text-to-voice services will make Directgov more “inclusive” even for those without direct or immediate access to the internet.

    An example of this in action can be found on (comparable with Directgov) which uses subscription services. Users are encouraged to register for topic based alerts based to information that interests them. Once registered, citizens are automatically alerted through email, social media, and/or SMS message whenever the content they are interested in changes or new content is added to the website. The level of granularity on provides far more relevant alerts that cater to specific citizen need rather than the current emphasis on basic news alerts or monthly newsletters that have historically been the focus of UK government attempts at proactive digital outreach.

    · Subscription Services –
    · Notifications Dashboard –

    Subscription drives engagement, offers inclusive access to government information and (where relevant) increases usage of other online content. Citizens who receive timely, accurate information are able to make more informed decisions and are more likely to return to Directgov seek other information on a more frequent basis.

    A key success factor for is that it offers collaboration through its subscriptions platform to many other US agencies – providing joined up government and greater access to information. Citizens who subscribe to information on can easily subscribe to related information at other US agencies. This network has approaching 18 million US citizens who are now actively engaged with US government.

    Similar systems are already in place in the UK. For example, DSA, Highways Agency and the Met Office have similar services linked via a collaborative subscription network. However, they lack the level of joining up that has been put in place in the U.S. via Directgov could play an exciting role in joining together proactive digital outreach across the entire UK government.

  17. Paul Clarke says:

    This is the essential question: Directgov could mean many different things, and indeed already does to many people – at least in terms of aspiration.

    A search engine; a portal; an aggregator of easy-to-digest content; a two-way interface; a repository of content to be pulled down by people; a place for messages to be pushed out to them… the list goes on.

    Realistically, it must do some of these jobs in concert. Equally realistically it cannot (certainly in the incarnation of a single site) do them all at the same time – not without great confusion and scope creep, in any case. There are trade-offs to be made, and compromises to achieve.

    The first common challenge is “should there be a Directgov site (as central government’s web delivery channel for some services) at all?” Although there is a cogent argument that opening up all the ‘data’ would allow anyone to create a better alternative presentation of information, this is countered by the evidence of a desire for single, authoritative and trusted presentation. Directgov at least fulfils some of this role. Should it encompass absolutely everything that government does? I would argue no. A failure to set a clear boundary on what Directgov does and does not cover is one of the weaknesses of the current arrangement. I will return to why this might be so later.

    Should it be led by the needs of its users? The answer is less clear. Government is not a retailer. It does not bend according to the market it serves (at least not in the delivery of established services – there are nuances here about improvement and feedback on those services, and of course in the business of democratic exercise of choice – but to dig into these would make this response unreasonably long). Let us just accept that there are some services that central government delivers in the interests of society, rather than in the micro-interests of the individual. Taxes, licensing and “social guidance” are such examples. You can argue that government has no role telling people how to bring up their children and so on if you like, but that is a separate debate, and if one recognises that large areas of government policy are devoted to just such activities, then delivery through Directgov (where web delivery is beneficial) must be balanced alongside the services a customer might more arguably ‘choose’.

    So Directgov is neither wholly customer-led, nor importantly, led by the needs of government departments. It must balance both. Even for straightforward ‘information-based’ areas of government activity this is difficult. In a service organisation the presentation of the service is the service in the eyes of its users. There is scant point arguing that a poor piece of content is the responsibility of the department that ‘owns’ it. This is meaningless to someone in the real world.

    So one of the most important challenges is one of control. Who ‘owns’ content that is presented within Directgov? The current, sometimes uneasy, compromise between ‘central’ control (as in the operators of the main Directgov site) and departmental interests (in the integrity of content) doesn’t seem strategically sustainable. Doing really clever stuff (like putting a range of services together that are all relevant to the same person at the same time e.g. school and childcare locations) will never really take off under such constraints of ownership. We can pretend they will, eventually, but the evidence tells us otherwise.

    We’ve been here before, of course. Those with long memories will recall that UK Online (a distant predecessor of Directgov) tried to bundle up related services into ‘life events’ – having a baby, moving house and so on. Granted, it never tried to achieve more than just offering related links to deeper content elsewhere. But the aspiration of actually delivering more intelligent ‘bundles’ of services to people should still remain. It just can’t be delivered if there is uncertainty over who is in charge of the content.

    There is a case for change: the current operating model isn’t delivering transformation. I would argue that it was always talked up as having more of a transformational role than it was given power to deliver, and we shouldn’t judge the current organisation too harshly. But I suggest there is a strategic choice facing Directgov here: a real, difficult one. Reconstitute it as a ‘real’ central delivery arm of government, capable of ‘owning’ and being accountable for services – in line with ministerial policy within departments, of course – OR disestablish a central organisation and have departments responsible for their own services, but delivered to a common set of standards (of design, of user experience, of functionality etc.) There is no reason incidentally why the latter option couldn’t still be called ‘Directgov’ – it would just be a reading of ‘Directgov’ as a term referring to excellence in practice of user experience, rather than a single site.

    Both options have drawbacks, of course. Both involve considerable change. This costs money and takes time. If the driving force emerges as being financial, the second option is more likely to emerge. If it is truly transformational service, the first will hold more sway. Tough choices, with long-term consequences. But if this review is serious about achieving transformational change, then these options should be explored in more detail.

    Full disclosure: I was the interim head of Directgov’s strategic proposition from 2007 to 2009, and had some involvement with the life events design work of UK Online. Proposition here refers to the scope and nature of the services in the web and other digital channels. I have omitted any discussion of mobile and TV for reasons of brevity.