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. cyberdoyle says:

    I think the government should listen to the people, they should allow comments and feedback on all their sites, and very quickly they would learn what works and what doesn’t. They should keep everything as simple as possible, and make use of sites like this, as you have done. I think a big learning curve is coming up, and they need to embrace it, and not listen to the so called experts. I think that until everyone has access to the internet that it is going to be difficult, especially because connectivity to half the UK is so bad. Many people refuse to engage because their experiences are so bad. Until the 4th utility is ubiquitous there is no rush to get everything online because many won’t use it. Managing government expectations is a challenge, because many in whitehall are digital dinosaurs and don’t understand the grassroots problems. Most get their emails on dead trees and have no conception of the issues ‘normal’ people have to deal with to get connected.

  2. John Rudkin says:

    Get away from “technical” language (or introduce it gradually). I still feel the time to go 100% digital is a few years away, but that should not stop the introduction. I still think every url should be accompanied by that telephone number where information can be sought in ‘analogue’ format.

    The thing most people miss is the way in which seemingly disparate Government initiatives are often fragmented. Digital technology can reconnect things. People need better user interfaces (talk to Apple) and simple ways of getting around data. Think of the way an iPhone has a “Home” button. Remember Hypercard which allowed you to see your path through information.
    As far as the type of and more or less of content should be provided, I’m afraid that video content will win time and again. Interestingly, I feel someone should do serious research on media delivery of content over published (not that one replaces the other – just gradually grows to enhance it). Initial costs might be higher, but “waste” less so. Video content should be backed up with visual and text “reminders”.
    Mobile devices offer a huge opportunity to deliver “at the time” or “just in time” information. Delivered to a phone but audio, image or text.
    Technologies are now more than ever, pervasive and lowing in costs. This information – it should be delivered at NO COST to the citizen.
    Again, there is no point in doing all this and then forgetting the user interaction with it. Again, Apple’s iPhone has been popularised – not because it is expensive – but because anyone can use one. Get the Gov heads out of the unsecure, poorly designed, hidden cost burden of Windows mobile or now Windows Phone.

    Make it easy for comment…… and take to comment to the place people need to speak out. Mobile and on the go must be incorporated.

    If I want to know how ofte=n the bus I am waiting for is late, or where it is, why can’t I, right off my phone? If I want to comment about a pothole – it can be now, but not at a cost to me.

  3. I don’t find the site very good at all. It was much better when it was first launched. The A-Z index helps in some respects but the search capability like all government websites is worse than useless. The site also assumes that you are only looking for a single service or item. I use it a lot for work and frequently need the full list of councils – this takes several clicks to actually find so now I keep it on my favourites list for quick access. It is still under the directories section which used to exist but now doesn’t
    I just find everything takes too long to find and often doesn’t give the answer I need when I get there. It often much faster to Google for an answer . Like most Government websites they are very frustrating to retrieve information from – technically it is there but not well indexed or searchable. Good example used to be DTI site – the Small Business Section did not appear if you searched, was not easy to find from the home page and the only way to get it was via the index which was good at the time – now the site is as bad as all the rest

  4. Until we unleash the value of digital to the nation the results will be piecemeal amongst the groups Government really ought to be targeting. Those groups, who already embrace digital, can access all of the above information in a number of ways other than directgov. My nan, for example, will only engage with the internet when she sees real value. This often involves communication with family via Skype. Sell the value, allow real time feedback, maintain momentum and stop believing that the answer to improved public services is to transfer everything online.

  5. Gail Knight says:

    I’m not comfortable with how the paragraph talks so much about ‘objectives’ – it makes it seem like the point of the site is for government to publishing everything that they have to (tick boxes) rather than focusing on the public, and what would be useful to them. There shouldn’t be any site that publishes things just because they have to (i.e. because it’s their ‘objective’).

    Directgov is the best website for communicating with the public, so as much public information should be in this one site if possible – if it does link to other sites where some parts of the information are, then it should be done seemlessly and with easy navigation back to the directgov site. There are So many government websites, so this one welcoming portal for the public should be maintained.

    Having said that the directgov site isn’t always that easy to navigate. I find most things through a search engine rather than through menus, so this could be improved. Once I find the info it tends to be quite well written, even for complex issues like tax codes.

    Having said that, it is one way communication, and I think that the suggestion of having public comments and feedback on each page is excellent. These comments must be public. Visitors can get so much more info from these feeds. Not all the info in the comments may be correct, but the visitor knows that he/she is reading a comment, not gov information, so I don’t think that there’s a risk of misleading the public. And of course there’s nothing to stop Directgov commenting themselves in reply.

    Whilst open data is important, it is confusing and unnecessary to many visitors and not what they’re looking for. However it should be integrated into sites. A page on tax for example, could have a link to publications (pdfs) to download, and a link for related data. Publications/Data/On-line forms/Ask a question… some of the things each subject should have.

  6. Matt Hudson says:

    In accordance with other comments above, it is the user interface that is all-important. Obviously content is key, and god knows there’s enough of it, but the user is lost. DirectGov has been more successful than most of us expected it to be, especially considering the breadth of information it is trying to cover. Unfortunately it seems to assume you are visiting to carry out a transaction of some kind, when really most of the time I visit, it is in the vain hope that it will give me a useful overview of information about the public sector.
    There is no doubt that there are more gov websites than are necessary or manageable (as a user). Whether local gov actually need to provide their own sites is questionable. Surely the ideal situation is that we have fewer portals at a higher level, some separate locations for things such as stats & open data, and a DirectGov (or similar) that focusses on being the best interactive interface since the iPhone.

    • Peter Jordan says:

      Matt raises an interesting question re the perception of Directgov’s (up-to-now) proposition, which has been to provide easy access to information from government about people’s obligations and entitlements and to make it easier to do government transactions on line. So there is, at present, at least, not a focus on wider public sector issues – but probably Matt is not alone in expecting Directgov to provide access to this kind of info

  7. john culkin says:

    This question contains a lot of sub questions – too many to answer! So my response below concentrates on how to structure the uk gov content to best effect.

    The drive to converge content onto megasites like Directgov, Businesslink and NHS choices hasn’t worked (IMO), because it didn’t go far enough and completely do away with stand alone sites. If you can make an argument for converging ‘public facing’ content onto Directgov, you can make an argument for converging all departemntal content and services onto another megasite – UKgov, or Localgov, or something.

    The decision to only centralise certain bits of information for certain government audiences has result is mix of stand-alone departmental websites combined with centralised online megasites, and a host of other public-sector sites which provide Govt information to the citizen in one way or another (eg local authorities, QUANGO sites, local police and NHS orgs etc).

    This means the public see a lot sites with overlapping purposes and similar content, all provided by government.

    It feels like one unintended consequences of Directgov has been to make the online service environment very different from the offline service environment. For example – I can go into a Jobcentre, phone the jobcentre, get leaflets and letters posted to me by the Jobcentre but if I want to search for jobs online, or manage my account with Jobcentre Plus online, I need to go to Directgov. Does such a split between on and offline service provision help a customer? I’d say not.

    However, Govt is beginning to get more joined up, and citizens are starting to be seen as whole people, rather than random participants in isolated transactions, so the case for centralised megasites is growing. But IMO, since it will never be practical to get rid of all sites and just have megasites, the sensible option is to ease off on the web-convergence process, and start thinking a lot harder about how to syndicate puiblic sector content.

    Syndication could allow for content to be owned by the relevant Department/body, but be used by all other departments/public/private bodies who have dealings with the same audience. To continue the above example, JobcentrePlus could own and maintain all its own content and transactions, and then syndicate this content to Directgov, Businesslink, local Authorities, the CAB etc. The content would be available everywhere, but whenever a user came across it, it would be the same content – not duplicated, or re-branded, or inconsistent with what they’d seen elsewhere.

    Whatever the solution, it needs to take account of the fact that all govt organisations are at different phases of their online lives. Some pub-sect organisations still don’t think beyond providing PDF press releases online. Others are redesigning their entire organisational operation to support online transactions. One size won’t fit all.

  8. The Government’s objectives in digital delivery should be founded on two key elements, ease of data managment and ease of access to information. The words data and information have been specifically chosen as they relect the difference between recorded “data” and processed “information”. The first element concentrates on the quality and validity of data and the cost of administrating the data provision, all organisations suffer from these data management issues, if this is not designed and managed across the organisations then costs esculate and confidence / outcome value declines. The second element “ease of access to Information” focuses on the translation and transformation of data into information, and the value it provides to the eventual audience.

    Let’s look at the external > inward view, rather than the government > out, for the current digital objectives;
    ■publishing content (e.g. news, information and advice), becomes – access to information and advice
    ■managing transactions (e.g. making it possible for people to buy their tax disc online) – becomes online products and services
    ■getting citizens views on policy (e.g. the spending challenge) – becomes have your say
    ■making data more transparent (e.g. publishing details of salaries and government expenditure) – becomes public analysis

    When looking at; access to information and advice, online products and services, have your say, and public analysis, across the web, it is rare to see all elements in one place, significantly questioning the decision to group all 4 aspects together.

    Let’s start with the final element – making data more transparent or public analysis. There is an audience that is interested in the raw data and using this data to new effect – a good example of this is the recent yrs2010 (young rewired state). Having a mechanism which manages the data sources, validates, and provides access, enables those members of the public and those with the analysis skills and capability to develop and deliver more information than currently or potentially available by government alone.

    Both government and public created information combine to deliver publishing content, access to information and advice. Here the focus shifts from internal audit and control functions, to associated information, which supports identification, access and useability, a capability change driven from the use of metadata and technologies such as txt to voice, symantic web and autonomy to name a few. Again, the power of community has proven its value in this area, with the likes of wikipedia.

    Managing transactions, online products and services is the easiest of the 4 objectives to deliver once treated as products or services. Each has a process, a responsible “product owner” and can be developed, automated and intergrated with existing and revised processes and the data management systems in place. Requirements on delivery here are based around the development of trust between the service and the audience, and the possible efficiencies that could be derived from rationalising current desperate systems ie postal address from Voters registration compared to postal address from DVLA vehicle registration.

    Finally, we come to getting citizens views on policy, having your say. Forums, community groups, ability to add comment, all provides the opportunity to have your say. The long term use and value comes from the ability of the views to be heard and actioned. This post is an example, will it be understood, will it be valued, will it be actioned?

  9. It would be great if government presented trends about usage on their sites, this would help citizens learn about services that others find useful and demonstrate which services are popular. Popularity is not a solitary indicator of success but it is still a good one.

    Be wary of commenting, it may be seen as a ‘good’ thing to do but what is the main reason for doing it, where is the evidence someone is listening, and that the comments lead to anything?

  10. Mark Taylor says:

    Objective should be maximum transparency for minimum cost.
    Pursue a ‘triple-Open’ strategy:
    Open Data
    Open Standards
    Open Source
    Learn from what’s out there – what works and what doesn’t

  11. Alan Plumpton says:

    In line with other peoples comments the search facilities on government websites are useless. In particular Education sections – trying to find programmes of study or assessment criteria seems to work by accident and not by design. It is sometime more efficient to use Google than the internal search system – this leads to an unnecessary layer of complexity. Search results often lead to a set of documents that are totally irrelevant.

  12. Despite various misgivings about Directgov I do consider it to be a useful window onto Government services. But it is only a window and provides little value add in and of itself.
    The services that are currently online are only digital representations of the old paper processes. They do little to take advantage of the modern technology available.
    Rather than focusing on the channels in their own right perhaps it is finally time to look at the services themselves and re-engineer them to take advantage of the digital age. Why not start to design services around digital opportunities rather than designing digital front ends to old non-joined up services.
    For example, stop trying to put ‘forms’ online. Back end systems use rules to determine outcomes when applied to data. The department decides what the rules (law) and then the data needed to apply to the rules to determine an outcome. Yet the public does not understand the rules, the data asked for is complex and often not consistent across many forms (even within single government bodies). We should move away from the ‘form’ and start to look at a person’s circumstances. That way there are no ‘if x then y’ rules in forms for people to understand and (often) get wrong. A simple set of circumstances data held (and even owned by) the citizen could free up the citizen from forms, online or otherwise.

    Government needs to start to think differently. They have it all upside down at the moment.

  13. Roger White says:

    It’s fascinating that this is “An independent review of Directgov” yet none of the four questions posed actually asks “What do you think of Directgov?” I assume this is why many of the respondents to Question 1 are using it to give their views on that obvious but unasked starting point.

    I agree with many of the comments made. Directgov is a giant site (portal if you will) in which it is all too easy to get lost.

    The claim on the Cabinet Office site at that Directgov is “the central website for public services” is exaggerated and unsustainable. For example in relation to local authorities all it does is provide a brief contact page with the barest details – address, phone number, web site address, opening hours. No map, no context about what services they provide. I thought I’d test the search facility for a council I know well. It returned four entries from the entire site:

    1. the contacts details for the council
    2, ditto the police force that covers the area
    3. separate contact details for PassPlus for new drivers
    4. a press release dated 8 December 2008 about winter train services for that year (today is 17 August 2010).

    However, the NHS body that covers the same area (NHS Grampian) is not returned for my Aberdeenshire search. A separate search for “NHS Grampian” returns 500 hits, many of which however are nothing to do with Grampian and relate only to England.

    The whole feel of the site is very “clunky”. As an example, every page has a “Was this information useful” section at the bottom which is the same every time regardless of the information provided and on shorter pages takes more space than the information itself.

    I gave another example of the frustrations of this site on my own blog at You’ll also find various other posts on the blog expressing frustration at other UK government web sites.

    Finally, I am concerned about the transfer of Directgov to a team responsible for communications rather than service delivery. There’s already enough press releases cluttering up the site and I hope staff whose main focus is communications can make the leap to understanding and driving the much wider role a web presence should have.

  14. You should resist the temptation to reinvent the wheel. OK, so Directgov looks a bit dated now and the homepage is cramped but the idea of putting content and services from multiple depts under one roof remains a good one. If anything I’d pull in business content too – that way every service offered by government is in one place.

    What Directgov really needs is a UX overhaul. Much simpler page designs with less going on – how about a homepage that’s just a search box and key government services for example. The average user wants headings that exactly match their needs such as VAT, Housing Benefit, Free Childcare and Student Loans. Some DG headings feel a little forced.

    Alongside this (as the poster above rightly says) there needs to be a concerted effort to simplify the relationship between government and citizen and put more of it online (while still providing offline access as needed). I want to pay my VAT in a couple of clicks, not wrestle with sloppy design and the Government Gateway.

    The four tasks you mention DG could do, well I’d rank them like this:

    1) Transactions
    2) Content
    3) Consultation
    4) Transparency

    Consulting with citizens and publishing data is obviously important, but less so for people just trying to get by. Transparency is fashionable and necessary, but sticking the COINS database online is of limited interest to the average person.

    Instead pull visitors in with easy to follow transactions, then offer them content related to how they’re transacting. Maybe they’ll be interested enough to get involved with consultations on related subjects and the data that goes with it, but don’t put the cart before the horse.

  15. Roger White says:

    Thanks for including my comment posted on 17 August at 10:51 p.m. I thought the timescale for response did not represent good practice and posted about this on my own blog at
    I am not using this space to repeat that moan but to point out that in trying to find out about UK government standards for consultation I experienced more of the frustration of using their web sites…

    …trying to find a UK equivalent of the standards is not as easy as you might think.

    The Directgov web site (yes, that again) has a page called “The government’s consultation process explained” which helpfully says “When the government consults it must build a realistic timeframe for the consultation” (I like “build a realistic timeframe” rather than “allow enough time for”).

    The only way to find out what is meant by a realistic timeframe is to follow up a reference on the page to consultations abiding by the Cabinet Office’s code of practice.

    Of course, there’s no hyperlink provided so it’s back to Google to find the Cabinet Office web site where…surprise, surprise…no visible code of practice. Various codes of conduct and ethics but nothing obviously related to this subject. At this point any sane citizen (yes, I am) gives up and I did.

    This sort of detail is way removed from the “What key trends should Government bear in mind when designing digital services?” of the Lane Fox review. But unless the rock bottom basic user experience of all these government web site is got right all the rest is totally wasted effort.

    • Moderator says:

      Thank you for commenting. Just to clarify, this is an independent review for Martha Lane Fox to gather ideas and insights, not an official government consultation.

      • Roger White says:

        Thanks for that clarification. However, it might be seen as somewhat semantic since she is the government’s digital champion (i.e. an official appointment) and the review has been publicised by the government in the newsroom on the Directgov site. I assume she is not doing it without government agreement. The timescale and way of seeking people’s views means that those already familiar with the technology and using it will respond (the contributions so far suggest that I am right on this). The difficulty is that those not “in the know” will be much less likely to contribute and if more reliance is to be put on Directgov (or at least the web) to deliver government information and services the views of those people are important. Having said that I wish the review well. It is much needed.

        • Moderator says:

          Thanks Roger – agreed that the views of people not ‘in the know’ are important. As part of the process, we’ve also been talking to the Race Online People’s Taskforce, who are providing us with a better sense of how to ensure the needs of users who are relatively new to the web or not yet on the web at all are considered.

  16. Michael King says:

    My suggestion is a simple, quick reaction with all of the potential flaws therein!

    The utility of sites such as DirectGov can be compared in terms of the use of the site. So a simple objective should be to increase the use of the site, so that it becomes invaluable.
    – A stretch (probably unachievable, but hey-ho) target could be for DirectGov to be accessed as frequently as
    – a central target could be for DirectGov to be the most frequently accessed site of all government sites?

    Set these objectives, publish performance against them and make changes accordingly.

    As I say, I throw it into the mixing pot…!

  17. Keith Robertson says:

    I’m really not convinced that anyone involved in this project actually understands Internet delivery or thinks through who is going to pay for the service properly. Where is the incentive for telecomms providers to actually provide high speed broadband links? This will happen in the race to attract customers from opposition providers as it should in a free market, but efforts will concentrate around major connurbations where the majority of users (fee paying individuals) reside. Where will the supply to the outer islands off Scotland come from, what about rural England. i live about 30 miles north of London and I can still on get broadband over an old BT line as it is not cost effective for a cabling compnay to lay cable down my road. this means my speed is limited to less than 1Mbyte for the most part. Reliability of connection is an issue and I live in the home counties. The idea that suppliers will lay high speed connections to remote areas is laughable.

    Even were this the case, what do Internet users currently do on the Internet? I would argue that many of them use it mainly for on-line gaming or shopping and still deal with official matters face to face. We do need to reflect the needs of our society as it is and how it will evolve rather than as we want it to be. It seems dangerous to me to base a strategy around perceived behaviours rather than basing one on actual research.

  18. David Dennis says:

    What ever you decide please don’t get rid of it as it is a most valuable asset for consultants like myself who want to make it EASY for customers to find info. I specialise in E&D and Safeguarding and refer people every week to Directgov for items on rights, allowances etc. Other good sources are ACAS and CIPD of which I am a Fellow (so must get a bit of promo in there!) – but I think you should be congratulated on starting on the journey towards an encyclopaedic facility that is easy to use, comprehensive, and constantly updated – a kind of national driver of what we are all supposed to know about rights and responsibilities. I have to say that Directgov is far easier to use than then ECHR site. Keep up the good work chaps and chappesses!

    kind regards


  19. Roland Bensted says:

    One of Directgov’s key strengths has always been its role in joining up government. Directgov’s ethos has always been to deliver information, services and transactions for other departments in order to make them easier for citizens to access and to use. Delivery of such information, services and transactions has always been done in an impartial way. This ethos must not be lost. Clearly, there are ways that Directgov could do things even better, such as improved usability and the look and feel of the site. However, it must continue to play to its strengths- as an enabler for government and as a trusted and easy to use source of impartial government information, services and transactions for the public.

  20. Ian Tresman says:

    (a) Buying your tax disc online is a godsend, no more waiting in a post office queue. (b) But more please. For example, why can’t genealogists get basic birth certificate information for pennies, but have to spend nearly £10 for an unnecessary certificate. That’s a rip-off. (c) Government and council sites should be separate, but they will all save costs by sharing hosting and design.