“A good content strategy can keep people out of jail” – Sarah Richards talks GOV.UK at Confab

Confab Events logoIt is nearly the end of the day here at Confab 2013 in London, but my quest to blog the hell out it continues apace. The story of GOV.UK has been well documented elsewhere, but I don’t see why that shouldn’t stopping me blogging about it too…

“A good content strategy can keep people out of jail” – Sarah Richards at Confab

Sarah Richards was taking Confab through the transformation of the British Government’s websites that has followed Martha Lane Fox’s recommendation of creating a Government Digital Service. That service is now a multi-disciplinary reality with over 200 developers, designers, content people, agile project managers, HR people and what-not working closely together from an office in Holborn.

The GOV.UK homepage

The GOV.UK homepage

“Fix publishing” was one of the key aims, and so the team now run two streams of content — one aimed at businesses and the public, and a stream about the internal workings of Government.

Sarah explained how the team went right back to basics, asking what users needed, not asking what Government thought users might want from Government. They did a massive content audit of their predecessor sites — DirectGov and BusinessLink — and asked of every single page “What is this for?”

This was no small task, DirectGov had 5,000 pages, BusinessLink had 70,000. They had a massive set of spreadsheets with every metric they could lay their hands on for each page, trying to answer the question “Do people want this?” Their premise was that a government website should only do what only government websites can do. Processing driving licenses? Yes. Advice about bee-keeping? No.

The British Government used to publish advice for bee-keepers

The British Government used to publish advice for bee-keepers

In his talk earlier in the day, Gerhard Arnhofer spoke about how important it was not just to assume that everything on a site was crap. Overall the GOV.UK team kept 45,000 content items, and binned 92,000.See comments

It has saved them £50-70m so far, and as Sarah observed, that isn’t the kind of loose change that even Governments can find tucked down the back of the sofa. Sarah said they have fewer pages, but users are now more engaged, and the performance charts about their content are available on a public dashboard.

GOV.UK content performance dashboard

The GOV.UK content performance dashboard is public

They try and govern their content with the 80/20 rule. What is up-front and centre on a page should be the information needed by 80% of the users. The edge cases and small print and exceptional circumstances information is still there, but you get to it via Google when you are searching for that specific use case.See comments

When I blogged Max Greenhut’s talk about Disney, I pointed out that the Wayback Machine shows us how none of our designs are going to avoid looking dated in the future. I wonder how time’s cruel arrow will be with the GOV.UK project. It has a very distinctive aesthetic, and the welcome videos of slightly unshaven geeky people talking about everything being shiny and new will inevitably look as anachronistic as public information films of the 60s and 70s.

But the work they’ve done is exceptional. You can’t help but be impressed whenever you see some before and after screenshots of transactions. It is so heartening to see so much common sense being applied to digital transactions, and I do hope it does set a trend for local government, international governments, NGOs and beyond.

And I’m also still pleasantly surprised that there hasn’t been a tabloid monstering of the GOV.UK team. You know the sort of thing, a couple of wacky pictures of developers with an “Is this really acceptable behaviour from civil servants?” caption, some geeky terminology about ‘Agile’ being described as “meaningless jargon”, moaning that the “politically-correct style guide” which has “BANNED” words, and suggesting that the code has been “leaked” online on “hacker website Github” which is a threat to national security…

Sarah explained that it is worth doing the hard work to make things seem simple, and that the complexity of state transactions should be hidden from the user wherever possible. This isn’t just about having a nice website. Doing less, and doing it better means that inhabitants of the UK are less likely to misunderstand their rights and obligations, or make costly or illegal mistakes when dealing with the state. “A good content strategy,” she said, “can keep people out of jail.”


Next up, something something something Confab…

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