FOI Man questions whether a website is useful if its users can’t actually find what they’re looking for.
It’s been described as “the Paul Smith of websites”. “It creates a benchmark for which all international government websites can be judged on,” said comedian and man-in-a-boat Griff Rhys Jones. An “example of world-class design talent” added our Prime Minister. These were the plaudits heaped onto the government’s new one-stop shop website gov.uk in April when it was announced that the site had won the Design of the Year Award for 2013.
Now call me conservative-minded (with a small c, mind), but I think that a good design shouldn’t just look pretty, but should function well. A website of this kind is there to help people find things and to deliver public services online. Given that the site wasn’t even complete by April, it seems slightly odd to me that it could receive such commendations before it was anywhere near being in a position to achieve its aims.
I’m sure that it does some great things (and no doubt saves some money), but what’s always worried me since the Government announced its plans in 2010 is what seems obvious to me. It’s easier to find a needle of information in a small bundle of hay than it is to find it in a haystack. What’s more, much as the Government clearly wanted to foster a sense of one single Government rather than lots of Government departments, I think it will take more than a new website to change centuries of tradition that has led most of us to associate certain activities with particular departments.
There’s clearly been a great deal of effort put into the gov.uk website, and I don’t write this as a criticism of those who’ve tried their best to create a useful interface (from what I’ve seen on Twitter with a great deal of commitment and passion). But the concept of one big website seems to me to have problems that will take a long time to overcome, if indeed they ever can be.
For example, try finding guidance on FOI now. The MoJ used to publish helpful guidance, and you can still find it via the old MoJ site. But try using the search function on gov.uk and you’ll end up with the MoD’s FOI guidance and a Wales Office file plan. I might be missing something, but then that’s the point, its supposed to be easy for people to find things.
And I’m not the only one. Here’s Patrick Wintour of the Guardian on Twitter today:
“does anyone but me think #GOVUK the new central government website is a brilliantly constructed weapon to destroy informed journalism.”
Plenty of people agreed with his sentiments. I’ve heard civil servants complain about its inflexibility and inability to find information that had previously been readily available to all as well. Where they could easily provide access to reports and guidance before by sending a link to the place where it had always been, now they struggle to find it themselves let alone be in a position to help others.
Maybe these are just early hiccups, and we all just need to get used to the new way of things. But I think it’s yet another reminder that putting lots of data in one big pool can lead to unintended consequences.