Tag Archive for gov.uk

Finding information on gov.uk and ico.org.uk

FOIMan reviews the Information Commissioner’s latest website revamp via a grumble about gov.uk.

Classifying information is not easy

Classifying information is not easy

The way people prefer to find information is subjective. On my Records Management training courses I illustrate this by giving delegates a pack of headings on strips of paper and asking them in groups to create a logical filing plan. There are two main results of this:

  • each group comes up with an entirely different structure
  • each group has perfectly rational explanations as to why they’ve chosen to structure their plan the way they have.

So anyone designing any information management system has a real challenge on their hands. Adding to this challenge is the fact that most people are wary of change. As a result, any new structure or mechanism to find information is going to meet resistance.

I say all this as a preamble to a comparison of the government website, gov.uk and the ICO’s new website, which you can also read about on their blog. I was initially concerned when the ICO stated that they wanted their site to be more like gov.uk for reasons which I’ll outline, but my impression at this stage is that those fears were misplaced.

The parts of gov.uk that work best for people are those which allow them to conduct specific transactions. So, for example, they can apply for a driving licence online. This works well for these kind of activities. It takes you through the process step-by-step. If you’re someone who isn’t used to computers, I’m guessing that it is quite reassuring, and I’m sure that is the aim. If government wants to get more people conducting transactions online, that’s what they need to do.

The problem is that gov.uk appears to be solely concerned with the delivery of services in this way. For those of us who want to get at policies, procedures, statistics, reports – we’re stuffed.

Gov.uk has replaced lots of government websites with one interface. And lots of people – myself included – are mostly interested in using government websites to find information about policy. Sometimes that information is readily located through a search – for example I had little trouble recently locating information about Eric Pickles’ reforms of local government transparency. But far too often it is simply impossible to locate information using either the structure of gov.uk or its search engine. As others have suggested, it is sometimes because the information simply hasn’t been transferred – it isn’t there. But very often it is because there is so much information now on gov.uk that the information I do want is just buried.

If I want to find information on “freedom of information policies”, a search brings up a few random policies from government agencies, some answers to FOI requests, and FOI stats. It doesn’t take me to any government-wide policies that would previously have been on the Ministry of Justice’s website. There’s enough anecdotal comment on Twitter and elsewhere to suggest that I’m not alone in my frustrations.

If government had said that they would develop a single site for delivery of services but maintain departmental sites so that people could get at the information ABOUT government, that would have kept us all happy. But no.

The revamped ICO website

The revamped ICO website

Which brings me to the new design for the ICO site. They appear to have gone for a similar transactional style to gov.uk though delivered more effectively (of course, there isn’t as much material so it should be an easier task). If you’re a novice FOI Officer or you are considering making a request, you will probably like it, as it will take you through how to deal with or make a request step-by-step.

One thing that initially worried me was that if you’re reasonably experienced, and you just want to double check something in a piece of ICO guidance – say, how to carry out a public interest test – you would have to wade through the process to get at the guidance you want. Lists of links might well be considered old-fashioned in web design circles, but they are easy to use. And usability should be near the top of requirements in any specification for a public website. So I was relieved to discover that the “Guidance Index” remains on the ICO website – albeit hidden away at the bottom of the page.

This is a relief as in my experience the ICO’s search function suffers in much the same way as the gov.uk one. A search for a particular subject brings up a range of minutes, presentations, decision notices and so on, rarely including the document you want. It has improved somewhat, with more ability to filter searches, but a search on “public interest test guidance”, even restricted to the “For Organisations” section of the site, delivers a long list of results which fails to include the specific guidance the ICO provides on the public interest test. The decision notices database works reasonably well if searching on a single keyword, but appears to struggle with phrases.

A few grumbles aside (I’d still like a separate list of the Data Protection Codes of Practice, for example), I think the ICO changes have improved their site. I’m pleased that by retaining features like the guidance index, they’ve found ways to cater for those of us old hands who were used to finding information in a particular way, whilst providing a helpful step-by-step approach for new users. The gov.uk site could certainly learn a thing or two from this – trying to make digital services accessible to new groups is a noble aim, but the needs of existing users of online resources should be taken into account as well.

How transparent is the Gov.UK website?

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:

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.