So, alpha.gov.uk has launched. In the words of its creators, the site is a prototype with two overarching objectives:
- To test, in public, a prototype of a new, single UK Government website.
- To design & build a UK Government website using open, agile, multi-disciplinary product development techniques and technologies, shaped by an obsession with meeting user needs.
I spent some time yesterday reading about the project, its aims, and trying out the prototype website. My personal view? I love it. It doesn’t look like a government website; it looks like something modern, something different. It’s focussed on transaction. It does away with clunky navigation, focussing more on a “What do you want to do?” search box type interface, something I attempted with last years rebuild of the City of Lincoln Council website (although ultimately we kept a form of navigation present).
But my interests lay more in how it could, ultimately, change the face of the government web as a whole.
Four years ago, when I first joined the public sector, I was tasked with rebuilding the IA on the Lincoln website. I took a look at a number of other councils to see how they did it and noticed something perplexing. Wasn’t all this information, to all intents and purposes, the same? Sure, everyone had different rates and some councils provided a different range of services but, ultimately, everyone had the same set of information.
Pay council tax, apply for benefits, planning applications, yadda, yadda, yadda. “So,” I asked. “If we all do pretty much the same, why do we all run wildly different systems?”
The answer was, simply “Because that’s the way it is.”
Local authorities are pretty much left to their own devices as far as system procurement goes. There is no standard. This obviously leads to wildly different qualities of website, something identified in the annual SocITM Better Connected report. But should this be the case?
We are currently being encouraged to open up our data, share our information online. I’ve heard cries that people don’t understand WHY we’re doing this, that it will only lead to more FOI requests. But perhaps something like Alpha.gov.uk can explain, in part, why open data is so important.
The site pulls together, using Scraperwiki, information from local authorities. Users can then enter their postcode and have location specific services delivered straight to them. Think about that. If local authorities open their data up, share it in easily consumable formats that Alpha can suck in and push out via location to their users, why do we need distributed websites?
It could be argued that every council needs its identity and shop front; perhaps that identity could be transferred to Alpha through use of top level meta data, branding pages as required. To my mind, the current system is almost like having every branch of Next able to operate completely independently from head office. It just wouldn’t work!
Perhaps I’m being naive about this, but I think that this is genuinely the most important thing that Alpha could bring to the table.