So, has launched. In the words of its creators, the site is a prototype with two overarching objectives:

  1. To test, in public, a prototype of a new, single UK Government website.
  2. 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.

You can read more about the project here and check out the prototype website here.

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 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.



  1. To my mind, the current system is almost like having every branch of Next able to operate completely independently from head office.

    …except we’re nowhere near being branches of Next. Though we deliver similar services, we do it in over 500 different ways. If you want to standardise that then I think that flies in the face of the localism agenda. We might at well get rid of local government…

    Of course, there are synergies to be exploited through open data and Then again, are we destined to go down the same DirectGov path?

    • Hi Pete,

      Treading carefully with this as I didn’t set out to rile up with this musing! I think I still don’t get the division and individuality of local over central govt. To my mind having all these different systems and methods operating is wasteful when we could be funneling things down a standard path.

      I think DirectGov overcomplicated things and, from a local point of view, wrapped things up in the ESD toolkit which I personally found a bit awkward. Alpha seems to be approaching things from an angle of simplicity. Perhaps this is where pure service delivery could come from, leaving local sites to worry more about information?

  2. Hi Andrew,

    I couldn’t agree more: it’s always struck me as a little absurd that – despite such a vast amount of common information, and despite offering fundamentally similar web-based services (pay for…, find out when…) – LAs continue to deliver so differently on the web.

    Of course, LAs are vast, multi-faceted organisations, amongst which there is a hell of a lot of diversity. Because of this any set of shared tools would need to be designed to accomodate differences whilst facilitating the delivery of ‘common ground’ info/services.

    But I’m firmly of a mind that ‘one LA CMS to rule them all’ would be a very good thing indeed: shared development, a community of support… Following an open source model would enable and encourage mutually beneficial innovation and cut the costs associated with proprietary models (where often support can be the costliest element).

    I also think that users would benefit if authorities followed a standardised pattern of web delivery. I would guess that a majority of residents only use one LA site at a time, but nonetheless I think a commonality in the way sites function would help residents, businesses, and staff understand better what to expect from an LA website.

    An interesting debate.

  3. Andrew

    I agree to some extent on standardisation. I see this as a function of the previous top-down approach to e-government. The way in which local authorities were incentivsed to bring in, for example, back office systems and the like was, with 20-20 hindsight, wrong. Where there were standards, they were ill-conceived or not properly thought through.

    And, yes, DirectGov/esd-toolkit is awkward. Though, as a user I admit to rather liking the way DirectGov now works.

    As far as I can see, has turned things on its head. But, I don’t necessarily think that it means the end of individual local authority websites. I agree that we tend to duplicate a lot of effort. I prefer our web authors to rely upon standard content provided, for example, by the Planning Portal. But, we also have an important role to play in adding value. And that’s where I think a lot of us – I’ll hold my hand up – fall short.

    When I joined LA-LA land 4+ years, it was about the time that portals were getting a very bad name. We had a local one here which everyone hated. You’re right. Open data can change that.

    Portals are dead; long live portals!

    Ryan – an open source local gov CMS would be great – I use WordPress. However, if it’s runs as a LAMP stack, that would be a non-starter for council’s like ours with no php or MySQL resource!

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