I don’t know what I think about website convergence any more.
I used to think it was premature, driven by people without an appreciation for what the web could do, risking crushing small but smart teams doing good work online, and subsuming them into sites like Directgov and BusinessLink which were still feeling their way.
Then I had to lead a team with responsibility for converging sites and managing fragmented content, and I became more sympathetic to the view that, on average, lots of small sites tend to be less well-managed than a few bigger ones (but still not necessarily more cost-effective). It seems to me the financial and quality gains from supersites (like Businesslink.gov.uk, £2.15 per visitor) are less clear than politicians like to claim, as the process of convergence inevitably papers over cracks, introduces unnecessary technical and brand constraints, and adds new bureaucracy of its own. But there’s the potential to do it right, and done right, it’s better than what came before.
And anyway, we’re in different territory now: organisational convergence, let alone website convergence (RIP Consumer Focus, with one of those small, smart, innovative teams). Tomorrow, we’ll hear about plans for the most radical website convergence programme yet, following up the Cabinet Office announcement of the findings of COI’s first data collection exercise on the cost of government websites, and a review to report this week:
As part of the Government’s efficiency drive, all of the existing 820 government funded websites will be subject to a review looking at cost, usage and whether they could share resources better […]
The expectation is the review, which will report by the Spending Review in September, will aim to shut down up to 75% of existing sites and then look at getting the remaining sites to cuts their costs by up to 50% and move onto common infrastructures.
This is being run by Martha Lane Fox, Digital Champion, who will, as well as her digital inclusion and digital public services role: “also look at sharing resources and facilities and using low-cost open source products to reduce running costs.”
I’ve not seen the report, but there are at least three potential strategies to culling three-quarters of government sites:
- Really accelerate convergence of sites into Directgov & Business Link, not taking no for an answer
- Really accelerate convergence of quango sites into parent Department sites, not taking no for an answer
- Converge all corporate government sites into a single one, as in Scotland, not taking no for an answer
You’ll spot a common thread – if Martha and ministers are serious about this, it’s time to be firm. It’s not really about the webbies who have to square these ludicrous circles, but about the territorialism of policy owners who, even within a single converged supersite, believe it helps users and saves money to have two sets of interview tips for jobseekers.
So options 1 and 2 are often – but not universally – fraught with petty turf wars and bad feeling. Option 3 would make a lot of sense, as well as being colourful politics – it’s a way of rethinking how government communicates about itself on the web, and creating something with the clout to be firm with Departments about the value and purpose of their content, much like the heroes at Defra have been. It would offer a lot of scope to develop common infrastructure for common requirements like consultations, press releases, speeches, jobs, and open data. It would be a one-off opportunity to rethink content, and to think about purpose and audience. And it might mean dedicated specialists in fields like email marketing, SEO or video production able to service more of their colleagues’ needs.
But it would be hugely challenging too, for Communications leaders used to managing their own shop windows. Quangos struggling to converge their sites into their parent Department’s infrastructure would need to shift focus once again. Responding flexibly and creatively to what Departments or Ministers want, and keeping a sense of connection with users would be tough – especially if teams shrink and good webbies find jobs elsewhere. And the histories of Business Link and Directgov are not entirely happy or efficient ones. A single website for government simply cannot be allowed to cost £30m a year to run, nor be directed as a PRINCE II programme from the centre, nor be outsourced and subcontracted to the point of obsolescence.
I don’t know if there will be the courage to go the whole hog, but if so, then this a good time to do it. Open data, and open source too, have never had such active and explicit support from senior ministers, so there’s a chance it might be done right. With the money evaporated, government teams are eager to find low-cost ways to partner with online communities, and overcome historic micrositis and cede some control over the message in return for sustainable engagement. But the strongest reason is that no team has the skills and time to do it all themselves, not now the expectation and scope of digital communication is so great.
I’m sure that tomorrow will feel like a cloud. Let’s hope it has a silver lining, one way or the other.
Photo credit: Kevin Dooley