in Blog

10 things Alpha.gov.uk gets wrong (Part 2)

So recently I blogged the first part of my charge-sheet against the (otherwise jolly decent) alpha.gov.uk. Here’s where they really boobed… 😉

Alpha male gorilla

6. UX of a website is nice, but that’s 5% of the problem

It’s great that a team of (largely) government outsiders have taken a long, hard look at top tasks and search logs, whittled down the key ones, and pushed them hard to be simpler and slicker online – no mean feat. But they’re still a long way from being simple and slick in many cases. The (admittedly unfinished) ‘Do I need to register for VAT?‘ tool is clicks and clicks and clicks through questions about exempt supplies and thresholds and partnerships which is only marginally better than Business Link manage. In most cases, actually making dealing with government ‘less faff’ as Alphagov aims to do probably needs to involve some blood-on-the-wall sessions with process and policy owners plus lawyers and operational researchers, calling in a Minister when things get really sticky.

It’s not Alphagov’s fault, of course. But there are limitations on what you can do as a skunkworks team, owning the user experience but not the process which gives rise to it. To deliver on the promise, Alphagov needs to cultivate a sort of orbit of ?product managers who successfully impose great UX on unpleasant reality; part crusader, part human shield around the Alphagov principles.

Not ‘Relationship Managers’ (important as those fine folks are too).

7. Location, Location, Location

Yeah, we get the natty little pin under the logo, and the geolocation stuff is neat when it works (actually, that’s harsh: the geo stuff in Alphagov is really very good from a user perspective alone). When it comes to housebuying, location is everything, but there are some other dimensions Alphagov could use to winnow down content and provide insightful recommendations without demanding onerous personalisation.

My optimistic interpretation of the former PM’s vision outlining ‘MyGov’ was a website homepage which asked a few simple questions – think slider settings on an iPhone app – and started to present stuff likely to be of interest to you then, and on all your subsequent visits:

  • Do you have kids? (young/teenage)
  • Do you drive?
  • Do you have a job or run a business?
  • Roughly how old are you?
  • Where in the country do you live? (full or part postcode)

Shove the answers in a cookie (yes, yes). You might not even need to ask about age to be able to make some pretty good predictions based on correlations with the other answers, given enough usage and Hitwise data.

8. It’s just you and the machine

When I started a business, I had all kinds of questions – where should I define my registered office to be?  Was the VAT flat rate scheme I’d heard about worth doing? What makes a good accountant for a little web business? All of which were answered in the conventional bland, half-arsed way by Business Link (£2.15 per user visit) never giving a straight answer – because government often can’t really tell you those things; only individuals free to talk about their own experience can. I found the answers on the discussions on Smarta, BusinessZone, Startups.co.uk and so on, who gave me the answer for free (along with some ads I mainly ignored).

That’s what the web is great for, and why I hosted an event last autumn to bring government marketers and online communities together. Hundreds of thousands of students talk on The Student Room and give advice to freshers and pre-applicants. Thousands of mums talk about their lady gardens on NetMums and Mumsnet (amongst other things, thankfully). The WordPress and other open source communities run on listservs, groups, Trac, Codex forums, hashtag communities and more, asking and answering questions, and providing a search engine trail for people to follow months later.

It’s 2011, and there’s no community on Alphagov, nor links off to it. Even Directgov has that in odd places.

9. It doesn’t make the case for a single domain, just a better citizen supersite

I was impressed to hear about the extent of the Alphagov team’s immersion in site traffic and search data from Directgov at the part of the project, and the prioritisation of tasks and content that stemmed from it. It would be interesting to see the same process was applied to corporate and quango site data (apologies if it was), where from my own experience the goals and audiences are pretty complex.

Alphagov has real promise as a vision for a better Directgov, and to an extent, a better BusinessLink (but it feels like merging the two doesn’t add much to the experience – just a design challenge). But beyond generic corporate government stuff – who’s who, what’s big news this week, maybe aggregating things like press releases and consultations – I don’t see the improvement it delivers by piling in more corporate Departmental stuff.

I’ve raised this before: corporate sites, when done well, can service specialist stakeholders at low cost, be a flexible platform for digital engagement and make government more efficient and transparent: a window on the wormery, not a neat layer of turf on top. Let Alphagov make digital public services work for citizens, but don’t break it by importing the policy stuff. Let’s keep Departmental sites for that, with tough objectives and tight budgets.

10. The name

The Alphagov team have been emphasising quite rightly around the launch that it’s a prototype, and a rare one at that, released to public view as an example of a vision, but not a public service as such, not even one in trial mode. Hence ‘alpha’, the first iteration.

But the style and messaging around the project (UPDATE: to be clear, not from the Alphagov team itself), especially to government webbies elsewhere, has been a different kind of alpha – the best, the supreme. The alpha male gorilla in the government web jungle. Bumping off the bigger beasts first, but coming for everyone in the end (if they step out of line).

Last week, the MailCamp event I helped organise saw 80+ dedicated, intelligent webbies get together to talk about optimising their email marketing and alerts. A couple of hundred local gov webbies will meet on a Saturday in June. There’s a new regular meetup kicking off next week about internal comms and intranets. Practitioners inside and around government chat on Twitter all the time about making public sector digital better. There are some pretty kickass teams doing that in different places right now, practising a sort of ‘organic innovation’ that’s as good as you’ll see anywhere in the world.

There are times when you need to clear out and start again, bringing fresh minds to the challenge. But there are some pretty alpha gov webbies out there now wondering what the future offers for them, and that’s the biggest question Alphagov and the people deciding its future need to answer.

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar

Full Disclosure: I did a short piece of paid work as part of a small external team for Alphagov, looking at digital engagement. So in truth, failings on that score are my failings. But blogs are for carping, right?

11 Comments

  1. Yup, many of these v valid criticisms, though I’d argue location matters more than anything else due to devolution etc. Hence four different, duplicated businesslink sites, one for each nation.

    But but but… I’m mortified about the how people feel about the ‘alpha’ name. Never in a million years was it my intention to put an ‘alpha male’ message out there – as you say, and I’ve said repeatedly, there are many fantastic digital people across government. I’d never diss them, since they work in environments & circumstances which are, shall we say, frequently not conducive to doing *anything* digitally.

    If people took the alpha to mean anything other than ‘an alpha, coming before a beta’ then I’m pretty gutted TBH. Huge apologies to all any anyone who felt this way.

    • Looking at the phrase again, maybe ‘the style and messaging around the project, especially to government webbies’ wasn’t a great way of putting it. I don’t think there’s a press release saying Alphagov is better, per se. It’s more of an inference, maybe, that this has strong ministerial support and commitment to replace what currently exists. I’m not on the inside these days, so I could just be spouting hot air, of course…

      • Having heard about alphagov through different routes at different times over the last months, and going back and looking at those communications in retrospect in light of this suggestion; the “alpha male” aspect was most prominent from those whose existing models and practices (in short, livelihoods) were/are most threatened by what alpha.gov.uk could produce and stand for if it succeeded.

        Second and third hand messaging takes input from a multitude of sources. As much comms as alphagov did, they could not reasonably expect to quickly alter the views of some of those who have built the current .gov.uk sites who are active on twitter.

        Alpha.gov.uk is, at Martha Lane Fox’s request, an alpha version of a revolution potentially replacing a decade of their work. While the criticism may be accurate – and it probably is in some quarters – it’s important to consider where the message got filtered from. While this is most definitely not true of everyone who has made that criticism, for some it’s easy to see something as “alpha male” when you’re feeling very threatened because it’s about to eat your publicly funded lunch (and doing so because, quite frankly, you’re doing a poor job for the people you are funded to serve).

        If someone starts by saying “alphagov is going round whitehall”, they have to be in Whitehall to see it.

        So far, one thing that alphagov has hidden from public view is all the politicing that goes on behind the scenes. Now *that’s* a fully transparent alphagov blog post I’d love to see…

        • Hi Sam. I think your post goes some way to supporting Steph’s #10. “You’re doing a poor job for the people you are funded to serve”? Maybe so, but it’s not for want for trying. So much of ‘Whitehall’ day-to-day web activity is about fighting against the constraints imposed upon it (eg. where the likes of RSS is seen as an exciting new technology), so it’s hardly surprising if there is a degree of scepticism when alphagov delivers something groundbreaking having been specifically freed of those constraints. I think there is broad support for the idea of the site, but it rankles when people who have been struggling to make government websites work within those constraints are painted opposing simply because it threatens their ‘publicly-funded lunch’.

          And yes, there is loads of politicking, but that’s hardly unique to Whitehall. I suspect any such blog post would be incredibly dull for anyone not in govt, and incredibly familiar for anyone who is.

    • Re: Location, while you’re absolutely right that location is probably the most significant in terms of transactional logic and applicable law, I wonder if the others will become salient once Alphagov start to host much larger volumes of content and transactions – avoiding superlong Yahoo-style nightmare index pages and making the related cross-promotions presciently useful.

  2. Your comment 6 is spot on – but no website will ever fix the fact that many processes are overly complex and broken, e.g. your VAT example. The best way of highlighting this is by opening up the rules and processes to scrutiny and comments by end-users and stakeholders, and then use the feedback for improvement. Rather than trying to make alphagov or its successor (Betagov?) a way to better package an unpleasant reality, could they not be drivers of change where it actually matters?

  3. These two posts made for a great read, Steph. Good to see some challenge and balance about the project. Have read it over twice now, and am most convinced by 3-6 inclusive. Think 8 is broadly right in that community/peer support ought to be baked in as a higher priority – but a bit unfair, as nothing in the alpha is incompatible with that and they had to focus on broad concepts in the time available.

    Definitely think the scale and complexity of govt content will be the big test for the single domain concept.

    And now I feel like my post about Alphagov was gushing and sycophantic! ot intentionally so – am more optimistic than you I think about a) the end result a year from now being way better than the status quo and b) this ‘outsider’ led approach being our best shot, possibly only shot, of doing the stuff gov webbies would love to do if it weren’t for the structure of govt and politicking in and between depts

  4. Thought provoking as ever Steph:

    – IE6. The protoype’s audience is Govt webbies and a few other interested parties who’ll have access to decent browsers even if they haven’t at the office. Far better to spend time on features people need to see than retrofitting for a browser that’s way past its best.

    – Padding. OK, but Alpha almost needed to do this to make its mark/ tip the balance back towards proper use of white space.

    – So many content types. I’d argue for the team and skills to keep on taking a fresh look at the most popular pages and delivering bespoke content as needed. Agree there needs to be more standard text and picture style templates as a fall back, but they should be used as a last resort. No one wants to read a wall of copy, not even a policy wonk.

    – Terse content. I’ve just revisited the car seat page and think it does the trick for a busy mum or dad. On the subject of How To videos, maybe Alpha should talk to the folks at nhs.uk/videos who’re turning great stuff out on a limited budget.

    – UX is 5% of the problem. I’d love to see the product manager who shoots down certain policy people I won’t mention, but agree it’s worth a go.

    – Location. I mentioned personalising by lifestage on the Alpha feedback site but not totally convinced. To sort out my VAT I just want to be directed to easy to use pages (or better still use software like FreeAgent which talks to HMRC’s back end so I don’t have to visit a Govt site at all). I don’t really want to give info I don’t need to, or don’t trust Govt with.

    – Single domain. I still think it’s possible for a single domain to do most of the heavy lifting*, offering well thought out transactions and advice for the majority and specialist news, policy and blog pages for the expert. Alpha did a great job of the first but it ducked the second.

    Disclosure: I sat in on a couple of early meetings and did some unpaid work on news and policy wireframes.

    *With open source and a handful of bespoke built tools doing the rest (only the resulting sites are absolutely needed)

  5. For me the issue is the complexity of government itself. It seems each government comes into power promising to simplify government and cut red tape – and fails. The New Labour government promised to simplify things to help business. Reality: between 1997 and 2010 the amount of tax legislation more than doubled, so that the UK now has the longest tax code in the world (http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/1172/; http://tinyurl.com/3ffcz2l). The laws, rules, regulations, licenses, forms, permissions, notes, notices, newsletters, updates and many more which make up this code, as well as the innumerable related transactions citizens and businesses NEED to make under it, MUST be available online. It is a vast amount of information. The HMRC site has over 100,000 pages. And content changes daily to reflect the ever-changing rules and regs coming in and out of force, promulgated by both our government and the European Union. Every time the VAT rate changes thousands of items have to be laboriously reviewed and edited.

    Will alpha gov host ALL of this content and be better at updating it than the current highly skilled HMRC web team? If the answer to either question is No, then the HMRC website will remain, with its team in place. By analogy so will all the other government websites which host detailed regulatory content, which is most of them. And their web teams. Only now they’ll be joined, in bureaucratic systems yet to be devised, to a new mega-team in the GDS.

    If alpha gov admits there are limits to its ambition and scope i.e. it won’t take ALL of HMRC’s content – just where will it draw the line? Who will make that call? All the ‘core content’ of HMRC is meant to have been converged to Business link over the past few years, at an impressive cost, revealed when Cabinet Office published the figures last year. Is alpha gov going to have another go at converging it all, only into a new CMS and design? Then it will be on three websites. Or not touch it, leaving it currently duplicated on HMRC and BL?

    The current, funky designer and techie-led stage of alpha gov is exciting and inspiring. But the real challenge will be when it moves beyond driving tests and car seats and has to decide what to do with something like this – http://tinyurl.com/34knk97.

Comments are closed.

Webmentions

  • The next step | Helpful Technology May 26, 2011

    […] – tucked away on a disused floor of a government building in south London. The site had rough edges, but it pointed in an exciting […]

  • Alphagov musings | Brian Hoadley May 26, 2011

    […] However, after a couple of weeks of love, the veneer began to crack and UX expert Lisa Reichelt chose to write about ‘Opportunities Lost – AlphaGov’, while Steph Gray, former BIS digerati chose to write about ’10 Things that Alpha.gov.uk gets wrong’ – in 2 parts (Part 1 & Part 2). […]

  • Interesting elsewhere – 3 June 2011 | Public Strategist May 26, 2011

    […] 10 things Alpha.gov.uk gets wrong (Part 2) | Helpful Technology It’s not Alphagov’s fault, of course. But there are limitations on what you can do as a skunkworks team, owning the user experience but not the process which gives rise to it. To deliver on the promise, Alphagov needs to cultivate a sort of orbit of ?product managers who successfully impose great UX on unpleasant reality; part crusader, part human shield around the Alphagov principles. […]

  • Alphagov musings - Digital Optimist May 26, 2011

    […] However, after a couple of weeks of love, the veneer began to crack and UX expert Lisa Reichelt chose to write about ‘Opportunities Lost – AlphaGov’, while Steph Gray, former BIS digerati chose to write about ’10 Things that Alpha.gov.uk gets wrong’ – in 2 parts (Part 1 & Part 2). […]

  • Three challenges for alpha.gov.uk « Microformats & the semanantic web May 26, 2011

    […] talks about lack of community; I view this as something to balance against the need to provide authoritative set of information, […]