Why we need Direct.gov.uk

If you’re allergic to the colour orange, look away now. There’s going to be a big marketing push this month for Directgov, and a new strapline to sell the concept: ‘public services all in one place’. The press material concentrates on one aspect above all others: the convenience of a single site. I quote…

Independent research published today has shows that people would welcome a website that gives them access to public services all in one place and that they no longer surf widely over the whole net but prefer to use so called ‘Supersites’ – a handful of trusted, reliable websites – to manage their lives.

Something in that press release quote doesn’t ring quite true – otherwise (to quote Seth Godin at Google) we’d all be using Yahoo Auctions rather than eBay. But I don’t think that’s quite what it’s trying to say. I agree that we need Directgov because people look at ‘The Government’ as a single entity. They don’t see departmental boundaries; and why should they? They need one place for all government dealings.
Of course, this is what we had initially, when CCTA launched www.open.gov.uk. But that platform just wasn’t ready for the internet revolution, and that’s why so many of us deserted it. (I was at the Foreign Office at the time; and a promise of a one-week turnaround for uploading documents wasn’t really what we had in mind.)
Directgov has been widely criticised, internally and externally. Considering the cost, I’ve heard some surprisingly bad things about its underlying ‘Dot P’ CMS, which is set to be replaced in the near future. But the criticism levelled by something like Directionlessgov.com, whilst valid in an absolute sense, misses the key contribution being made by Directgov.
More than anything else, we need Directgov because it’s a clean slate. It isn’t beholden to a stagnant Whitehall department’s systems, structures and legacy. The editorial teams are principally answerable to the principle of Directgov, instead of to a Ministerial department. This lets them produce material which concentrates on end-user needs, not process or hierarchy. Yes of course, we all know that’s how it should always be anyway. But when you’re a small web team inside a huge bureaucracy, your views don’t always get heard. No matter how right they are.