Late on Tuesday night, the password protection was lifted from http://alpha.gov.uk – and the most eagerly anticipated web project ever produced by government, arguably the only eagerly anticipated web project ever produced by government, was finally revealed. And it’s… well, it’s quite a shock to the system. Or rather, ‘The System’?
It’s important to recognise what Alphagov is, and what it isn’t. It is an illustration of how the ‘experts’ think government should present itself online. It is a pre-pre-release product: they aren’t just saying ‘you might find problems’, they’re more or less guaranteeing it. It is not a finished product – in terms of information content, browser compatibility, accessibility, etc etc. It isn’t a live site: much of the content is a snapshot in time. And it’s not a definitive blueprint of how things will be: it’s a challenge to the status quo. Some of it won’t be workable; some of it won’t be palatable. But it’s time to ask some difficult questions.
Rather than pronounce one way or the other, here’s my list of the ten things Alphagov – as a product, and as a project – has got right. (That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a complementary list of 10 mistakes, by the way.)
- The fact that it happened at all.
Don’t lose sight of the achievement it’s been to get this going in the first place. Those involved haven’t been working for free:
my guess is,the project will havecost several hundred thousand quid (update: pricetag of £261k ex VAT confirmed via Twitter), at a time when jobs and services are being cut (although of course, there’s a view to long term savings). It’s been shielded from the Civil Service: more of a skunkworks, probably, than the ‘official’ skunkworks. It’s been staffed by a phalanx of individuals and small operations, working with open source tools and technologies, and hosted ‘in the cloud’. This is not how ‘we’ do things.
- Delivery 1, Perfectionism 0.
The team were brave enough to publicise a go-live date in the mainstream media. And to within a day or so, they made it. Sure, it was rough round the edges, probably rougher than they actually intended. But they were absolutely right to get it out the door, and worry about the fine detail later. That’s the luxury of being an alpha, I suppose: the opportunity to concentrate on what really matters.
- It challenges the norm (while it can).
You know what they say about the ‘first 100 days’? That’s roughly how long Alphagov had – and they’ve used it to good effect. They’ve shown healthy disrespect for ‘the way we do things’, as they should. They’ve pushed boundaries, broken rules, and thought the unthinkable. But that grace period can only last so long: in fact, this public release probably marks the end of it.
- Focus on search.
For many people, Google is the internet. Alphagov recognises this on two levels. One, it presents itself primarily as a search engine – with the sophisticated ‘auto suggest’ function being a particularly welcome addition. Two, it’s very search engine friendly, with very clean HTML markup, and meaningful and keyword-loaded URLs. It’s also nice to see them indexing other government sites in their own search, although the results are frankly a bit patchy.
- Tools not text
Perhaps the greatest leap forward demonstrated by Alphagov is its preference for online interactions, as opposed to text documents. So for example, instead of a maths textbook explanation on calculating holiday pay, you get a web page which asks a couple of questions, and gives the answer. The page listing bank holidays doesn’t just give you a written list of dates – it gives you a link to a .ics file, which can be imported into your calendar (Outlook, Google, iCal, etc).
- Location based services
On similar lines, it’s fantastic to have a geographic lookup function built in. So for example, instead of telling you to contact your local police station, then chucking you at a list of every police station in the country, it points you to the only one you’re actually interested in. (Well, near enough: the data for where I am seems to be a bit off.)
- Jettisons the old, embraces the new.
Alphagov is surely the first government project to revel in its (very strongly-worded) disregard for government browser guidelines. Whereas ‘proper’ projects are effectively obliged to spend time ensuring things look and work OK in Internet Explorer v6, they’ve used that time more profitably – demonstrating how the use of more modern features, such as geolocation, could really be beneficial. How many times, I wonder, have great ideas for on-screen interaction been killed by the Lowest Common Denominator?
- Single government view.
From a user perspective this one’s a no-brainer, but it still remains the most potentially explosive: absorbing each departmental web presence, and putting a common identity across them. They’ve handled this beautifully, albeit rather cynically. The departmental ‘sites’ retain a certain individuality, if only through the use of a defining colour – red for the Treasury, blue for BIS, and so on. And the Ministers, whose vanity could kill the whole idea, get great big pictures. But for most people, these departmental presences simply won’t be there, until you go looking for them. And that’s how it should be… as long as we can trust the team and the technology at the centre, to be responsive to departments’ needs and desires. (Sadly, the ‘alpha’ won’t tell us that.)
- Straight talk.
I love this page: Does my child need a car seat? You get your answer at the very top of the page, in extra-large bold letters. The sentences are short, decisive and jargon-free. And there’s no missing the safety advice at the bottom, with its mock highlighter-pen effect.
- Transparency throughout.
From the very start, Alphagov has been active on Twitter, picking up well over a thousand followers. They’ve given cute little insights into the team’s activity, they’ve answered questions, they’ve generated a bit of excitement. Shortly before launch, they launched a blog (with our help), pro-actively announcing and explaining some of their more radical approaches, and posting in their own names – not to mention direct links to their personal Twitter accounts. They’ve had (more or less) an open-door policy for people inside government wanting to visit, and see what was brewing. And now it’s live, they’re taking feedback via public routes: comments on the blog, Twitter / Facebook responses, and a Get Satisfaction account… and acting on it, too. Truly exemplary.
So what happens next? It’ll be fascinating to watch. The geeks have thrown down their gauntlets. It’s time for the civil servants to consider how their information and services could fit into the new mould. And for the public to compare the Alphagov approach with the established Directgov/departmental model. Which is better? There’s only one way to find out.