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Feature: Open government

Mark Sinclair

Released this month, GOV.UK is the first major project from the Government Digital Service and an indication of how it hopes to change the way we interact with the state, through great design

If you live in the UK and have recently renewed your car tax, looked up your maternity pay entitlement, checked to see when the clocks go back, or when the next bank holiday is, you’ll probably have already encountered the new gov.uk website. Perhaps you didn’t even think about it when you searched; you found the information you needed easily enough, then got on with something else. If it proved to be that straightforward and unfussy a process, that’s exactly what the newly formed Government Digital Service intended – and its first major project would seem, at least for one of gov.uk’s 35 million users, to have done its job.

Set up last year the GDS is transforming not just the British government’s online presence but, potentially, the way it acts, talks and works with the public. It’s part of a “digital by default” strategy incorporating all government services, transactions and publishing. With a team right at the heart of government in the Cabinet Office, lead by the new executive director for digital, Mike Bracken, the GDS hopes to build products that will, it claims, “stand shoulder to shoulder with the sort of digital experience that users come to expect from daily interaction with the giants of the web”. Just a few days clear of its beta mode, gov.uk already looks to have set the bar high for digital public services across the world.

The government’s online presence has changed enormously since Tony Blair established the awkwardly-named Office of the e-Envoy in 1999 which launched the government departments portal, UKonline, two years later. UKonline was eventually replaced by two much more extensive sites in 2004, Directgov and Business Link, which focused on the needs and requirements of UK citizens and businesses. Directgov aimed to make government services easier to access, cheaper to provide, and more open. But while it remained the public’s main access point to online government for over eight years, in that time it was shunted around several departments, from the Cabinet Office to the Central Office of Information, to the Department for Work and Pensions and back to Cabinet in 2010. Directgov became part of the GDS last year, and as of this month has finally been replaced along with Business Link, by gov.uk. Alongside this, a new site called Inside Government will replace well over 350 government department and agency websites.

≈ REVOLUTION NOT EVOLUTION ≈

The fact that the GDS and gov.uk exist at all is the result of a change in government strategy largely brought about by the findings of a report carried out by web entrepreneur, Martha Lane Fox, on behalf of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude. Lane Fox’s findings in Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution were unequivocal: the UK government must start afresh in order to take advantage of – and fit into – the new digital landscape. By way of illustration, when Directgov launched in 2004 there were as many people using the whole of the internet as there were using Facebook last year. Factoring in the rapid increase in the speed and availability of broadband, the growth of mobile internet, the prevalence of internet TV and tablet devices, and eight years in internet time seems like a world away.

Given that work on the gov.uk beta site started in earnest only last year, it’s impressive just how much has been done since then. And, equally, that the GDS has been keen to share its work in progress; continually changing and modifying the site pages, keeping users informed of virtually all design and development decisions via a series of well-maintained blogs and Twitter feeds. This level of interaction is a reflection of the culture of openness that’s also being brought about. While designers communicate with users via several Twitter accounts from within the GDS; outside of the department, coders can spot and actively help fix problems on the site via the GitHub open source community. As digital engagement lead Louise Kidney wrote on the GDS blog back in July, “We like to share at GDS – our code, our thoughts, our policy, our designs and our strategy.”

If this sounds like a new kind of thinking establishing itself within the corridors of power, then that’s another hard won success of the GDS, which aims to put the needs of the users, the British public, at the heart of what it does. Following Bracken’s appointment and the beginnings of a small digital team in 2010, which included deputy director of strategy Tom Loosemore (who worked on Lane Fox’s report), the developers were given a space in the Central Office of Information and just six weeks to make an ‘alpha’ version of what a new government site could look like. This was released in August 2011 – the results were good enough to get the green light for a department proper and the GDS was officially established (signed off for two years) and moved into offices in Aviation House on Kingsway in London.

≈ NEW THINKING NEW SERVICES ≈

Things shifted gear again when earlier this year the GDS announced a head of design, Ben Terrett, previously design director at ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, London. “When I got here there was one designer and three front-end developers,” says Terrett, who now heads up a team of 16 who work collaboratively and “design in browser” as opposed to mocking up designs in Photoshop and handing them over to a developer. “The designer and the developer sit next to each other,” he says. “It’s a bit like an old art director and art worker relationship. You end up talking about the work more, which is healthy. If you have to describe what you want [on a webpage], it forces you to think, it makes the work more intelligent.”

Terrett has brought some interesting thinking to the gov.uk project and stresses that from the outset the role of the GDS is to do much more than make websites. “How would Apple do car tax?” he speculates at one point. “They wouldn’t send you a letter and tell you to go to the website; it would probably be on iTunes, you’d get an email saying it was up for a renewal: is your address the same? Is your car the same? If ‘yes’ do nothing and we’ll renew it.” If Silicon Valley and the civil service sound like an unlikely pairing, it’s just one of many influences changing the way government thinks about its own digital service provision. Posters created in-house alerting government departments to the release of gov.uk are styled up in a clean, uncluttered Apple-esque manner, for example, while the walls in the GDS offices are covered with inspirational cuttings: various bits of classic type, identities and signage, the most popular ones ‘liked’ with yellow Post-Its.

These printed reminders work alongside a series of clever photographic ones, too. On display around the GDS are portraits of the people who will be using gov.uk, photographed in homes, pubs, workplaces and libraries all over the country. Visualising the users in this way has helped the design team to keep in mind who it is they’re working for. And this focus has driven the work towards simplicity, clarity, and a stripping back of anything that gets in the way of a user’s journey through the site. For the GDS designers, “it’s about looking at the bones of the needs,” says developer Frances Berriman. “The users aren’t on gov.uk for fun, or to be impressed with our web design skills,” she says. “They need to get something done and they want to get it done as quickly as possible.” This reining in of any visual elements that serve no function, extraneous colours, shadings and design flourishes has meant a slight readjustment for some (and an in-joke that there are more than a few “killjoys” on the team). “It was difficult at first,” says Berriman, “as the site is really knocked back and very plain. It goes against all the sites you’ve ever built, every glossy promo page or agency site for a B2B. In the past, we might make this bit brighter, add a bit of flare here, or think something will be cleverer if it moves. Here, it’s the opposite of that.”

But the design is already paying off, and there are figures in to back it up. “This bank holiday page,” says Terrett, “has a 96% bounce rate; visitors click here and don’t go to another site. For most websites that would be terrible. But in this case it means they’ve found exactly what they wanted. Also, average time spent on the page is 30 seconds – that’s more than enough. The data is backing up what we’re doing.” Terrett has been working with his Really Interesting Group co-founder, Russell Davies, on the way that gov.uk is communicated to both the public and internally, and Davies has also noticed the differences between gov.uk and the commercial design projects that most of the GDS designers have experience of. “If you come from that world, you notice that a lot of the philosophical underpinning to many of the tools is about capturing attention, optimising clicks,” he says. “What’s good about the designers here is that they know it’s not about them. Almost all the value we deliver is in the words: writing clearly on gov.uk allows people to read the stuff they need to read. The designers are not trying to get in the way, they’re saying ‘read the words’.”

As if to add weight to this, the gov.uk site doesn’t replicate old content that the GDS believes government shouldn’t have to provide (advice on beekeeping, for example, doesn’t hold to one of the ten GDS Design Principles, “Do less – government should only do what only government can do”). The site also has very few images, a design decision almost anathema to the way most government websites are organised. In the US, whitehouse.gov, for example, is relatively pared down and smartly designed, but still relies on leader images for most of its sections, while the more minimalist work that gov.uk has been releasing has already influenced sites such as utah.gov and Honolulu Answers. (The non-profit Code for America project has been particularly vocal in its support of the GDS’s aims.) “It’s been interesting in terms of the graphic design, working without images,” says Guy Moorhouse, a GDS designer who previously worked at London studio Airside. “But images can often be used persuasively; US sites are full of imagery to get some feeling in there and we’re actively moving against that. Images can be decorative or loaded with meaning, whereas we want to make the content speak for itself; through typography and layout.”

And these two areas are the most vital in terms of ensuring gov.uk is accessible to everyone. The GDS accessibility lead, Joshua Marshall, has the job of rigorously testing every aspect of the site, to check that the pages can be read by people with various visual or cognitive impairments and other physical disabilities. “When we put the site in front of disabled users, or people with different educational ranges, you can see a clear correllation – the more we stripped it back, the easier people found it to use,” he says. “We did have a mechanism to change the type on the site for dyslexic users, for example, but people were still confused by it. It wasn’t really useful – so we decided, instead of going down that route, to make it simple for absolutely everyone.” Web accessibility strategist Léonie Watson, director of accessibility at Nomensa and chair of the British Computer Association of the Blind, has also consulted on the project. A screen reader-user herself, Watson has, says Marshall, become a vital part of the team.

Having initially used the typefaces Georgia, Helvetica and Gill on the beta, front-end developer James Weiner admits there were several considerations to bear in mind when choosing the final face, in addition to its legibility. “It’s easiest to use what everyone has on their computer; web safe fonts,” he says. “But we really wanted to rail against the fact that the web feels like the west coast of America all the time. Britain has a really good design history, but it isn’t ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ either – we wanted to avoid the obvious. I was keen for us to have one typeface, to keep it simple, to have something that felt British but was also super-legible and usable.”

In as much as the new site represents a glimpse of the future of government services, through the use of type in particular, it also continues a long tradition of great British design for the public sector. Gov.uk explicitly cements a relationship with the achievements of the past by making use of a new version of the classic 1950s typeface Transport, originally designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for use on British motorway signs, which Calvert has worked on with London studio A2/SW/HK. While the application may be different – from road signage to smartphone screen – the parallels in terms of legibility as the key to navigation are clear. “They designed Transport to be really legible at 70mph, in the dark, in the rain and they tested the hell out of it for years,” Terrett adds reassuringly.

“Originally designed as a signing face for larger display,” explains A2’s Henrik Kubel, “Transport’s open counters and generous x-height makes it highly legible in small point sizes in print and on screen, and it seems natural to take it to the next stage and make it the official typeface for all of the government digital services, too.” In collaboration with Calvert, A2 has digitised the original artwork for Transport and added more weights, characters and pictograms, optimised the spacing and kerning for small print and screen use, and renamed the face New Transport. Kubel says that the fonts have also been ‘hinted’ in Basic, ClearType, and GreyScale to ensure maximum legibility across all browsers and screens.

≈ GOING BEYOND DESIGN ≈

But something else may also come out of this pursuit of legibility and accessibility: the GDS’s work could have a direct effect on government policy making. Weiner says that the work being done on the Inside Government site, which will detail the inner workings of the state, its consultations, publications and policy, will be conveyed through new, plain language documentation. “And by dint of us having to design something that helps people understand government, government is having to put its house in order a bit,” he says. In effect, increased transparency may well result from the various design changes being made; government policy could then be more easily understood by anyone who wanted to read it.

Again, this is all done with the user in mind, something that has perhaps, until now, been rather neglected. “Britain has this history of brilliant public sector design,” says Terrett, “government projects that are well designed, that have stood the test of time and are copied around the world. The Festival of Britain, Kenneth Grange’s work on InterCity, the tube map – in that style of diagrammatic design, it’s obvious to me that it is ‘user-focused’. It’s so effortless that you ignore it now, you don’t even notice it’s designed.” And, of course, once gov.uk has taken root, you may not notice it yourself next time you check the VAT rate, or apply for that fishing license. But the bigger picture is that improving these kinds of small interactions with government, just making them simpler and less stressful to do, can only improve well-being. It could bring government closer to the people, even empower them.

Back in August, 50 days before the release of the gov.uk site, Bracken gave a speech in the GDS office and thanked the team responsible for the posters of the site users that had been put up in the office. Each photograph had a few lines of text from the man or woman pictured, describing the tasks they carried out online. “What strikes you when you read them all is how fundamental their needs are,” Bracken said. “They are basic human needs in many cases: get a job, pay your tax, get involved with your community, look after your family, find some benefits. These are not trivial things – these are fundamental things. It’s how we interact with the state.” The implication was that in enabling this interaction to happen, the GDS has a unique and vital role to play.

See gov.uk, digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk and @GDSteam

1 Comment

What an awesome read...
Sam Mearns
2013-04-17 12:44:40


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