Last night the latest version (the beta release) of the new UK government website was released. We have been watching the progress of this project and the team building it for some time, right from the point where Martha Lane-Fox recommended that all government information and systems should be available through a single domain. Her report suggested that citizens and business users of government services should not have to know which department, office or agency it comes from. It should be findable from a single, well known and easily accessible place. The report also made it clear that a single department within the Cabinet Office should be responsible for sorting out the government’s digital presence. This became GDS: Government Digital Services.
We have already seen on the previous release (alpha.gov.uk) how they moved away from the traditional hierarchical view of government, with layer upon layer of confusing navigation, toward a location aware search oriented view. The latest version of the new website (www.gov.uk) shows how much they have already sorted out.
So what is new? Well, the search is extremely well refined (https://twitter.com/#!/danblundell/status/164464380468137984/photo/1), there’s lots of reworked and interactive content (e.g. https://www.gov.uk/maternity-benefits), and the design is bright and clear. But there are subtleties in there that should be noted. The content has been written to be easily consumed (average reading age of 9). They have even used a font that (reportedly) is easier to read by people with dyslexia. This isn’t just for the benefit of people who have reading problems, but it also makes the content easier for anyone, for example, who may be distracted by other things or just in a hurry, to use it.
The site has been built using a technique known as responsive design so that the layout reconfigures itself to cope with whatever screen size you have. This is incredibly important when you consider how many people now access websites using a smart phone. In fact the site has been designed for mobile devices first and the additional layouts for desktop computers are added as they are needed by the browser.
The extent to which the team building gov.uk has embraced open-ness makes us wonder whether anyone else in the rest of Government is really aware of what they are doing. Not only have they released the technical details of their servers, system and tools but they have also released their source code for download by anyone to view, modify and reuse. They have provided API access to the site so other developers can embed bits in their own sites and have clearly labelled that much of the content is available under the Open Government Licence.
All in all this is a triumph for the gov.uk team. It sets the right direction for government digital services and puts the UK at the forefront of how this should be done. We congratulate them and look forward to what comes next.