Is Alphagov the future of government digital?

Jimmy Leach

alphagov 300x230 Is Alphagov the future of government digital?This week has seen two significant steps in the development of government digital – moving to get more people online, and starting the process of improving government services when they get there.

Yesterday, the government’s digital champion Martha Lane Fox, announced, with the Prime Minister the recruitment of 100,000 local volunteers to help the 9 million people in the UK who don’t currently use the internet online.

One of the side benefits of that is that the more people who are online, the more they can access their government services – pay their taxes, buy their licences, apply for their passports – by digital means. And that can lead to big savings – Lane Fox commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers (pdf) to assess the economic impact of everyone in the UK getting online, and the numbers are high – if those 9 million can be tempted into doing just one of their (typically) 4 or 5 monthly government transactions online, then that would save about £1bn each year to the taxpayer.

So it’s important that if those people do migrate to digital then the services that government offers are as good as they can be. And that’s where Alphagov comes in.

It’s important, firstly, to note what Alphagov isn’t – it’s not a ready replacement for Directgov, and all government agency and departmental websites. Instead, it’s a prototype, an experiment into what government digital could be. It’s not finished, it was never supposed to be, it’s designed to show an approach to content, to brand, to a single domain.

Commissioned by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, it hopes to show how government needs to re-set its digital sights and put the user at the centre of the picture, rather than the needs of the departments and agencies, and to make the delivery of services and information as simple and easy as possible – on the understanding that that’s how people want to deal with government services. They don’t enjoy the processes, so let’s at least make them easier.

The team who built this were recruited (with some exceptions) from outside of government – partly because many of the technical skills needed aren’t yet commonly found in the Civil Service, but also because fresh minds were important. If you were building digital government today, from scratch, what would you come up with? And the process was important – in-house developers, building and constantly refining is the norm for many digital businesses, but not for government where outsourcing has been the norm. There’s the potential for big savings here too – up to around 50 percent of the £128m a year it currently costs to deliver government web (2010 figures).

So tries out some new ideas for how a single, simple website might work, building templates for similar processes right across government – transactions, ‘decision trees’ (to help the user find the right information), and simple news/information pages. The topics chosen presents were driven by the top 100 questions that people currently ask on government sites.

There’s now a consultation period – what’s wrong with what’s been done, how can we make things better – and you’re invited. Got to the GetSatisfaction page or the Facebook page and let the team know what you think.

Jimmy Leach is Head of Digital Diplomacy at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and was editorial lead on the Alphagov project.

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  • GO

    GO believes that launching this prototype is an excellent and innovative
    idea. Best to show this prototype and gauge feedback now, making sure
    that it fits the users’ needs than making a website that has had no
    consultation process and ultimately wastes millions of pounds. GO has
    written an overview of alphagov to date:

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