Whilst there are many things that I dislike about our current government, one thing I am pleased about is the creation of the Government Digital Service in 2010. This team oversaw the creation of GOV.UK, a new web site for central government services and replacing the previous direct.gov.uk.
The remarkable thing about GOV.UK is that, despite being commissioned by a centre-right government that is keen on outsourcing and privatisation, the new web site was actually brought back in house and primarily uses open source software. And by completely rebuilding the web site from scratch, it can take advantage of more modern best practices for design. So it’s responsive and therefore works just as well on small smartphone screens as it does on desktops, and uses big, clear fonts. The language used is also deliberately simplistic so that those with a poorer grasp of English comprehension can still use it.
A really good example is the Register to vote section, which I’ve used this week after receiving a letter. It’s a really simple step-by-step process, but the web site is fast and so it doesn’t take long. By contrast the previous web site offered by my local council for registering to vote was some awful thing that looked like it had been created in 1998 and barely updated since.
The other big advantage of keeping the technology in house is money. Rather than paying for a big outsourcing company every time you need a new feature adding that was over and above the original project specification, the GDS team can just get on and improve the site themselves. And, in doing so, they’re creating software that has a value, and could potentially be sold to other organisations. In other words, generating income rather than costing money.
With this in mind I’m pleased to hear that the US government has had a similar idea. It sounds very similar to the GDS team in Britain – as it’s worked so well for us, I hope that their American counterparts can achieve similar things.