Sunday, May 15, 2011

Do You Hear Bells?

About 10 years ago, I helped a colleague build a case that managing government websites is “inherently governmental.” A-76 (OMB Circular A-76: Performance of Commercial Activities) was rearing its head again, and some agencies were asking the question: could web management be done more efficiently and effectively by the private sector? A few agency web managers were scrambling to justify their existence. In the end, I don’t think anyone lost a job; but it was a wake-up call.

As I looked at the recently-released “Alpha.gov.uk,” that fire drill came back to me.

Basically, a high level official the United Kingdom government got disgusted with the cost and inefficiency of government websites and asked for a study. An outside reviewer concluded that U.K. government websites were a mess, that they were organized around government agencies instead of customer needs, and that the best thing to do is dump them and start over. They concluded there should be a single domain – one website – where citizens could go to find the government services they need. Oh - and PS - eliminating all these agency sites should result in significant savings.

They hired a team of outside consultants to build the site – apparently didn’t even give govies a chance to redeem themselves – and “Alpha.gov.uk” is the result.

It’s not a perfect website – and they’re very honest about that right up front – but it’s a good start. Lots of positives. For example, I really like the box, placed in the top left quadrant of the screen so my eye sees it first, asking me where I am and then explaining that if they know where I live, they can tell me what services are available to me. Spot on. That’s what customers everywhere want – what’s available to me, where I live.

Then you choose a task (and I’m hoping the ones on the front page are their top tasks), and you go to a page that has nice big print and looks easy to use. The first task I tried was “calculate holiday pay,” and – what’s this? It actually tells me how many steps are involved and about how long it will take me to complete this task, before I start. Now these folks respect their customers. They know people want to get in, get it done, and get out. TIME is critical.

Next, I chose “pay your council tax,” and – oh, look…they tell me right at the top I have to have a credit card. I don’t have to waste my time filling out the form, only to discover I can’t pay by e-check.

There are just a few “related items” links on each page - they don’t overwhelm me with choices. Whew!

Best of all – it’s written in plain language. I understood every page I looked at, first time I read it. If I were a U.K. citizen, I’d be happy with this direction.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not perfect. I’d like an option to browse topics. I don’t really like all that news stuff below the fold. It’s clunky going back and forth. And I really didn’t poke around beyond the front page tasks, so I’m guessing they have a lot of kinks to work out. But all things considered, I’m impressed.

And it’s got to be chilling for our colleagues, the U.K. government web managers.

So I’m thinking…could this happen in the U.S.? If the UK model turns out to be a success (or even just perceived as a success), will advocates or media or the public start asking, “why not us?” Could consultants come in now and do what we do, better and/or more cost-effectively?

I think we need to talk about this, as a community. We know our government is facing a huge deficit, and people are looking everywhere for ways to cut costs. 24,000+ websites…gotta be some savings there. So what’s our strategy? How can we make sure we’re more efficient and effective than the private sector could be?

Did you guess what my title refers to? John Donne’s “No Man is an Island.” Always a good reminder. Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

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Reorganizing Government? Start Online!

1 comment:

Stephens said...

Candi,
In Canada, we have had a central nexus for probably 15 years. http://www.canada.gc.ca/home.html

It is not great--certainly not at user-centric as the UK site--but it is always a place to start.

Cheryl