Website rationalisation – its all a bit tricky

You may recall the announcement last January that the government was to close a good chunk of ‘.gov’ websites to improve both customer experience (by shifting content/online services into DirectGov or Businesslink) and efficiency (by reducing each department’s website support and development costs).

Conceptually this is pretty much a no brainer – most people accept that DirectGov/ Businesslink has visitor traffic that their servers could only dream about trying to support, and there are many sites out there (one estimate puts the total number at over 2000 but who really knows…) which could benefit from tighter control, consistency of presentation etc to ensure the user experience is better and the content up to date.

That’s all well and good, the difficulty comes when trying to persuade the owners of the sites destined for ‘retiring’ to agree to all this in practice. Not so easy. Many of the organisations affected have been deliberately set up at arms length from government for all sorts of sound reasons. However good or bad you may think these sites are, they have been owned, paid for and supported by these organisations and letting go is hard, however compelling the reasons might be.

These organisations also find it hard to visualise how their information and services might sit within DirectGov. In the conversations I have had, opinions have ranged from ‘people will never be able to find it’ to ‘that orange is horrible’.

But they are missing an important point. The quality of government websites (in terms of quality of editorial, presentation, navigability, metadata etc) is incredibly variable. If a consistent approach to these issues resolves a lot of the problems then it will make it easier for users to find government (with a small ‘g’) online information and services via search engines rather than trying to hunt it down.

Presenting their stuff on DirectGov / Businesslink will also likely expose them and their responsibilities to a much greater potential audience than they could hope to achieve on their corporate website at the moment.

Heads of eCommunications across Whitehall have been tasked with negotiating website rationalisation across the organisations sponsored by the central departments, not an easy task when we already have full time jobs, and a tricky piece of work to complete to a tight timetable.

Its not an easy thing to do, and there are difficult conversations ahead (we’re just completing the latest phase which is assessing the sites owned by government agencies and non-departmental public bodies), but it is an important piece of work with ministerial leadership behind it.

  1. Is it just me, or have a lot of government departments been launching sites using or recently? Do they reckon they’ll dodge the bullet? 🙂

  2. I’ve heard a few people suggest it as an idea but it won’t work – the rationalisation programme covers all government owned or sponsored site regardless of the second level domain. Its just easier to control domains when you are the issuer.

  3. hi

    you’re right, as content needs to be syndicated and directgov is a very good start. but i don’t think varney’s about that ;]

    the problem is the ‘portal effect’, by which i mean the lingering conceptual outdateness web-wise, which funnelled through the way Whitehall implements ends up with a severe disconnect with the web ‘as is’.

    Google’s only part of it. think of things like the lack of industry engagement, where’s the outside pressure?

    couple of practicals .. proper error messaging, redirects, the long tail, all adds up and is easy to address .. as you’d know ;]

    good luck! ‘don’t be evil’ , as they say.


  4. Thanks Paul. Good comments. Re: the portal concept. I think an reasonable fear on people’s minds is rationalisation = no space for innovation. That’s an interesting one, never mind the issues you raise which are equally important.

  5. I’m not sure we’re ready for the complete Direct Gov experience yet.

    DirectGov currently does a pretty good job of putting government information from many departments in one place.

    The planned expansion of DirectGov is going to lead to a huge increase in its size. I’m not sure the site will remain usable unless a lot of effort is put into personalisation, so that people only see what is relevant to them.

    DirectGov has also been in an eviable position of cherry picking the useful, interesting and well though out content. When many sites are closed down, there will be lots of content that people want to appear on DirectGov, but DirectGov might not be able to find a suitable home for.

  6. Thanks for the comments Richard. Fair point. I guess the reality is that many visitors to DirectGov information and services will be driven by search engine results – that will decide the success of the project just as much as the organisation and navigation of such a potentially large site.

    • Anon
    • August 1st, 2007


    I am the proud owner of one of the arms length sites due for closure. My site is not like many others in that I was brought in from the private sector to deliver the useability, accessibility, new media and ‘fun’ standards that people are used to. I believe I have done this to a level that directgov cannot as it must cater to all audiences. Also the the purpose of my site is not transactional but purely motivational. My site is also currently top of the search listings for our keywords so it cannot be improved upon.

    My problem with directgov is that I do not believe that for my current users it will be of benefit. The CMS and editorial system is limiting and will not allow me to give my users the reactive information they are used new. In terms of new visitors, it may or may not increase my traffic – I remain to be convinced. What i do believe is that their experience will be lessened by a dictatorial system.

    I realise that many other govt sites are way below my standards – but i want it recognised that what works for the majority is painful for the minority in this case. Selfish i know but i have put my heart and soul into this.

    I am also one of the people who think the design of directgov is awful. It is easy to browse but awful to search. The look and feel is dated, not because they don’t have design talent but because they are trying to be all things to all people.

  7. I feel your pain… Seriously, there are more than a few sites that fit your description and I agree that it just feels, well wasteful at least after all the effort put into getting them as good as can be.

    A small chink of light – I have caught a glimpse of the new Direct Gov designs and they look a LOT better. No idea on timeline for implementation though.

    • David Grnat
    • September 21st, 2010

    Oh dear, new DG designs – that didn’t come true, did it? £30 million per year and it’s just as bad as 2007.

  8. It doesn’t surprise me really. These super projects never pan out the way they were supposed to….

  1. January 14th, 2009

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