Government websites ‘too complex’ says the NAO

The BBC reports on a new National Audit Office review of government websites commenting;

‘many government websites are still too complicated and difficult to use’.

Haven’t seen the report itself yet, its not available on the NAO website at the time of writing. But it will be interesting to see them expanding on the following reported points:

  • Nearly 25% of departments do not know who is using their sites, or how much they cost.
  • Most people only knew a few key sites and tended to use “transactional services” once or twice a year.
  • Some sites are difficult to use, too “text-heavy” and filled with policy material that irrelevant to the visitor.
  • The average central government site has 17,000 pages yet most of their search engines “often fail to work satisfactorily”.
  • The Directgov and Business Link “super-sites” were popular with the NAO’s focus groups, who found they were “laid out clearly”. However few knew about them beforehand, and some felt the name Directgov was difficult to remember.
  • Up to a third of government websites may not meet standards for disabled or visually impaired people while, of the 3,400 forms available to download, only one in eight could be filled in and returned online.
  • Government websites have “improved slightly” between 2001 and 2006 in terms of quality, and about a tenth of all government sites had made “major improvements,” but one in six sites had got “significantly worse”.

That sounds like a damning indictment. I’m surprised by the findings, and would be surprised if its as bad as painted – though of course its better not to draw conclusions until you’ve actually read the report.

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  1. Great artcile on a similar point here

    http://www.diverdiver.com/egovblog.html

    Alex

  2. Jeremy

    I found it amusing to read recently on PSF about a directgov visit to Washington in January where the americans were asking for tips from them.

    this was because the minutes which contained this were part of their ‘webmasters university’ for gov web workers — we have B**r all like this here. what we have is next to useless and sometimes worse than useless for the frontline. so advice on the problems cited in your piece is either not there or unfindable.

    this is very relevant when commercial lessons aren’t seen as translatable to government (because our sites are somehow different when they’re not except in their audiences).

    things like usability are front and centre in US gov webmasters advice – where the heck is it here? everything falls down from that point on.

    quite why this situation has happened we can speculate but until there’s recognition of basic stuff like this situation instead of endless backpatting we will always be second-rate.

    another example, none of the ‘learning’ which directgov has obviously done – some bits are getting better – is being passed down the pipe and shared. there has been a failure of leadership in other words, which may have something to do with the technophobes at the top. i could go on … don’t get me started …

  3. There is nothing in these reports to give comfort to the dying. They do not provide any inspiration about how to repair these lame ducks. Department Communications managers find themselves managing almost entirely drab, uninformative, uncommunicative and unattractive websites the Communications managers in government departments need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the real world, instead of wandering around the pond of Westminster Village kicking over old poo.

    In my experience there is no willingness to grasp opportunities, to try new ideas, new techniques, or grasp and make the hard decisions about what gets published.

    There are piles of turgid documents that governments publish every day. We don’t need to put these on the net. A decently indexed and catalogued repository is enough, and a second repository for data and statutory reporting. This is not to restrict the move to freedom of information. Use of managed repositories could help make things accessible. Which they are palpably not at present.

    The really difficult bit is persuading government officers to author documents in such a way as to make them informative and engaging. Bear in mind that the Communications managers do not author the departments key documents, and that these documents are written by committees, by people who are not skilled at story telling, then you will recognise a serious communications problem.

  4. Thanks for the pointer Alex, I’d read it but it was remiss of me not to include it here.
    I take your point Paul, all the momentum seems to have gone out of setting standards, sharing good practise and visible leadership on quality over here. I understand its being looked at, I hope that means something will happen as there is definitely a need for steer from the top.
    Mike you make some strong points. from my perspective I can’t agree with everything you say. There is a strong desire to experiment and innovate, that’s being held back for all sorts of reasons. Not least of these is that we are only really resourced to manage the ‘dreary’ websites via which we are mandated to make available many of the documents departments publish. Departments have made commitments to Parliament that these will be made available online and that takes commitment to achieve. There is a dawning realisation that to do the interesting stuff and meet our commitments we can’t continue to do online stuff on a shoestring. But its not for a lack of desire amongst government e-comms people.

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