NAO report – a missed opportunity

I’m a bit behind the curve on this one, because I could never get the time over the last week or so to actually finish it. But now I’ve got to the end of the NAO report on government websites, I can’t help feeling that it was a real missed opportunity.

Most of the coverage it received was pretty negative and although the report is quite well balanced, its inference is that government is nowhere as good as it could be in its online activity. I’m no apologist and recognise that government web provision could be a lot better. But the media was bound to look for good (read: bad) headlines and they found them quite easily.

Statements like ‘the overall quality has improved little since 2002’, ‘search engines remain ineffective’, and ‘stringent accessibility standards are not always being met’ don’t help and paint a rather pessimistic picture of how it is.

Contrast this with ‘ there are indications that government web provision became more comparable with the best private sector websites in the period 2003 – 04’, ‘they (websites) are rated reasonably well by respondents’, and ‘the majority of government sites have quite similar and effective levels of functionality and design’.

All these seemingly contradictory comments are made in the space of just one page.

My personal experience is that government web teams have worked hard to improve the technical, presentational and content side of their websites over the last few years. Certainly the vast majority of sites are a great deal better than they were five years ago. Yet the impression that the report gives is one of poor quality with little regard for standards or costs. I’m not the only one to think that government is at least trying to do the things its accused of not.

The report’s methodology in estimating the cost of government web services also worried me. Around 15% of organisations responding to the reports authors didn’t give usage figures or costs for the sites. The report claims that this means they don’t have them. But there might be many reasons why they weren’t supplied. The questionnaire could have gone to the wrong place for a start and some departments are big enough for requests like that to fall into a hole. In any case, the statistics for central departmental sites are pretty much public domain as there are regular parliamentary questions answered about the very subject.

But this all gets translated into ‘15% don’t know how much their sites cost’ and so the NAO uses a very broad estimate to reach its £208 million. As a hard number it doesn’t look great. The NAO does at least attempt to contextualise it in relation to the total cost of government IT. But the damage is already done and the headline is found.

As I said at the top of this post, the report is pretty balanced and its a shame that the negative statements have been picked on. But then it wouldn’t be really newsworthy then would it?

Its worth a read, and I encourage any whitehall webbies to find the time to trawl through it. Somewhere in there lurks a government web strategy crying to be let out.

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