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The Good – The Bad & The Ugly

News that the UK Government is setting an example for other countries to follow, by having some of the worst possible websites that money can buy, doesn’t really come as a surprise and more than one source has told me that UKGOV scores miserably when its efforts are rated by one or more of the different usability engines around.

Not many people know that the first e-Envoy (OeE) website started life hanging off my own homepage at www.drmoores.com . It’s a long and rather curious story but has something to do with the fact that when the first e-Envoy was appointed, the Cabinet Office wasn’t really up to speed on the ‘Web thing’ and so I helped-out a little, until such a time as they decided which department should have the responsibility for managing the project internally and what software to use. I vaguely remember telling them at the time that the Prime Minister’s own site was an unhappy mess but they wouldn’t have it, which is why this still manages to rank 19th out of 20 "flagship" sites tested against the Government's own guidelines.

The irony in all this is that there are volumes of standards and guidelines being driven out of the OeE and we should, as a consequence boast the best and most consistent government websites on the planet. But we don’t and instead we enjoy a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly and the reason I suspect, is because the Civil Service gets bogged down, both by the equal opportunity-style small print and by the habit of ‘Gov-speak’, a natural reluctance to use simple English, which left me struggling to understand the last on-line form, I completed.

Perhaps poor websites are a consequence of some as yet unrevealed Euro-legislation? I recall once asking the OeE’s Director of Communications why the colours were so awful and he told me that it was to ensure that the partially sighted and the colour blind could also read the information. “But”, I told him, half in jest “reading is only half the problem, you’ve got to be able to navigate quickly and easily from A to B and I keep bumping into complete dead-ends, so a white stick is still required, whether you’re on-line or not!”

I’ll be honest though. The websites we have today may vary in quality but in almost every respect, they are an improvement on those that existed in both central and local government four years ago. At the time, when I was writing a research report called “Enterprise in Government”, you would have been lucky to have found a handful of public sector websites that were more than departmental shop windows which still kept the citizen at arm’s length. Today, though, we have some really good examples of government using the Web to best effect, such as the MetOffice site and at the other end of the spectrum a scruffy collection of failures which demand attention.

The last time I visited the e-Delivery unit, I was told that new guidelines would soon create a look and feel consistency across all the public sector websites. I know that such things take time to achieve but I rather think that we have become so wrapped-up in concerns over presentation of information and even political correctness that we have lost partial sight of what the purpose of providing such information is in the first place.

Government websites should be up to the same standards as those in the commercial world and if they’re not, then someone either needs to be fired or needs to make improvement an urgent priority. As Mr Blair’s own website is said to be worse than most it might be a good place to start.

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