For the past few months, Relly and I have been part of the team working with the Cabinet Office on an early proof-of-concept of what the UK Government could do with one central website instead of hundreds. Relly strategised the content, and I led the design. The site is called Alpha.gov.uk, and this week the team of 16 – led by Tom Loosemore (ex-Channel 4, BBC) – flicked the switch and made the prototype available for public use.
We were nervous about the potential reaction to what is a functional but knowingly-incomplete first pass at addressing the huge challenges of online Government. It's unusual for any site prototype to be available beyond internal use, but in a radical move for Government we wanted to be totally open about what we were doing and welcoming of external feedback from the start. We made sure the prototype was clearly labelled as such, and set up a Facebook page for people to leave publicly visible feedback.
Overwhelmingly, the response was incredibly positive. We really couldn't have hoped it to be better. There were obviously questions – many hundreds of them, and most of them curious, helpful and good natured. The team are trying to keep up with responding on the feedback page and the @alphagov Twitter account (and our own personal accounts), but we are just physically unable to answer them all – sorry! Still, we seem to have also an impact with our level of transparency and engagement.
As was to be expected there were a some people who would be critical no matter what we'd done. A few said it was a waste of money, but the Government currently spends £128 million per year on maintaining hundreds of sites, and literally billions supporting offline transactions which would be more efficient if moved online. From where I'm sitting, £261,000 ex VAT (total price of the project) is a worthwhile investment to prototype a replacement (note: it's not an additional website), even if it save just 50% of their existing online costs. Some naysayers seemed surprised that we were open about the cost, perhaps even disappointed as they had relished the idea of a struggle to get it released.
The project received (and is continuing to receive) a boatload of press, and even some journalists who are normally critical of the Government's forays online conceded that this was a step in the right direction, with the caveat that they've seen steps in the right direction before which have been less than successful. I can reassure you that on this occasion the Government have acknowledged previous web failures and decided to manage this project differently.
They sourced experienced contractors to work with them as an in-house team, rather than giving the entire job to an external agency to complete remotely. They agreed to an Agile workflow, which allows more room for experimentation and fast iteration around loosely defined requirements, keeping us flexible as the project unfolded. They agreed to releasing the prototype early and iterating rapidly and frequently – since we put the prototype live we've been able to respond to dozens of ideas and issues, and actually fix problems and release updates to the product sometimes within minutes of them coming to light.
And they agreed to more openness – the team have received requests to talk about the process at a few events and conferences, and are open to more invitations. (interested? email me on paul [at] alphagov.co.uk)
The site has been winning praise from both at home and overseas, and other Government bodies have said they're watching the project with interest to see if there were lessons they could take away for their own sites.
Personally, the last few months have been the most fun I've ever had creating a website. To go from pretty much nothing to a complex working prototype (which is actually better than many production sites out there) in such a relatively short space of time – and get such a positive response – has been wonderful. The team worked fantastically together, and have been a real pleasure to work with and a flippin' good laugh too – I'd gladly work with any of them again and I hope we have an opportunity to do so soon.
Finally, we'd obviously love to read your input, so please take a look at our work…
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