GOV.UK beta

When I left Clearleft in 2010, my intention was to run my own business, not take another full time job within a year. Becoming a civil servant wasn't even on my radar. But after a 3 month contract on the prototype 'Alphagov' project in the spring of 2011 it felt right to be working on something that I knew by then would have a far reaching impact, and touch millions of people – even if it was in a small way for each of them. Alphagov was a proof-of-concept of a "single-domain" replacement for all central government sites, with the goal of being both more successful at meeting users' needs and significantly cheaper to maintain than the sites it could hypothetically replace. Since the prototype was finished last summer the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been formed as part of the Cabinet Office, and I've taken a full-time position working on the real thing.

A week ago today our flagship project – GOV.UK – was revealed to the world. It is a work-in-progress 'beta' test of the website Alphagov hinted at, and we want your feedback.

At the moment it represents only a small portion of the plan, containing published (non-transactional) content which caters for the 667 top user needs – the things most commonly searched for on Directgov, the official website for the UK government. Over the coming year this will grow not only to address more citizen-needs, but also those of businesses, government, and special interest groups, as it prepares to replace the current Directgov, Business Link, and potentially many other departmental websites.

One of the big cultural shifts for government comes in the form of the in-house Agile design and development team we're pulling together (join us!). Even the very day after GOV.UK went live, several updates were made to the site based on user feedback, including making vast improvements to how it looks on a smartphone. This is unheard of in a world where – despite the hard work of often frustrated digital delivery teams in government – a single change request could take months because of the lack of flexibility in outsourced contracts.

GOV.UK on a smartphone
A four-part "guide" on GOV.UK, viewed on a smartphone. Credit for both the photo and the dev work: Frances Berriman.

I'm so proud to be working with people so clearly at the top of their game, the design and development team are awesome, and deserve all the praise in the world!

Another massive change for government is that not only does the site use open source technology, but everything we produce is immediately open sourced and made available on Github. Anyone who spots an inaccuracy in the way something has been built can download the code, correct it, and send it back to us for review and inclusion on the website. This isn't just a possibility – it's actually happening, and GOV.UK already has user-submitted code running as part of the bank holiday calculator.

My role now is as creative lead on online transactions. This is an area where the cost savings are astronomical, not only in the terms outlined above but also by "driving channel shift" – the jargon used to explain making a web-based transaction such a delight to use that people would rather do it online than phone a call centre.

In the private sector, transactions are typically sales. With government it's things like benefits claims, company formations, registering to vote… as you can imagine, this is a huge task and one which will take some time to complete.

We haven't yet released the new versions of any transactions, but I assure you that behind the scenes we are beavering away to make it painless to apply for a passport or file your tax return online (well, relatively painless!). I look forward to the many challenges that lie ahead!

I'll be writing more about transaction design soon on the GDS blog. In the meantime, read all the other great posts there and start following @GovUK on Twitter.

And if you have time, please check out the beta (I encourage you to dip in further than the homepage!) and send us your feedback – the development team are listening and responding with daily updates to the site.

Here's some of the initial press coverage of the beta release: BBC News (including a 5 minute clip off the telly, interviewing Tom and Martha), The Guardian, Wired, The Telegraph, Financial Times, GigaOM, The Next Web, .Net Magazine, The Register, New Media Age, Computer Weekly... and more compiled over at Storyful.