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The Cabinet Office’s piloting of alpha.gov.uk as a replacement for direct.gov.uk should be welcomed for various reasons.
First is the use of agile software development techniques to deliver the project within a short timescale and with limited resources. Second is the early launch of the service to gather public feedback before the full roll-out, which will give those responsible for its delivery enough time to iron out the creases based on user experience.
This demonstrates the extent of the Government’s ambitions to make the most of private sector technology to reform the commissioning and use of digital services in line with the central recommendation laid out by the UK’s Digital Inclusion Champion, Martha Lane Fox, which is, in short, ‘digital by default’. The most admirable aspect of alpha.gov is its simplicity. Hosting every government service from one landing page means citizens will not need to be familiar with the structure of government departments in order to navigate the site, as was previously the case. Furthermore, it will greatly reduce the £120 million a year it takes to run all of the present government websites.
However, no matter how welcoming a front door this represents, it is yet to be proved that alpha.gov will allay the public’s concerns over accessing government services online. The current system can lose the public in a confusing labyrinth of links, many of which end in requests to print out and fill in physical forms. The vision of a simple ‘one-stop shop’ from which citizens can quickly access the information or services they require is, after all, a bold one.
Of course, just as the labyrinth of myth and legend contained the minotaur, so today’s labyrinth similarly has several dangerous beasts that will need to be slain before the maze of modern public services can be reformed.
These threats include:
- Flexibility of service – for this to work it will need to be possible to create and divest applications from the simple to the complex very easily. Based on experience, we estimate that the turnover will be around ten apps a day.
- Universal access – key savings are set to arise from reducing real-world duplication, but with nine million still to venture online, many of them heavy users of government services, how long will it be before we can shift across?
- Making best use of data – commercial App Stores have needed a competitive market governed by undemocratic rules to succeed: witness Apple’s App Store. How compatible is this with public data and services?
The Government is to be applauded for its vision, but if it is to learn from the private sector’s successes in delivering effective online access to services, it should also consider their failures and the key lessons they have taught some of the world’s largest firms. Whether it is the humbling admission by Nokia that it is to abandon Ovi, or the serious data breaches recently suffered by Sony, government should know that online services are not for the unwary and come with the warning ‘here be dragons’.