I like it when big organisations are bold enough to experiment in public to learn how they can improve their services. And I like it even more when it’s government that decides to step up to the mark.
The current work on Alpha.gov.uk, a prototype of what a future website for online government services might look like, is a breath of fresh air.
Built in just a few months by a small team at the Cabinet Office, Alphagov is aiming to make real sense of Martha Lane Fox’s attempt to revolutionise the way government designs and delivers its services.
Behind all this is a strong digital-by-default mantra, a presumption that future public services will be designed to be digital from the ground up.
Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve been here. In 1996 Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine wanted online services to become the default channel. In 1999 a Cabinet Office report recommended a government portal for all online services and by 2001 it was in existence, nicknamed, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as the ‘Portal for the People’.
By 2002, Directgovwas billed as a replacement, and was intended to become “the place to turn for the widest range of government information and services”.
All of which sounds very familiar. But getting too obsessed with the idea of a monolithic government website can also miss the point. Part of the original vision was always to ensure that online public services should appear where they would be most useful to people.
So information on vehicle tax, MOTs and so on should be seeded into third-party sites such as Top Gear and tax information would pop up on bank sites.
It’s still early days, but I’m confident that the Alphagov team are building an open platform that supports the re-use of data and open interfaces as a core requirement. And this transparent way of working — iteratively, quickly, effectively and in public — is an important step. Engaging users throughout the lifecycle of digital services is a fundamental principle of good user design.
The real challenge will be to sustain this level of energy, agility and innovation over the longer term. Much has been learned over the last 15 years but the cultural issues of trying to move government to a model of digital-by-default have always been the biggest hurdle.
So the fact that government has given Alphagov the freedom to work in this public, citizen-focused way may turn out to be the most significant change of all.
Jerry Fishenden is a director of the Centre for Technology Policy Research