Beta testing digital government

The UK Government has released the beta of a new website that could pave the way for true digital Government

When do we stop being impressed by technology? When it gets out of our way, and just facilitates what we want to do. When, in short, it stops being something we notice and it just becomes a tool.

That idea seems to be exactly what the team behind the beta of the UK Government’s new online site are aiming for. The beta of launched yesterday evening with relatively little fanfare outside of the tech community, but a steadily growing buzz. By this evening, the key movers behind it were appearing on the evening news. Why? Because they appear to have got it right. It’s been built by a small (relatively speaking) team, using open source resources wherever possible, hosted in the cloud, and beautifully designed.

This is the team’s own explanation of how they built it:

We’ve used a small team of designers, developers and managers supplemented by micro-businesses when we need particular specialist skills. We’re using open software and tools as much as possible, and developing in the open. The site is hosted in the cloud. Our processes are iterative and agile, we have daily stand-ups and our walls are covered in whiteboards and post-it notes. Which is possibly just a lot of jargon to you. What it means is – we’re building GOV.UK the way Google build Google and Amazon build Amazon.

What makes this most remarkable is that the UK has a terrible record on government-led IT projects. Journalist Tony Collins spent much of the last decade exposing the terrible problems a major NHS IT project encountered, as its cost slowly ballooned to over £12 billion – an incredible amount. And even projects that were generally regarded as successful were showing their age.

Anyone who had to use the previous generation of UK online government services – Directgov – found it a frustrating experience. A complicated path browsing your way through the right Government department’s services (provided that you could figure out which department you needed), only to find that the service you needed couldn’t be done online after all, an that they’d need to send you a form. It wasn’t an edifying experience – it looked and felt like it had been designed by a civil service committee (and it probably had been).

By contrast, this project has been delivered for under £2 million, and in a matter of months. And they’ve been iterating fast. In a blog post this evening they’ve been tallying feedback and the action they’ve taken on it:

(So you know – we’ve had 80 actionable comments via Twitter, 75 from Get Satisfaction and 90 via the email address.)

But for all the attention this project has got today, I’m more interested in where it’ll be in 5 years. Steph Gray expresses similar sentiments in his post analysing the new service: is a stake in the ground – a signpost to something better and some examples of what that looks like, as much in terms of process and culture as in terms of pixels. If it can manage the transition to the next stage, it’ll be onto a winner and we’ll all be the better for it.

Once it’s a frictionless platform between the public and government, what opportunities does that open up for truly post digital governance?