News that the UK Government has some of the worst possible Web sites that money can buy doesn't really come as a surprise. One source has even told me that the Government scores miserably when its efforts are rated by one or more of the different usability engines around.
Not many people know that the first e-envoy Web site started life hanging off my own homepage at www.drmoores.com. It's a long and rather curious story but has something to do with the fact that when the first e-envoy was appointed, the Cabinet Office was not really up to speed on the "Web thing". So I helped out a little, until such a time as the Cabinet Office decided which department should have the responsibility for managing the project internally and what software to use.
I vaguely remember telling the people responsible at the time that the Prime Minister's own site was an unhappy mess but they wouldn't have it, which is why this still manages to rank 19th out of 20 "flagship" sites tested against the Government's own guidelines.
The irony in all this is that there are volumes of standards and guidelines issued by the Office of the E-envoy and we should, as a consequence, boast the best and most consistent government Web sites on the planet. Instead we enjoy a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. I suspect this is because the Civil Service gets bogged down, both by the equal opportunity-style small print and by the habit of "Gov-speak", a natural reluctance to use simple English. All in all my experience has left me struggling to understand the last online government form I completed.
Perhaps poor Web sites are a consequence of some as yet unrevealed Euro-legislation? I recall once asking the Office of the E-envoy's director of communications why the colours on his department's site were so awful. He told me that it was to ensure people who are partially sighted or colour blind could also read the information.
I'll be honest though. The Web sites we have today may vary in quality but in almost every respect, they are an improvement on those that existed in both central and local government four years ago. At the time, when I was writing a research report called Enterprise in Government, you would have been lucky to have found a handful of public sector Web sites that were more than departmental shop windows. Today, though, we have some really good examples of government using the Web to best effect, such as the MetOffice site, and at the other end of the spectrum a scruffy collection of failures that demand attention.
The last time I visited the e-delivery unit, I was told that new guidelines would soon create a look and feel consistent across all the public sector Web sites. I know that such things take time to achieve but I rather think that we have become so wrapped up in concerns over presentation of information and even political correctness that we have lost partial sight of what the purpose of providing such information is in the first place.
Government Web sites should be up to the same standards as those in the commercial world and if they are not, then someone either needs to be fired or needs to make improvement an urgent priority. Mr Blair's own Web site might be a good place to start.
What is your view?
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Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.