MS Office vs. online government
I mentioned a few days ago my analogy between MS Office and e-Government. Here’s some more detail.
The packages that make up Microsoft Office – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook etc. – all do very different things. Word allows you to type letters and reports; Excel allows you to do complex calculations and structure data logically; PowerPoint allows you to create slides for projecting or handing out, etc.
Despite the fundamental differences between the aims of each of the individual pieces of software, their respective interfaces share behaviours and characteristics. If you want to make something bold in most of the packages, there’s a handy B button in the toolbar, or failing that, it can be done via the Format menu item. File functions (New, Open, Save, Save As) can all be accessed through the File menu item, always on the left, and generally a drawing toolbar can be found at the bottom of the application. This commonality cuts across menu items, short-cuts, toolbars, behavioural features to name but a few.
This is how government should be online. The functions of departments are very different from one another, as are the information and services that they offer online. There are departments mainly focused on policy (e.g. the Department of Health) and others that are more focused around interactions with people and businesses (e.g. HM Revenue and Customs). Similarly, there are local sites and central sites, each type serving a different purpose.
Despite the differences in their mandates, there should be common elements that are shared by all sites. Search should operate in the same way across the board, using the same nomenclature. Navigational modules should have certain areas of commonality, the main differences being their contents rather than their behaviour. And accessibility should be delivered in a consistent way as opposed to everyone trying to meet the standards using their own interpretation of the rules and their own method of implementing.
Imagine how frustrating it would be if each of the packages in the MS Office suite in itself served its purpose, but was fundamentally different from its counterparts; if you could successfully save a file in each of the packages, but in Word, you did it from a File menu item on the left, whereas in Excel, it was from the Save menu item on the right. (Even Mozilla Firefox, whose most ardent competitor is Microsoft, knows it makes sense to have File, Edit, View and Tools in its menu bar.)
This is exactly how the UK government has evolved online, only instead of this happening across half a dozen packages, it has happened across 3,500+ websites. Because of this, when a user enters one site, and then enters another, they have to start figuring out how the second site works, and how to find their way through the maze, from first principles. A Word user who uses Excel for the first time has a significant head start; likewise, a BBC News user can easily figure out the BBC Sport site.
Unfortunately, the only way I can see of realistically achieving a good degree of commonality across the board is to mandate it rather than encourage it. Central government needs to define clear standards and get hard on .gov.uk site owners in their implementation of these standards; maybe it’s even a way of decimating the number of sites out there.