Alphagov – in which we remove potential threats of leopards.

“But the plans were on display …”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Arthur Dent and the building officer, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I think we have all experienced moments like this when searching for information online. My current project, Alphagov (the alpha / prototype / cardboard-washing-up-liquid-bottle-stickybacked-plastic test of a Government Single Domain) taken from a user experience point of view, is about ensuring citizens’ interactions with Government (and that’s pretty much all of us at one point or another, what with Passports, Driving Licenses, Pensions, Car Tax and Income Tax) are as painless as possible. Less ‘Beware of the Leopard’.

My role in this, as content strategist, is to dig for the rich treasures from current Government sites to demonstrate what good content can do if allowed to operate without the restrictions previously in place (like a dead cutoff of 750 words for an article?!!).
The content we are adapting from Directgov and Business Link for our demonstration is, on the whole, well-written but trapped in an awkward information architecture propped up by a miserable system for managing the content (note, I don’t say CMS). I sincerely feel for *every* one of the writers and editors that had to work around these site’s horrible constraints.

There are also currently several layers of fluff around many of the need-to know topics that only Government can (should) tell you straight, partly because of the structure above. Alphagov has a single-minded focus of ‘who is using this and why?’, which allows me to give a three sentence answer to a particular question that search analysis has shown to be, ahem, frequently asked and not have to sink it into an article on a related topic and hope people can find it. We are more than happy that Google is our home page and we want people to be able to ask questions, in their own words, and find the answer they are looking for – either via a tool, or specific, lean content.

So, some further information for those interested.

What do you mean ‘Alpha’?
We are trying an idea out, that of a single domain Government website that could potentially encompass everything Government needs to do with and inform its citizens, businesses’, lobbyists etc, but we aren’t making anything that we expect to be used ‘properly’. It’s certainly not replacing anything.

So, what is happening to it then?
Unusually for an alpha, it will go live so people can poke and prod and point out our mistakes, but this is like the first iteration – the ideas we would put forward for a first round of testing are going to be tested by live people with an interest. Anything beyond that is out of scope for this project. It may be pushed forward to a beta where things are created, tested, trialled and so on for real but that isn’t anything I know anything about and I wouldn’t necessarily be involved.

Why is this project special?
I guess that depends on your background. If you come from the web agency world, then it’s pretty much standard agile development stuff and we’ve had the usual hiccups of getting content and design in at the right point of a sprint, some sprints have gone better than others, it’s easier for Paul and I now we have established our ground rules for the content and design elements, our project manager is a saint and our development team are geniuses. Just that it’s for, you know, for the UK Government.

If you’re from a Government digital services background then you’ll be aware of Martha Lane Fox’s report on which our work is based. You’ll know the word radical was used. And so it is, in the scheme of Government work. Leaving aside the ‘how is it developed’ and ‘what technology are you using’ questions (which become part of the problem and explanation), the frustrating part is plenty of people before Alphagov could see the problems and probably a good few of the solutions too. They were not able to act on them (and many have privately told us of their struggles). And they probably feel like, well, like how everyone feels when the consultants waltz in and say exactly what you’ve been saying for the last however many months. We have been given the utopian blank slate that others have only dreamed was possible. To those people, I can only say this: we aren’t wasting the opportunity.

What’s your point?
Alright, alright, hold onto your knickers. I’m getting there.

We will cock up, royally, over bits and pieces and we look forward to the constructive criticism that will follow our Early May release. As an example, I’ve been simplifying language as far as possible wherever I can but I almost certainly haven’t been consistent over the last five weeks, I’ve probably lost sight of a few humdinger typos (the hallmark of my blogging too, *sigh*) and my calls-to-action are nowhere near as refined as I’d like, but that’s okay.

Why is it okay? Because this project is so interesting – it’s the start of something but it doesn’t pretend to be even remotely near the finish. Of course it also has the potential to be the start of something incredible in Government’s interactions with people, putting the individual citizen’s needs above everything else, but that’s for the future. Right now we are building a prototype that shows, if anything, how many of the people before us were on to a good idea.

Every time I copy a well-constructed paragraph or bang-on clear sentence from an article I think “This author really knew their stuff!” and then I’m pleased that little piece of expertise will get a fresh home. Every time I try out one of our tools I think “This is seriously cool.” and, biased though I am, every time I see some of the design come together I think “This looks lovely.”

There is massive potential for this structure – editorially, development-wise, the sense of people working for people. That’s when I wish our project ‘has legs’ but because it will make the work of the people who serve the public easier, so they in turn can do the job they set out to do.

We are trying to keep the user, that is the citizen, at the forefront of everything. This is not radical. This is simple user experience creating. Fundamentally, what we are doing is being sensible. There will be nothing upon our release that will shake the web creation industry to its very core. What it might do to Government digital services I can’t predict. But I am excited. After all, I am a citizen too.

(zOMG! totally forgot. You can keep up to date with the team via twitter @alphagov or the hashtag #alphagov for general discussion)