Gov.uk: open, user-friendly, agile and cheap - it's the future

The last year has seen received wisdom on government computing turned on its head, the gov.uk launch is a step in the same direction

It’s become almost commonplace to lambast governments over IT projects. Indeed, British governments from both sides of the political divide have been responsible for IT implementations that, in polite mode, would be described as less than effective – we won’t say how they’re described by punters who are less than polite.

This government came to power, promising a new approach to IT – cue sceptical response from cynical critics – and announcing its intention to deliver a more agile and more cost-effective procurement process and a better, more user-friendly digital policy.

And against the natural order of things, everything seems to be working. Last year, it announced an overhaul of the procurement policy that seemed to offer a chance to deliver real value for money. Also last year, we heard the proposals for the government cloud service, G-Cloud, that looks set to become a reality. The G Cloud director, Chris Chant, is sifting through the hundreds of companies who responded to a tender document - far more than expected - and is set to announce participating companies some time later this month.

In the meantime, almost apologetically, we’ve seen the introduction of the gov.uk portal – the replacement for DirectGov, which has been the first port of call for government services since 2004

But, gov.uk is a very different beast: not only is it entirely built around open standards, it has been designed to be a user-friendly as possible, to be platform agnostic (including mobile devices) and, crucially, is hosted in the cloud via Amazon Web Services. This is the very antithesis of usual government projects which are noted for their large teams, their glacial speed of development and the involvement of bureaucrats whose main role appears to be to impede progress and shroud the whole development process in a shroud of secrecy.

In a flash, decades of tradition has been over-turned and the emphasis is on openness and accessibility. Government digital guru Mike Bracken wrote in his blog that the site had specifically been designed for users. “It addresses 667 of the most common and important mainstream user needs, made simpler, clearer and faster for users. So it’s not everything but it’s the most important content to start with. We’ll be improving and tweaking this on a daily basis – responding to your feedback and studying how people use the site.”

It’s hard to convey to non-UK readers how much of a cultural change this is: the whole notion of the civil service has been to as secretive as possible. Decisions have been taken with little involvement from a wider community and - as far as IT has been concerned - it's been the major vendors and the large consultancies who have held sway.

The development of the gov.uk portal has taken government IT in a new direction.  This is not just about the website itself,  this is about a cultural change that will have resonance for years to come.

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