Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Do we really need a common look and feel for government websites?

Recently Luke Fretwell over at Govfresh asked the question Time for government to plug into one platform?

While I am a big fan of Luke's and agree with his view that transferring government websites to Facebook, granting partial control over them to a foreign-jurisdiction company, is not a good idea, I find it harder to agree with Luke's point on centralising government websites and employing a common look and feel.

I've never been a fan of the 'one site fits all' approach of the UK Government's attempted Directgov website - or a supporter of the view that all government sites should have a common look and feel.


Because websites need to be designed to meet their specific set of goals within the constraints of the needs and preferences of their key audiences.

Where the goals and audiences are different, the websites need to be designed and operate differently.

Even when the goals and audience of two separate websites are similar, there can be good reasons to solve the 'problem' of usability and quick access to key information in different ways.

Web design is an art as well as a science. There's often multiple ways to achieve a good outcome, not one single approach that is best. This means that a government that did lock itself into a single 'right' website look and feel may find itself in a blind alley over time, requiring a huge shift in design to jump onto a more future-proof track.

When I commented on Twitter about my views I was told that a common look and feel made citizens more comfortable that a website was 'official'. This is quite a useful technique in the real world, where standard uniforms are used in a number of government professions to convey officialness and trust (such as police forces).

However online governments cannot trademark a given 'uniform' design for their websites, leaving it open for others to employ a similar or identical layout in order to mislead people into believing they are official websites.

The best safeguards of 'officialness' are those we already use - a common crest (where legal action can be taken to protect it from fraudulent duplication) and the use of a common domain '.gov' which is unavailable to anyone other than government agencies.

These two safeguards ensure that anyone visiting a government website can be assured that it is owned and maintained by the government in a way that a common look and feel cannot.

I always try to keep in mind that government websites are not common places for citizens to visit. Citizens only go to government sites for specific purposes - to find information on a given topic, to access a service or to report an occurrence.

Meanwhile government web staff visit government websites all the time, particularly their own.

I've generally found that while government web teams can point out all the flaws in their sites, visitors (who may go to the site once a year) don't notice them and often have a much more positive view towards government sites than do the internal experts.

I've yet to see evidence that citizens want a single website for government, at any level. What they do want is to find the information or service they are seeking quickly and easily. Google has become the front door into many websites - including government sites - because it meets this need.

Why should government invest a cent into replicating what search engines already do well? We could better invest our money into ensuring that when people get to our sites that the content is current, relevant, written in plain English and fully accessible.

Touching a little further on the concept of a single central government site, often the structure of government works against this approach anyway.

Agencies are funded separately, managed under different laws and often have restrictions on how and when they can share information.

They have widely different needs to engage the public and generally need to control their own web presences in order to maximise their flexibility when the environment changes.

Moving to a single content management system and single website poses a number of challenges for operational management structures, flexibility and funding.

Do all agencies forgo some funding for websites to fund a central agency web unit?

How does an urgent ministerial need (which requires the equivalent of a website today) get fulfilled in a timely manner? How does the central team prioritise development work, and who has access to content - and at what level.

There's just so many questions as yet unconsidered - even in the UK's Directgov model.

While I hate the proliferation of web sites across government, where every policy or program area, government directive and new initiative often 'requires' a new and discreet website, I think we'd be better placed putting a common framework around when and how government websites are built, and developing a central public list of these sites, than attempting to fit all these diverse properties into a single content management solution, central site and common look and feel.

By all means recommend a standard approach (always put the About link at far right, include a Contact, Privacy, Terms and Copyright page, organise content in relation to the audience, not the Department's structure), but don't compel a standard look and feel or central site.

I predict that many agencies would work around a centralised model, simply to meet the government's explicit policy requirements.


  1. I could live with a policy of "where sensible; all new government sites use platform X with plugins Y & Z; plus skin A/B or C".

    IE: a lot of US sites are just throwing down a drupal installation with a bit of design love ontop of it.

    The benefits in that approach are that some of the plugins you can make mandatory add a heck of a lot of value - ie: imagine having rdfa output of AGLS for 0 effort on the part of a particular government agency.

    The drawback is the introduction of a security monoculture of sorts; but I think it's something that can be managed.

  2. I'd support a commonality toward government websites if only to raise the standards of the worst examples. The fact that some (such as the AG's site) are so horrendous to navigate, while others go without updates for two/three years at a time (ie. election cycles) isn't a good indication of progress on Gov 2.0.

  3. I have mixed feelings about this. When you look at the breadth of government activities and information that needs to be supported, I'm not convinced a common look and feel would make it easier to navigate different government sites. On the other hand, I'm always amazed at the simplicity of a single wikipedia page about an organisation compared to the official multi-page official version that a Web team probably spent hours crafting.

  4. Wow can I just say that I discovered this blog and I think its awesome!

    I work in the NSW public service (used to work in Canberra but it got too much for me:-) ). Im all for the horses for courses approach, I suspect commonality is a dream because

    A. Our businesses activities are all significantly different; and

    B. all our agencies are different. Ie We only have ~50 people or so in our agency and as a result we don't have a dedicated web person. We are supposed to be supported by a corporate division but the reality is that their support is next to none. For me joomla works because its relatively simple, for others even that might be too complex and they might be fine with a wordpress site. For big agencies with full on web teams well I suspect they'd be using dreamweaver.

    Anyway keep up the good work!