Have I got government news for you?

This post originally appeared on the Government Digital Service blog

Government is a major news source. As central government departments begin the transition to GOV.UK they’ll be publishing their news in a single place, and we have a fantastic opportunity to improve the user experience of this high profile content. Here’s how we plan to start doing that.

Our lead story

The first departments move over to GOV.UK on November 15th, to a part of the website we refer to as Inside Government. It’s the beginning of a shared platform for all government publishing activity, which includes news, speeches, statements by ministers and other forms of announcement.

In presenting this content on GOV.UK we are retaining the best of the current model used across departments’ websites, and introducing a number of innovations that will appeal to existing as well as new and lapsed audiences.

In terms of features at launch, you will see:

  • a section called announcements, where news pages will be grouped with other high profile content, such as speeches, statements to parliament, answers to parliamentary questions and rebuttals
  • news content will be associated to topics and policies, so that the relevance and value of that content is clearer in context
  • on organisation homepages, we’ll enable the featuring of all kinds of content alongside news
  • in our format and style guidance, we’ll encourage organisations to use this channel as an opportunity to increase the ‘signal to noise’ ratio and reserve ‘featuring’ for fewer, higher quality items
How news will look on the new pages

Over to our research correspondent

Large percentages of the world’s internet users go online for news content everyday. Here in the UK, 52% of UK internet users regularly go online for news and government departments have responded by stepping up the volume and prominence of news content on their sites that’s designed to be consumed directly by a news-seeking public.

News content is easily the most regularly updated content on a government website (often as many as 5 items a day). ‘News’ features prominently in most top nav bars and news content gets pride of place on the main grids or carousels of homepages.

To inform the features that will support departments’ news on GOV.UK, we’ve been avidly analysing the usage and user needs for the news on existing government websites and what we found was fascinating.

Given its importance, throughput and high visibility, we expected that the majority of traffic on department’s sites would be to the news content. When the Inside Government team looked at the data, we found that that isn’t the case. Some organisations were getting as little as 2% of their site traffic to the news, and few were getting much more than a third of their users going to the news.

Why is it that so few users of government sites are going to the content that departments value so highly? How might we make news on GOV.UK more useful and engaging?

We ran a user survey on 12 government sites (10 departments and two agencies) between 25 June – 25 July 2012 and received 606 responses.

60% of respondents said they used government news for professional purposes, while 40% had a personal interest. More than half of respondents (56%) visited government sites daily or weekly for news. Respondents were asked how many government websites they visited for news. Just under half (49%) said they visited between 1 – 5 sites, 35% said they only ever visited one, while 16% said they visited more than five.

Asked why they visit government websites for news content, 54% said that the sites were one of a range of sources they used for news about the government, and 24% said it was because the information was not available elsewhere. For 40% visiting a government news site was about getting the government’s unmediated voice.

Finally, we asked what they would change about the news on government websites. Half of respondents suggested simple improvements to content filtering and search functionality, 35% wanted clearer featuring of key content and 22% wanted simpler page layouts. A quarter of respondents stated that no enhancements were required.

Our survey suggests that there’s a hardcore of users who like the government’s online news. But based on the stats, the majority of users aren’t seeing the relevance and are bypassing the news pages and going to other things. They’re almost certainly missing out, because the content is also about the things they do come to read.

How you’ll be able to filter announcements from across government

And finally…

Publishing news on their corporate websites is one way government departments manage media relations activity. But as an increasingly important component in that enterprise, we want the transition to GOV.UK to mark a step change in the performance of news content.

We are very excited about working with departments on that challenge. We will pay close attention to the metrics for the news format on GOV.UK, conduct regular user testing, collate feedback and turn this input into regular product iterations.

We will learn from others who are recognised as doing well in this space, such as the White House, as well as paying close attention to other new initiatives, like the work Made by Many has been doing with ITV.

This is one of the exciting areas of government digital publishing in which we think we can make some quick and significant improvements, starting with the release on the 15th. There’s more to come, and we share the details of that on Inside Inside Government tumblr over the coming weeks and months.

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