From Whitehall to Kingsway… my big move forward and back

Been updating my bio and my creds pages this evening to reflect the fact that I have changed jobs.

It’s an overdue refresh. I actually transferred to the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service in December 2011, but I saw out the remainder of my two-year secondment to FCO which. But now I am full time at GDS and loving it.

There’s a proper, serious start-up culture here; it’s an atmosphere I’ve been craving to work in. Everyday feels like a mission to shake things up and everyone is pulling in the same direction with the aim of radically and rapidly changing the way Her Majesty’s Government thinks and does digital.  Continue reading “From Whitehall to Kingsway… my big move forward and back”

On my desktop this week… ‘The Golden Hours’ by Saddo

'Golden hours' by Saddo
‘Golden hours’ by Saddo

‘The Golden Hours’ is a show about two different visions on time, memories and death by artists Aitch and Saddo.

This is a piece (or a group of pieces) from that show. I love the mish-mash mythological styles, especially the colouring, in Saddo’s work.

Check out the rest of the pieces from the show on Saddo’s Flickr page. And here’s a write up.

Feedback isn’t just for Cobain and Hendrix – what we heard from the Inside government beta

This post originally appeared on the Government Digital Service blog

‘I love this site! …This is perhaps the finest example of a government website in the history of the Internet.’
Member of the public

‘What idiot thought a single web site was a good idea? The separate ones are bad enough.’
Civil servant

These are genuine comments at the extreme ends of the feedback we received for the Inside government beta. Over the six weeks of the beta we received a lot more in between, and we were grateful for every last item of praise and criticism.

This post is about how we captured that feedback, what we learned from it and what we are going to do as a result.


We released Inside government as a beta on February 28th 2012, following 24 weeks of iterative development. The idea being to test – on a limited scale – the site that may come to accomodate all departmental corporate websites. The beta ran for six weeks in the public domain and involved 10 pilot departments (BIS, Cabinet Office, DCLG, Defra, DFID, DH, FCO, HMRC, MOD and MOJ).

Inside government ‘department’ page on an Ipad

By releasing Inside government we were testing a proposition (‘all of what government is doing and why in one place’), and two supporting products (a frontend website and a content management system). With this in mind, we wanted to ensure that we captured feedback from the public and from colleagues across government.

We wanted to know if – having used the site – people thought it was a good idea and whether it should be developed further. And besides testing the viability, we hoped that feedback would prove a rich source of ideas and steering on what was important for us to concentrate on in subsequent iterations.

Open feedback channels

The most obvious and noisy sources of feedback were, of course, ‘open channels’ which included Twitter, email, our service desk, our GetSatisfaction forum, and some people even had our phone numbers.

The value of these routes lies in their diversity and because they provided the opportunity for the project team to engage directly with the end users. They were particularly popular with public users, but we were pleased to see that civil servants also took up these opportunities to put forward their views and get into discussion with others.

Here’s a cross-sample of the comments that came in:

‘Love the product! The concept of GOV.UK is the right way to go.’
Member of the public

‘The design feels far more people-friendly, the language (of the site architecture as well as the content) feels like it has the right balance between being friendly and expert’
Member of public

‘I have looked through the test website and I think it is an excellent idea. I like the news reports and I like the idea of one website for all departments.’
Civil servant

‘I think the concept of is sensible but there’s a way to go yet to get this website working well.’
Civil servant

‘Looks very basic and home made’
Civil servant

‘I don’t know why you’d need a new website. Why not just add a section on how government works to (sic)’
Civil servant

Our open channels were a particularly rich source of product enhancement ideas. Examples included: adding a section on the mechanics of how government works, incorporating section-specific searches, and suggestions of what data to include in feeds.

While there was lots coming through the open channels, much of it was granular and from an engaged audience predisposed to take an interest and have an opinion. Highly valued stuff but only part of the picture, and so our evaluation squeezed three further tests into the time available.

User interviews

Inside government should be open and accessible to everyone and we expect the core users to be people with a professional or deep thematic interest in the policies and workings of government.

To get qualitative insights into how these users used and rated, we arranged 12 face-to-face interviews (with professionals from academia, charities, media and the private sector). Each participant knew that they would be asked about their internet usage but they were not aware which site(s) they would be discussing.

Interviews were conducted on a one-to-one basis by a trained facilitator and began with a discussion of how the individual used central government’s current websites. It was evident that although a user gets to know their way around a particular section of a site, when they move off that section or onto another department’s site the inconsistencies present real frustrations.

‘It is tricky because currently you have to go to each department individually and its only done with civil servants in mind.’
Member of public

Department pages on Inside government beta (top) vs current departmental sites

The facilitator then pulled up Inside government. The participants began with a cursory browse and were then set tasks designed to move them through the site’s content and functionality. As they carried out the tasks, the facilitator asked them to comment on how well they felt the site was performing.

We learned that these professionals found the user interface clear and intuitive. There were common criticisms; a number of which were arguably down to the ‘rough’ nature of the beta, but important to heed as the site develops and takes on more content. These included issues with long lists, the visibility of ‘related content’ in columns, and the depth of content (some participants worrying that it was being ‘dumbed down’). Perhaps the most interesting finding being that participants wanted more of a departmental lead in the navigation, rather than the thematic approach that we were trialling.

Fundamentally, when asked, the participants were able to articulate who is responsible for the site, what its purpose is and who the users are likely to be. In this sense, the proposition of Inside government was clear and, they said, with some development this was a product that they welcomed because it would make their work easier.

Usability testing

With insights from the core users bagged, we were hankering after feedback from general public users (who we expect to be infrequent visitors to corporate sections of government websites and who have basic or no prior knowledge of the machinery of government). What would they think of the proposition and would they be able to find what they wanted easily?

Using the GDS’ summative test methodology, we put Inside government to the scrutiny of a panel of 383 users. The respondents were a mix of ages and gender, they were geographically-spread throughout the UK, participated in their home environment and there was no moderator or facilitator.

The tests use a range of measures to assess performance (such as journey mapping and completion times). Participants were prompted (by software) to find specific information (facts and figures) on the site through five tasks (which were tracked) and at the end of the tasks they were asked a series of questions about their experience.

We were pleased to see that on all but one of the tasks the successful completion rate was above 60%, and more than 50% of participants said they found it very or quite easy to complete the tasks. That was a positive overall trend on an unfamiliar and content-heavy site.

Below the overall trend, a few issues of concern were flagged up. Just over a third of participants found it difficult to complete the tasks, especially when it came to finding a specific piece of information on a page. Most participants described the content as ‘straightforward’, ‘to the point’ and ‘up to date’, while some said it was ‘longwinded’ and ‘complicated’. Over 50% of participants said they thought Inside government contained ‘the right amount of information’ but 39% thought there was too much.

From these findings, we were satisfied that in the beta we had build a site usable by the general public, but there is clearly a great deal of work still to be done to produce an excellent ‘product for all’.

Comparative CMS Tests

We wanted to tackle one of the common complaints government digital teams have about their digital operations: cumbersome, convoluted and costly content management systems. So we decided to try building a CMS from scratch that would be stable, cheap to run, include only the functionality required to manage the Inside government site, and be easy to use by even the most inexperienced government staff.

A view of the Inside government CMS

To test what we produced, we ran structured testing in departments, using their standard IT and setting in head-to-head tasks with their existing CMS. The aim was to assess the performance and usability of the beta publishing application, and understand where government publishers found it to be better, lesser or equivalent quality compared with what they were currently using. And, we wanted to get their ideas for further iteration.

We ran tests in six departments against five incumbent products with seven participants, who were from digital publishing teams. The participants were a mix of those with previous or no experience of using the publishing app, and each was given up to five tasks representing common ‘everyday’ CMS functions.

In all but one task, users completed tasks faster or in comparable times. The reason for the slower task was down to the users lack of experience with markdown formatting method (and even then it was only in one specific area – bulleted lists).

Taking into consideration all the tasks they were asked to complete during the tests, the users made positive comments about their overall experience of the publishing app. For most it was easier to use, better laid out and faster than their current content management system because it was customised to their specific professional needs.

‘The CMS is a dream – especially compared with the current [product name removed] system. It’s fast, user friendly and intuitive. It’s also easier to use visually.’
Civil servant

What we learned

We didn’t get to do as much testing as we would have liked. Time was against us. But from what we did do, we learned a lot.

Problems include:

  • Big improvements in findability need to be made if Inside government is to be able to cope with the weight of content from all departments and agencies
  • We need to adjust to make departments more prominent in the navigation and on pages
  • In trying to improve the readability and comprehension of the corporate content, Inside government needs to be careful not to over-simplify


Overall, we tested well and the positives rang out louder:

  • People understood the concept and valued the proposition
  • The site design was applauded
  • The publishing app was lean and easily stood up to the pressures of real use

People were impressed by what GDS and the 10 participating departments had achieved and wanted to see more. No doubt, there is development to do but this thing can work.

Crucially, by conducting these tests we now have benchmarks against which to measure the performance of future releases of Inside government. This data was not previously available to the Inside government team in the way it was for those involved in the other betas to replace Directgov and Business Link.

We will plough the learning into forthcoming iterations and we will continue to run testing regularly and report back on the findings.

If you want to tell us about your experience of the Inside government beta, leave a comment or drop us an email.

Ross Ferguson is a Business Analyst for the Inside government project. 

Time to break down the last barrier to social media access in government

Foreign Secretary William Hague answering questions on the situation in Libya and also on the Arab Spring on 9 June 2011 via Twitter

We’re not short of social media strategies in the government, neither are we short of social media guidelines for staff. But we are short of ICT access and on more than one occasion these social media projects have hit this same frustrating [fire]wall.

Organisations restrict access to social media for a number of reasons. The most common are concerns about creating security vulnerabilities, incurring spiralling technology costs, opening up reputational risks, losing sensitive data and suffering dips in staff performance (as they log on to watch the latest hilarious random video lulz).

It’s obvious that governments are particularly sensitive to these concerns and that this has caused them to be slower than other organisations to take advantage of social media. These days this lethargy is a problem for more than just digital teams; increasingly its policy and service delivery teams that are feeling frustrated by the blocks on their access.

Currently it is more common for access to be restricted than open. But there are a number of ways that the innovative people of the Civil Service have found ways to get the access they need –  be they in media, marketing, research, policy making, consultation, engagement, service delivery or even ministerial roles. These workarounds include:

  • Allowing staff to use their own devices – they would have it on them anyway but it does mean that they have to pay for it out their own pocket
  • Whitelisting domains – sometimes it is the stripped back mobile versions rather than the ‘full fat’ versions that get the OK
  • Permitting access through gateways, portals or virtualisation – it’s overcomplicating but it’s something
  • Monitoring and throttling usage – to encourage respectful use and keep costs down but breeds resentment
  • Requiring a business case – perhaps a bit over the top just to get real time information
  • Providing standalone machines – not terribly green or cost effective
  • Installing secondary browsers – to enable use of social web channels that couldn’t be accessed on the old browsers used as standard in depts

Continue reading “Time to break down the last barrier to social media access in government”

After the watershed – five reasons why nothing can be the same since the launch of

GOV.UK 100 days signed sign by @psd
GOV.UK 100 days signed sign by @psd

On February 28th the hangar door of Aviation House opened and gov.UK/government took it’s maiden flight. It might not be up there with what happened at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but this will go down as a decisive event in the way government publishes and engages – digitally or otherwise.

Inside government is the second part of the GovUK beta to go live and although in the history books it will all rightly be discussed as one and same, for me at this stage in the development /government is the most radical and exciting part.

Your best guide to the project and the site is Neil Williams, the product manager. But before I lose you to him, you might spare me just a couple of minutes to share an unofficial insider’s view (someone who has worked with, for and now in digital teams in the government; a hard-boiled sceptic, now convinced through first-hand experience of the gov.UK project)

So here are five reasons why I think the release of the Inside government beta is a watershed moment:

Continue reading “After the watershed – five reasons why nothing can be the same since the launch of”

I’m not dead, I’m a dad


When a ye olde colleague emailed me with the strange question, ‘Are you dead?’ I replied, ‘No, I’m a dad’.

He was asking because I hadn’t blogged since Pixie Lott was number one, and he was disappointed because he found my blog had been one good way to keep up on digital in government.

I told him that it was simply that I now had additional responsibilities at home in the form of a bouncing baby boy. And, when Ben was taking a break from bouncing to finally go to sleep, blogging was really quite far from my thoughts.

Still, if I was going to take his flattery I also had to take his point and get posting – check – even if I’m slightly cheating by riffing on what I emailed back to him in the form of four recommendations for blogs that cover central government’s use of digital.

I picked my recommendations based on the fact that I like reading them and they have posted regularly through the year offering genuinely unique insights. So well done them.

Continue reading “I’m not dead, I’m a dad”

On my desktop this week… ‘Untitled #20’ by Filip Dujardin

'Untitled #20' by Filip Dujardin
'Untitled #20' by Filip Dujardin

This is my favourite from a series called ‘Fictions’ by digital artist, Filip Dujardin.

His architectural creations are from a parallel dystopia. Unemcumbered by the laws of architecture, he has constructed completely original building dimensions and layouts, which are nonetheless distrurbingly familiar.

You can tour the rest of ‘Fictions’ at

Recommended reading… the quantified self, BBC’s multi-lingual websites and British attitudes towards UK’s international priorities

'On the platform, reading' by moriza
'On the platform, reading' by moriza

People still read, right?

‘The Measured Life’ by Emily Singer in Technology Review

Whether it is to get fitter, better or just to have a go at hacking the human condition, people are beginning to turn ‘big data’ technologies on their sleep, diets and productivity. Athletes and sufferers of certain medical conditions have been at it for years, but evidently the ‘quantified self’ is going mainstream and it’s bound to be big business.

‘BBC World Service Language Websites: user experience and typography’ by Kutlu Canlioglu on BBC Internet Blog

The FCO publishes in 50+ languages on our platform and in 20+ languages on the social web. We know a thing or two about multi-lingual publishing. But there is still an awful lot we can learn from the way the BBC Worldservice approaches publishing its non-English websites. What I find impressive is the way the Worldservice provides custom editorial in so many languages yet maintains consistency in user journeys and page layouts. This blog post is about how they do it.

‘British Attitudes Towards the UK’s International Priorities’ by Robin Niblett for Chatham House and YouGov

This is the second survey of British attitudes towards the UK’s international priorities that Chatham House has developed with YouGov. The survey examined the attitudes of two groups – the first a representative sample of GB adults, and the second a group of ‘opinion-formers’. The differences between the two are fascinating but what is truly revealing are the discontinuities in the public’s thinking about foreign policy. The ultimate conclusion, for me, is that there is a lot of communication and engagement that needs to get a lot better.