alpha.gov.uk – the UK Government releases an agile prototype for a single government website

By courtney in Agile on May 16, 2011

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Last week the UK Coalition Government launched alpha.gov.uk, a prototype of a possible single government website aimed at making government services easier to use. The prototype is a response to Martha Lane Fox’s (appointed UK Digital Champion by the UK Government in June 2010) call for ‘revolution not evolution’ demanded in her review ‘Directgov 2010 and beyond’.

Alpha.gov.uk is an attempt to achieve two goals:

  1. To test, in public, a prototype of a new, single UK Government website.
  2. To design & build a UK Government website using open, agile, multi-disciplinary product development techniques and technologies, shaped by an obsession with meeting user needs.

About the site

According to the Cabinet Office news release, this is the first time the UK government has followed the normal practice of large organisations of launching a prototype test a web service and gather feedback.

At the moment, the website contains answers to the 100 most frequently asked questions in government. The site is focused on search (including search results tailored to people’s locations) and directing visitors towards high-demand topics.

 

alpha.gov.uk homepage

The site has been created to test ideas and approaches, not immediately replace existing websites:

it is not intended to be an instant replacement for existing gov.uk sites. Nor does it improve the quality of government’s online transactions – others are working hard to make these easier to use.

What Alpha.gov.uk does do is trial a selection of new, simple, reusable tools aimed at meeting some of the most prevalent needs people have from government online. The aim is to gather feedback on these new approaches from real people early in the process of building a new single website for central government.

It is made very clear throughout the site that this is an alpha release, and, as the strapline on every page states ‘There may be errors, inconsistencies and inaccuracies’.

 

Prototype warning on 'report a lost or stolen passport' page

About the team

The site was developed in three months by a small group within the Government Digital Service, led by Tom Loosemore. Introducing the prototype on the site’s blog, he writes:

If people who are not yet online can be tempted into doing just one of their (typical) 4 or 5 monthly Government transactions online, then that would save the Government – and hence taxpayers – about £1bn each year. That’s a big number.

But, equally important, a gov.uk which is so good, so simple, so hassle-free that it actually encourages people who are not online to get online will save them hundreds of pounds per year – think price comparison sites, cheap online offers etc. And many of those who are not yet online are people for whom savings hundreds of pounds can make a huge difference.

The team is a mixture of government employees and vendor/agency types: half a dozen developers, two search analysts, a product lead, a design lead, a tech lead, an editorial lead, a content strategist, an editor and a project manager.

The team’s blog about the project is an absolute delight, with posts about the visual language, other parts of the UK public service that have been trialling similar approaches,  the technology behind the site, early sketches and more. Team members have also been writing and posting about their work off-site, like Paul Annett posting design iterations to Dribbble and content strategist Relly Annett-Baker writing on her own blog.

An agile, user-centric approach

As David Mann writes on the alpha.gov.uk blog:

we see our project as part of a wider cultural movement with many advocates across government, seeking far more agile, iterative, user-need-driven digital product development.

Recently here at Boost we’ve been reviewing the UK Government ICT Strategy, released in March. One of the strategy’s objectives is ‘Reducing waste and project failure’:

Where possible, government will move away from large ICT projects that are slow to implement or pose a greater risk of failure. Additionally, the application of agile ICT delivery methods, combined with the newly established Major Projects Authority, will improve government’s capability to deliver projects successfully and realise benefits faster.

Among the actions listed in the strategy are:

Given our focus on Agile projects and user-centred design here at Boost, we’re understandably excited to see this happening. If you’d like to learn more about Agile, we’d love to hear from you.