Health

British government's massive website reduction took years

The British government's Web presence was a mess in 2006, with more than 2,000 sites -- no one knew precisely how many -- spawned with scant central oversight and little rhyme or reason about how they were organized, a top official told Nextgov.

"Citizens [couldn't] tell the difference between one part of government and another part, between what is the state and what isn't the state," said David Pullinger, head of the British Government on the Web office. "They [were] completely lost."

Five years later, the U.K. government has slashed its Web presence by 75 percent, with nonvital sites spun off to private institutions or shut down entirely, and the remaining sites consolidated and rationalized under a few master domains, said Pullinger, who led the consolidation process.

U.S. government officials examined the British process closely before launching a similar initiative to massively reduce their own 20,000-plus websites earlier this month, a General Services Administration spokeswoman said. The process included a long phone call between the Pullinger and GSA's customer service chief Sheila Campbell.

To get to where the British are, though, will take a long, concerted effort -- likely lasting through multiple presidential administrations -- with consistent pressure from top government leaders and increased authority for agency administrators to slash and consolidate the sites of their divisions, subdivisions and even advisory boards, Pullinger said.

"I think a lot of people thought this would go away if they just pretended to do it, but [they] didn't really get on with it," Pullinger said of his office's five-year effort. "It's only when they see that successive administrations -- both the Labor Party and now the coalition with Conservatives and Liberal Democrats -- are serious about it and that they both have the same sort of message, then they see, well, we're not going to get away with this."

Most of the British government's Web presence now is split between two large domains: Directgov.uk, which carries the lion's share of the government's citizen-facing services, such as information on taxes, services and speed limit laws, while Businesslink.gov.uk houses information for its businesses.

In the future, the government hopes to pare down its online presence to a single domain with one rationally organized and searchable system of websites and subsites, Pullinger said.

"It could be made up of lots of sites," he said, "but the key thing is the citizen doesn't experience it that way. It's like if you go to a department store online. It's using services from all sorts of people, from delivery to payments to displaying all the goods they have for sale, but it's an integrated experience for the consumer. That's the direction we want to go in."

Both the U.S. and U.K. government Web presence spread with the growth of the Internet throughout the 1990s, with little high-level oversight and with a very low bar for what warranted a new .gov or .gov.uk site.

The result in the United States was sites like couldihavelupus.gov; desterttortoise.gov; and a site devoted to the Fiddlin' Foresters, a U.S. Forestry Service-sponsored string band that President Obama highlighted earlier this month in a Web video dedicated to cutting government waste. The Fiddlin' Foresters site was shut down later the same day.

On the other side of the Atlantic, by 2006, the British government found itself hosting one site advising farmers how to secure their fertilizer against makeshift bomb makers, another teaching 13-year-olds about road safety, and another extolling the virtues of English chips, which competed against other government sites dedicated to healthy eating.

"We had walkingforhealth.gov.uk," Pullinger said. "What kind of people go onto Google and look for a government website about walking for health? It's just not the way you do things."

Many British government departments had lost track of old websites dedicated to defunct advisory boards, he said, and few had any idea how many websites they had or what it was costing them to keep them up.

The British approach involved several key components. Pullinger's office set up a comprehensive archive with screen shots of old Web content so there was no question of -- or argument about --vital information being lost.

It also developed a set of standards that all remaining Web content would have to meet and tasked agency officials with ensuring that only information that is actually useful is posted and that citizens get the level of customer service online they'd expect from a private company.

Most important, though, Pullinger's office created a top-down structure for how Web content would be organized in its new master domains.

Citizen services are now ranked based not on the power or importance of the agency that offers them, but on the number of citizens that actually visit that page, he said. Public service pages aimed at encouraging British citizens to quit smoking and to eat healthfully, on the other hand, are ranked based on a central planning process for how important government officials believe the message is, he said.

The problem of Web-creep is extremely common in national governments, international organizations and even in private sector companies, said Lisa Welchman, a Web strategy adviser to corporations and government agencies, who credited the British government with being ahead of the curve in addressing the problem.

In addition to GSA, Pullinger said, he's advised the governments of New Zealand and South Korea, as well as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme.

"People have been willy-nilly putting stuff up for 15 years with very little comprehensive, horizontal management," Welchman said. "It's just this year and last that I'm finding in the public sector and in the private sector too that people are really hitting a wall and realizing we've got to fix this."

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