The effort to future proof GOV.UK
Interview: Neil Williams, deputy director of GDS, looks towards changes in navigation, more content going through third parties and a sharp rise in voice searches for the central government web platform
GOV.UK has become a major feature of the government digital landscape, drawing in about 14 billion page views since its creation five years ago, but its leaders in the Government Digital Service (GDS) believe that people will want to use alternative routes for information and transactions with government services.
“We expect people to meet their needs through third party apps and websites, accessing content through APIs, and use technology like voice interaction,” says Neil Williams, deputy director, head of GOV.UK at GDS.
Speaking with journalists at the Cabinet Office Sprint 18 conference he conveys the message of the initial job being well done, but with a need to respond to changes in technology and public behaviour with a series of new priorities. It suggests that central government’s website could look quite different within a couple of years.
He says the first phase of the work, beginning with the creation of GDS in 2012, was the co-location of online government services on GOV.UK, followed by the consolidation of content. This has demanded some complex technical work by the Finding Things team to build a taxonomy with a thematic hierarchy to describe how to group it.
Initially the job was done manually, but six months ago it was speeded up as the team’s data scientists began to work on a machine learning algorithm to tag content and develop the taxonomy.
Taxonomy of everything
“We now have a taxonomy of everything,” Williams says. “In some areas it’s good enough to be used and in others it needs more development. Over the coming months we’re going to get that done to have a single navigation system.
“It’s about having structure for the half million pages we’ve brought together. This is the core business of what we’re doing. By doing that we’re making sure we are future proofing government service delivery over the web.”
This is laying the ground for changes such as new routes to finding the content. Williams points to the building of step-by-step navigation on GOV.UK for life events – a move that was flagged up by Implementation Minister Oliver Dowden as one of the significant developments at GDS – and for a handful have been put in place with plans to create about 400 more.
It is part of a new navigation pattern that he says will emerge as the taxonomy matures, pointing to changes that are already visible on gov.uk/education.
More radical, albeit further into the future, will be an increased emphasis on the ability to respond to voice searches. Williams says that research company Comscore has forecast that 50% of internet search will be made by voice by 2020, and there is a responsibility for GOV.UK to respond. But he is also cautious about how long it could take.
“It’s early and the use cases are not terribly clear,” he says. “We are doing discovery work. By the end of this quarter we will know what we need to do.
“We could build for Alexa or Cortana skills, platform specific capabilities. But we want to do it at scale, for whole of government, so we’re trying to tackle it at this structure for natural search. We want the structure to understand it, and we’re attacking it at the bottom layer of knowledge engines that provide what sits below Cortana and Siri.”
He also talks of a more collaborative approach to developing the platform, encouraging other departments to get involved and work with each other.
“It’s trying to place user first and ignore departmental boundaries,” he says. “It takes a lot of meetings but the results are high impact.”
Underlying this is an acknowledgement that GDS cannot anticipate all of the changes to come in technology; but he says the work on its structure, and the provision of insights into how content is used, can provide the foundation for it to change as required.
Need for data structure
“What we output to the web will evolve and we can’t predict it all. But the thing that will be forever necessary is the underlying data structure, the understanding of what this content is about, and the maintenance of that content, good practice, governance and behaviours around the back end of all the activity across departments to manage their content.
“A lot of our work is there, to ensure there are good people enabled to look after their content well. We’re providing them with the tooling that they need using data insights on which content is important, who is looking at content, and what content is doing well. It’s giving them rich insights so they can prioritise, manage the content well and iterate.”
He also acknowledges that, despite the best efforts to future proof the platform, it will always need a considerable amount of work to keep it fit for purpose.
“It needs continual maintenance. A lot of that content is ephemeral, such as news and speeches, and relevant at the time; but the body of it is guidance on transactional services.
“The first task is understanding what you have to do, looking at data, doing research and making things simpler. That never goes away, it’s a perpetual job.”