Antony Hopker is Strategic Communications Manager at Education Funding Agency, which manages £54 billion of funding a year to support all state-provided education for 8 million children aged 3 to 16, and 1.6 million young people aged 16 to 19.
We were one of the first agencies to start the GOV.UK journey last year and I’m sure a lot has changed since then, so I’m not going to go into each part of the process as it will be different for you.
Overall we saw transition as akin to moving house. It was an opportunity to throw out some stuff we’d been meaning to get rid of. The paperwork took longer to complete than we thought it would. Packing was easy at first and then we got to the awkward shaped lamp that wouldn’t fit in a box. And when we moved, we realised we could use some of the rooms differently than we first expected.
Transition definitely gave us the chance to talk to people in our organisation about content and gave us some levers to make them think differently.
Framing the discussion in terms of ‘what are the user needs’ was really helpful. Once we understood acceptance criteria, it really focused the way information should be structured. Once we started using publisher we really got to grips with the possibilities offered by the different content types.
It’s a thought process that will carry on. With changes to GOV.UK, with our increased understanding and the fact that most of our material is reviewed annually, I wouldn’t be surprised to revisit most items two or three times in the next year.
We did find some parts difficult. At times it felt like we had to prove wheels are round, because we weren’t used to finding data to prove the processes that run the education system needed to be there. Our first set of user needs were well structured thematically but didn’t match the way our business works, our content is written, or the way our customers think. That made matching the data to the need tricky. It came about because we have a number of core functions that we carry out in slightly different ways for different audiences and led to a late flurry of activity before go-live.
Our transition manager offered support, advice and advocacy throughout, and took fair challenge – it felt like a partnership. We were very happy with the end product. Everything looks and feels nicer, we’ve not had any negative feedback from users yet – our customer survey in May will prove a greater test - and we can see the journey ahead. EFA has a programme of improving customer service and its digital transaction, and GOV.UK is helping lead that change for us.
My top tips to help you prepare for transition
Know your content. If you are the transition lead, you need to understand what you have and why. If you work in a large or federated organisation, you may not have had sight of everything in the past.
Know your users. We are a business-to-business organisation and know our customer base, so that makes it easy, although we’re always trying to understand their habits and improve our service. But to frame their needs in GOV.UK terms can be tricky unless you really have a feel for what purpose your content is serving.
Really know your content. At each stage of transition I learned more about the intricacies of our business, which made me realise why some things had to be a certain way, and how other things could be improved.
Start using the style guide now. We had a good run-in to this, adopting the style guide at our department web team’s behest several months before we started transition. Some of it was a bit odd to us at first, some of it was clearer. But it was mostly drummed in to us by the time we started uploading content in earnest, which was a big help.
Did I mention knowing your content? We had a good spreadsheet mapping our content, but we hadn’t listed the documents that related to it as well. That caused a bit of angst at transition time.
Enjoy it. You will have had different experiences and degrees of love for your existing website, but we found publisher a dream, and the team at GDS always willing to listen, help and adapt.
Talk about it - a lot. I made sure every comms colleague had some exposure to GDS so they felt ownership, and I bored the senior leadership team with mention of it, just so they weren't surprised when I said to them: "You really can't have that 28 page FAQ on the new website".
Think ahead a little. Having an eye on the end goal is always important, and to switch analogy, you don't want to spend ages building a nursery without thinking how the new baby will change your life and what it might want.