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Rethinking the GOV.UK policy format: what our users told us

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: How we work, User insights

We're changing the policy format to better meet users' needs and get people to what they need faster.

Two years ago when departments first moved onto GOV.UK we brought government policy into 1 place for the first time. We had high hopes it would make policy more accessible and stimulate discussion about its effectiveness.

We’ve recently been doing some work to understand how well this content is performing. As well as looking at analytics to understand the behaviour of GOV.UK’s users, we've spent more than 20 hours conducting research with people from the policy profession, media and civil service. And, through that research, it’s clear that the current policy format isn't always effective at meeting needs.

What we learnt

Users prefer plainer, shorter titles

When we created the policy format on GOV.UK, we asked departments to use outcome-focused titles for each policy, to make the government's intent clear. However, our research showed that the current verb-based approach is a barrier to clarity.

It’s unclear what those policies would contain and what they’d consist of - more useful if it was more precise. 'Business regulation' would be more helpful than more waffley titles or 'Secondary education' more helpful than 'improving the quality of free schools'.

Researcher, Demos

Users don’t value the policy narrative

The policy pages themselves each take the form of an introductory narrative, in plain English, to explain why the policy exists, the actions the government is taking and how the government had formed its plan. This was another part of the attempt to make policy more accessible but our research showed that it was often being interpreted as spin, and obstructing access to the aggregation of content under the ‘Latest’ tab.

They are going to assume anything on GOV.UK is hype. I would go to it for papers but I wouldn’t go there for commentary... It’s just government propaganda.

Researcher, London School of Economics

Our users want the documents

We discovered that the audience for policy wants easy access to, and have greater trust in, the policy documents and speeches, not the consolidated, outcome-focused narrative we’d modelled. However, policy professionals aren’t homogeneous: those interested in what government is promising want policy papers, speeches and announcements whilst those interested in what government is doing are most interested in consultations, guidance and some types of publication (such as statistics).

I want a shortened route to the documents.

Researcher, Reform

A subtle narrative can be helpful

It’s important to strike the right balance between giving simple access to the documents and providing the right level of context. Our research suggests that this means demonstrating the important moments in the timeline of a policy rather than offering marketing or duplicating guidance that’s elsewhere on GOV.UK.

It’s looking for those key moments when policy changes.

Researcher, Institute for Government

Policy is both too specific, and not granular enough

Our research told us that our outcome focused policy titles were not helping people. But it also told us that there was a user need for information about particular schemes or programmes within a policy area.

... for me, it would be more helpful to do it by what the programmes are known as eg 'the Work Programme' not the policy objective.

Researcher, Reform

This level of information is often already available within the supporting detail of a policy (although the Work programme isn’t currently modelled in this way). However, individual documents can't be tagged to these supporting detail pages, which makes it impossible to subscribe to a feed of information with such a specific focus.

Adding the ability to follow policy at this lower level would be well received. GOV.UK has recognised the importance of enabling subscription to particular topics or sub-topics of guidance but this is also important for those whose focus is on a particular policy area.

I need to understand policy, see if we need to react, revise training, update guidance.

Early Years training provider

What we’re going to do about it

You might have spotted in recent roadmap updates that we’ve been doing some work in response to those findings. Central to that is the need to 'do less' and remove some of the well- intentioned background text we’d introduced, bringing the documents and specific initiatives into the foreground.

The first thing we’re going to do is to simplify the title of policies.

Governments change, and the outcomes they seek vary but using those outcomes in the title is not helping our users. We’ve worked with the Policy Implementation Unit to identify a new set of names for policy areas that reflect the (mostly) stable areas of government activity. We’ll agree these with departments and implement the change in the next few weeks.

After that we’ll be redesigning the policy format itself on the basis of our research findings. We’ll be sharing these plans with our colleagues inside government over the coming weeks.

If you’d like to help us better meet the needs around policy please let us know in the comments.

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  1. Comment by Antony Hopker posted on

    Working for a 'delivery' agency I'd be interested to see the way that content is joined between the policy pages and other pages in the future, and how you are picturing user journeys working.

    At the moment it doesn't seem intuitive to go from a policy page, even if it is well-maintained, to the documents with the detail users may need, and the more items occupying the top search results, the harder it is to find anything.

    Any input into the policy changes will need to consider this and I'd be happy to be involved. (I'm not sure I understand, for example, why policy needs to be in its own area - could there not be a policy page format type that could be added to a document collection, for example, so it could appear as policy and alongside the 'meat' on a topic?).

    • Replies to Antony Hopker>

      Comment by Alan Maddrell posted on

      You'll be delighted to hear there is another team looking at how the site can join up more effectively - when and how this is appropriate.

      Similarly, the documents list will be considerably more effective at filtering than it is at the moment. That should help people find things.

  2. Comment by Steph Gray posted on

    Really interesting.

    I wonder if there's an element of policy audiences looking for documents because documents is how they've always worked, and not necessarily the best format for meeting an information-gathering need. In fact, searching, downloading, searching/scanning within PDF, copying chunks, copy references, rinse and repeat etc etc is a bit of a nightmare as I've found in the past when doing desk research. Government sites pre GOV.UK had listings of documents, but it didn't make them effective.

    It would be interesting to explore some lateral approaches to that layer on top. The timeline of a policy sounds amazing (like a more useful version of; or the approach Nesta takes to presenting its projects with some highlights and an activity timeline:

    But there are other more creative ways worth testing too, I suspect - the dynamic mind-map format of DebateGraph ( or some kind of console which helps a user collect and extract elements from a set of documents a bit like Evernote.

    Anyway, enough daft ideas from me. Good that you're researching with this group, who have been the most vocally dissatisfied with GOV.UK in my experience.

    • Replies to Steph Gray>

      Comment by Alan Maddrell posted on

      Completely agree that moving towards a publishing model that concentrates on meeting needs rather than publishing a string of documents would be a Very Good Thing.

      Timelines are a real design challenge. It's easy to come up with something that allows the publisher to 'tell their story' but that requires a lot of conceptual effort from users to make sense of. Thank you for pointing out these interesting examples.

  3. Comment by Simon R posted on

    This would seem to reflect a change in the intended users of the policy page. While information for policy professionals, media and civil servants could certainly be improved I wouldn't want to lose the context for the general user.

    • Replies to Simon R>

      Comment by Alan Maddrell posted on

      It's more a realisation of who was using those pages and for what, then refining the offering to better meet users' needs. There will definitely be scope for introductory material. We hope to communicate with publishers about different ways to do this in the coming weeks.

  4. Comment by Francis Evans posted on

    The option of providing'supporting detail' is important. That is the only way we (my team) can get our material onto GOV.UK at all, because our policy area is not deemed to be worthy of a Policy in its own right. So your point that "individual documents can’t be tagged to these supporting detail pages" is a key one for us. If that could be changed it would be a real help to our users.

    I also support the idea of a timeline as a new content type, an optional addition to the policy/detail/latest menu. Just a vertical timeline, like the one in Facebook, where entries can be added by date. That would work well in our policy area (business and human rights) which has evolved over 8-10 years. For NGOs and others specialising in this area (e.g. CSR professionals in companies) the current structure of GOV.UK prevents them from accesing the specific content that they want without getting lots of other extraneous material on human rights generally.

    • Replies to Francis Evans>

      Comment by Alan Maddrell posted on

      Our current thinking about how we might implement a timeline and redesign supporting pages so that they give greater prominence to things that might previously have been overlooked sounds like it could help you get your content out to your users.

      We'll be sharing more about this in the next few weeks.

  5. Comment by Andrew Robertson posted on

    Has any thought been given to publication type 'policy paper'?
    The way publications are linked to one or more policies seems inconsistent (down to individual publishers to decide?).

    • Replies to Andrew Robertson>

      Comment by Alan Maddrell posted on

      Hi Andrew
      This reinvigorated format should help publishers be more consistent with tagging; it'll be clearer what the purpose of the policy is.

      Policy papers remain the main source for where policy itself is published.

      • Replies to Alan Maddrell>

        Comment by Andrew Robertson posted on

        Hi Alan. If you take a closer look at what is published as a 'policy paper' I am certain you will see lots of different things that aren't directly related to the policy. The definition says policy paper includes "white papers, strategies, operational plans, action plans and implementation plans"
        For example, the best practice example feels like it's about how an organisation is working, rather than specifically related to a policy (for which almost everything on GOV.UK would somehow relate to a government policy).

  6. Comment by Dain Morritt posted on

    As a user of the policy level data, and a consumer of some of the policy paper level detail, I can't help but see these changes as a step backwards. Steph Gray's comments above, especially the first paragraph on user types and skills, nail my concerns in part, and I fear that the loss that Simon R fears has already happened. I also specifically miss the Policy entry on the publications filter. Putting some meat on these bones, I see a process issue and also a content and use worry, which I offer in line with your final sentence.

    On process: For an award winning site, with over a billion hits, the "20 hours of research" point is disappointing. I am unsure how many people access the policy area, but my sense is that at a time when we are changing government, now is the last point when these strategic changes should be made. What I saw was an announcement that some research was undertaken, some users consulted and the changes are now being made. No wider or online consultation, no warning to enable users to prepare for the change.

    On content and use: The structure and objective based approach, linked to business plans and objectives. are exactly what business and the NAO would hold up as best practice. Whilst the policies (the 227 on may not be too specific in their objectives (delver x by date y), they are - or rather were, up until the changes above were made - very clear on their direction of travel (increase, reduce, maintain etc). They were also sensibly grouped in to collections. To my mind, the new titles are confusing, overlap considerably with the collections, and lose the essence of best practice; an outcome focus. The verbs did not, to my mind, cause concern, rather they showed that someone had really thought about what a one sentence version of the policy objective might be.

    The whole site, arguable, gets its authority from policy. This policy is linked to government and ministerial leadership and politics. The 227 policies together reflect this government's policy on issues which affect it and its successor. By way of example, the old title 'Strengthening the Commonwealth' (Dec 12) showed direction and scope, whilst its Mar 15 replacement 'The Commonwealth' is now ambiguous, it leads users to have to click and find out 'what about the commonwealth?' and will lead to huge overlap when more commonwealth policy is published. Is this what collections are for or does the site need, as the PASC argues is important for the country, a framework of National Interests or even grand strategy?

    Put another way, you say that some users did not want to see any perceived 'spin', this is to me, another user requirement, with the need to add functionality. Personally I think that this is what Steph Gray was indicating; researchers making better use of google. Instead, functionality that was incredibly useful to internal users, policy titles and descriptions that made policy easy to communicate, have been removed. A step backwards to my mind.

  7. Comment by Jessica posted on

    Hi, just a comment on plain English - isn't there another way of saying 'not granular enough'? I don't think many people use 'granular' and I am only guessing it means 'detailed'!

    • Replies to Jessica>

      Comment by Sue posted on

      I agree with Jessica. It's not a term most people would use.