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Thinking big: content strategy principles for government

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We want to promote a common strategy for content teams across government. This is so we collectively improve content quality across government and identify and fix those things that stop us from meeting our principles.

We need all the content teams from across government to help us iterate these principles. We want to know what’s good, what’s bad and what’s missing. Help iterate these principles in the comments or on Basecamp.

Like the title says - we’re thinking big and we want you to think big too.

Content strategy principles for government

1. Do less: only create the content that users need and that you can maintain.

This is the ultimate goal and a really hard one to reach. That’s why it’s our first.

2. Content decisions must be made by skilled and supported content designers

We need the help of lots of people across government to make sure what we’re telling people is right - policy, lawyers and other experts. Content is at the heart of how we communicate with users and we should be involved at the start of any changes or creation of new policies, services and guidance.

3. User need: content is based on valid user needs or it’s something that needs to be published for legal or transparency reasons.

GOV.UK is an active, living website. We don’t want to hide what people genuinely need to know about with lots of stuff they don’t. Analytics, user feedback and evidence can help us determine what people want and need to know, alongside what no one reads or needs.

4. Know your content: audit your content to identify problems and continually improve.

We don’t do everything right the first time. But we can fix things.

5. Have a plan for when content is no longer relevant for users

Some content should be archived and some will live on as a record. Understand what to do with your content when it’s reached the end of its usefulness.

6. Know when you’re busy: plan for peak publishing periods.

We know when these are. We need to make sure everyone else does too.

7. Maintain your content team: have a training plan for people who maintain and create new content.

We must always be on top of new technology and the way people use that technology to interact with government. We need the time and space to improve ourselves so we can make sure we can improve content for our users.

8. Use the best format and channels for your content: not everything has to live on GOV.UK

Be the expert for how government can publish, whether on GOV.UK or through other channels, eg blogs or social media. Know what is accessible and support every type of user. Use open standards.

9. Collaborate: especially with those outside your team, department or agency.

People should have seamless user journeys whether online or offline. We can make that happen.

10. Create seamless user journeys

Help users find content easily, at the right level of detail with no dead ends. Users shouldn’t have to understand how government works to get what they want.


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  1. Comment by Ajay Makan posted on

    Based on experience at Defra where we too often get user needs which don't really make sense, I'd also suggest: 'involve your content team from the start - they can help you formulate user needs and avoid you investing time and energy in content that doesn't work for users'

  2. Comment by Simon Howard posted on

    I'm clearly not in a content team, and I'm fairly far removed from the publishing process, but thought it might be illuminating to share some brief personal thoughts on some of these principles from a frontline health protection perspective. Given that I'm so removed from the process, it's possible (if not probable) that I've missed the point on some (or all) of this, but thought it worth throwing some comments into the mix anyway and leaving to your expertise to discard the irrelevant ones!

    3. "User need"
    I agree with this principle, but it seems to have the inherent danger of favouring popular content. In PHE, there are a lot of documents that might need to be accessed by a single person once a year, but which need to be rapidly discoverable in that scenario to someone unfamiliar with the website. doesn't seem to have a great way to handle that user need, and seems to often view such content as "clutter" distracting from what people need most of the time.

    5. "Have a plan for when content is no longer relevant for users"
    This is something that absolutely needs to be done better, and which doesn't seem to support particularly well. Often, in PHE, it is crucial to have the current version of a document clearly prioritised on the site, but to have old versions easily accessible to all. I haven't seen that sort of thing done well on the platform to date.

    6. "Know when you're busy"
    Agree with the principle, but need to recognise that not all reactive organisations' peaks can be predicted.

    7. "Maintain your content team"
    This is true. But it is also important to be familiar with old technology (which, to its credit, does pretty well). You only need to glance at NHSmail user stats to see the ancient technology that many healthcare providers rely on, and we must make sure that content is easily accessible to those people too.

    8. "Use the best format and channels for your content"
    I agree with the principle on this, but I don't know who is supposed to "be the expert for how government can publish". If, for example, you're asking an expert group to develop guidelines for clinical management of a condition, where is this expertise going to come from? It seems unreasonable to expect it among the guideline group, but I don't see any particular will to fund co-opted publishing experts to such groups.

    10. "Create seamless user journeys"
    I'm afraid I have to confess that I literally laughed out loud when I read "Users shouldn't have to understand how government works to get what they want." This is probably the most frequent complaint I hear from users of the website. People feel that they DO have to understand how government works to find what they want in a way that was never previously the case. Clicking "publications" on that page, for example, takes you into a quagmire of publications from across government. That is not what users expect - they expect a list of PHE publications, because they have come directly to the "PHE website". When people search for stuff from the PHE website, stuff from across government appears. Suddenly, people cannot find the information they expect precisely because it's lost in a load of other organisations' stuff, and people tell me they'd need a degree in political science to understand how to find anything!

    I hope that is in helpful to inform your thinking in some way - apologies again for the bits I've no doubt just got wrong!

  3. Comment by Oliver posted on

    Yes, the content has to be useful and you have to check all facts inside!

  4. Comment by Tim Blackwell posted on

    I'd just like to emphasize Oliver's points 5 and 10. It's often crucial to have access to multiple versions of documents: there are many of us who curate our own minature libraries.

    Point 10. is the single thing I like least about .GOV.UK (and truth to tell I've been pretty moany about the site). The way search defaults to absolutely-star-everywhere is like being punched in the face - it's so obnoxious that the shock momentarily makes me forget that it is *possible* to filter.

    On the other hand I'm getting slightly attached to the ludicrously generic search-term spell-assists - in a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way. "Did you mean crouton?", it cheerily pipes up if I search for Croydon. I kind of wish I did.

    • Replies to Tim Blackwell>

      Comment by John Ploughman posted on

      The filtered-search point is an interesting one.

      If you had filtered-search switched on by default, and searched on DVLA's homepage for 'driving test', you'd actually end up in a worse situation. Because DVLA doesn't provide driving tests - it's done by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).

      Looking through search analytics, it's clear that users don't always know which organisation provides the service they are looking for - or think they do, when actually they don't.

      Finding the balance is going to be tricky.

    • Replies to Tim Blackwell>

      Comment by Richard Boulton posted on

      To expand slightly on John's comment - we're looking into various ways we can filter searches better based on context. In some cases, filtering by organisation will serve most users well, but in others the appropriate filter might be a group of organisations, or to not filter at all. And quite often (based on the analytics we see), some users will want a filtered set of results, and other users won't.

      For the cases where it's not clear what the best filter is to apply automatically, one approach we're investigating is to show a sample of results with a filter applied, followed by a sample without the filter applied. There's some user research happening shortly on to investigate how to apply this idea to searches within manuals (such as the HMRC manuals), and I'm keen to expand this to cover more general searches on the site.

      As we increase the quality of categorisation of content on the site, we might also serve users better by applying filters based on category of content in many cases. We'll be trying out many of these approaches over the coming months, and blogging about our findings as we go.

      • Replies to Richard Boulton>

        Comment by Tim Blackwell posted on

        Thanks for your replies, Richard and John.

        I take your point of view, but I would really be astonished if significant numbers of users are taking the trouble to navigate to a departmental site and then searching for things elsewhere. That said, it's encouraging to hear that efforts are being made to improve search and filtering, and I do understand that the single domain brings particular challenges - especially if you're trying to categorise from the top down.

        In the past, it was easy to search departmental domains via google etc, non-specialist (not entirely happy with this term) content being hosted separately on As a very partial solution, I made a trivial front end to .GOV.UK search which just applies the relevant filters for the departments I'm interested in. It doesn't exclude the GDS managed content, however, which would require scraping all search results - which may run to several pages - and excluding those with GDS breadcrumb sequences.

  5. Comment by Tim Blackwell posted on

    Apologies, I meant Simon's points, not Oliver.

  6. Comment by Tim Blackwell posted on

    Two more thoughts in direct response to Liz.

    It would be a good content strategy principle - perhaps the zeroth one - for every item on the non-specialist .GOV.UK to be signed off and vouched for by somebody with genuine domain knowledge - and with the authority to veto the publication of misleading information.

    Such a principle might protect us from the publication of content like the section on 'Effect on other benefits' at

    This has apparently been updated several times, but none of the errors I reported a long time ago has been fixed - including errors which could easily mislead people into thinking that it's not worthwhile claiming.

    My second thought is that because .GOV.UK makes it so challenging to find things, many of us have squirreled away small hordes of documents, mostly PDFs. Use of these will obviously not contribute to your site stats, perhaps leading to content dying before its time.