I’m Trisha Doyle, the Head of Content Design for GDS, and I want to tell you about our work on GOV.UK’s content operating model, following on from Neil Williams’ blog post about it a few months ago. I wanted to talk more about where we are now that we’ve completed discovery.
But first, some background. The way we’re working at the moment (that’s everyone in government creating content and publishing it to GOV.UK) helped make transition, and GOV.UK, happen. But things have moved on since then and it’s time to look at how we can do things better.
Government has a content problem
Readers of this blog will know that one of the biggest problems faced by GOV.UK’s users is difficulty finding the things they need on the site. We’ve got a team - aptly named ‘Finding Things’ - which has been working on how to address this problem. Part of the answer is to build better search and navigation for GOV.UK - which the team is doing now.
But their research has revealed - conclusively and repeatedly - that the problem isn't just the site's ‘finding’ functionality, but also the sheer volume and low quality of all the things.
We could build the best search and navigation in the world but if there’s lots of content that’s poorly titled, duplicative and written in a way our users don’t understand, they will never find what they need to complete their task.
There’s a lot of content on GOV.UK. At our last count, GOV.UK has over 300,000 items of content and over 250,000 downloadable files on it - and it keeps going up.
Across all central government, we’re adding 2,500 items of content a month and 2,600 new files. Of course government has a legal duty to publish certain things, and we have a responsibility to be open and transparent, but we can do that better.
A reasonable question might be - “well, what’s the problem with lots of content if it’s being used?” The trouble is, it’s not.
73% of the content on GOV.UK is looked at by less than 10 people a month. That’s a problem because civil servants’ time is being wasted producing content hardly anyone is looking at and users’ time is being wasted sifting through hundreds of pages on the same topic.
And because content teams across government don’t have time to maintain their content - instead they’re being asked to produce and publish all that new content - it means content becomes inaccurate, and old content gets mistaken for current. And when users can’t find what they need to know, understand it or trust it, they make mistakes and hit the phones.
And we know the term ‘contact’ is searched for a lot on GOV.UK, more than passports. So there’s lots to be done to help our users. Our research revealed a lot and we’ve distilled it down into 7 themes which will help us decide what we do next.
- GOV.UK’s approach to content remains important.
We - as government - did a big thing a few years ago. We put users at the heart of what we do, and it made a difference. Having a central team with a cross-government vantage point, uniquely able to put users first is a really good thing.We know our community building events are valued, as well as the evidence we provide for decisions and the standards we set.
- The division between citizens and professionals is arbitrary.
Our content operating model is designed so that the central GOV.UK content team manage content aimed at citizens (around 3,000 pages), using a CMS built for that central team’s workflow, and government colleagues manage the rest (now over 300,000) in another CMS built for collaborative devolved publishing.The split was appropriate for the transition of government’s websites to a single domain, but it’s not helping our users who need to complete a task. For example, users could start on a ‘mainstream’ (citizen-facing) guide, but to complete their task they end up in a 70 page PDF written in departmental specific language and jargon.Users - regardless of being a professional user or not - have a clear need to understand how to do stuff, simply.
- Content is co-located but not coherent.
Transition worked - everything’s in one place but it’s far from coherent. Almost without exception, content was and is produced by departments and agencies in isolation of one another. So it makes sense to government but it’s really hard for users to navigate.We need to do the hard work to make it simple, so users can find what they need easily and complete their tasks.
- Publishing isn’t really digital by default.
Government publishing operations are optimised for high volume, time-pressured comms and policy output. We - as government - are still operating from a paper-based, traditional and reactive process that’s not really digital.Our guidance to publishers doesn’t spell out clearly enough what good looks like. And our tools don’t make it as easy as it could be.There are too many PDFs and we know they’re not great for accessibility, but it’s hard to change behaviour when the alternatives aren’t yet simple or intuitive enough to use.
- Content designers have a really hard job.
In some of the research interviews, I’ve heard content designers compare themselves to expert negotiators: they’re seen as GDS in their department, but held responsible for their department by GDS.Right now, our content operating model is based on a number of assumptions: that the single point of contact (or ‘GOV.UK Lead’) for an organisation has an overview of everything the department is publishing, that they’ll have the seniority and authority to push back on things that aren’t right and that they’ll understand how to navigate the teams in GDS and GOV.UK.However, we know support and buy-in varies across government, so most of our GOV.UK Leads in departments are doing a really hard job. Organisations aren’t empowering their teams to do the job that we need them to do. So we need to address that, and make sure we are designing our processes around their needs and creating the environment for content teams to be able to manage their content and make things simpler for users.
- Content needs to be a part of service design.
Right now, guidance content on GOV.UK and services are seen as separate things. They’re often managed as 2 separate things, in separate directorates by separate teams with limited or no interaction with each other or sharing of user needs or goals.Users interact with government to complete a task and that task is sometimes just to find something out, so content is often the only bit of the service they interact with. To really start building coherent services that meet user need, the silos between transactions and content have to be bridged.
- We’re all at different stages of digital maturity.
The user-centred culture change that GOV.UK started has been adopted, but that adoption hasn’t been uniform across departments.This means the environment that content designers across government operate within varies wildly. They have different job titles, responsibilities, reporting lines - and, most importantly, differing degrees of support from their own colleagues. Their levels of satisfaction and productivity vary accordingly.So whatever we do next, it has to be flexible to deal with varying levels of content team skill and maturity. A big part of that is being really clear what good looks like, why it matters and providing the help to get there.
The transformation of GOV.UK started with what you see on the page, but to sustain the change required, we need to reach far deeper into service delivery, infrastructure, governance, planning and in-house capability.
So there’s 3 really important things that help us decide what we do next.
- Our content operating model has to be designed around publishers’ needs. Their work is vital, so we need to do the hard work to make publishing to GOV.UK simple, so content designers can focus on designing content that meets user needs.
- Fix search and browse. It’s all of our responsibility to do this. The only way to fix it is to firstly reduce our enormous stock of content, improve the quality of what’s left and have good governance structures to stop publishing too much in future. We have to find a way to stop doing this every few years - the cost to government is huge, and even bigger to citizens.
- Enable the design of end to end services that transcend department silos. We need to move right past an idea of a split between citizen and professional users. Users - regardless of background - are there to complete a task. Whether that’s finding something out or doing something, it shouldn’t matter to them which part of an organisation is looking after the bit they’re interacting with.The first step in the design of end to end services is to recognise content as an integral part of a service.
We want your thoughts
The project team are working out what the priorities are, and identifying people who can help us run our pilots and shape our model. I want to make sure we know everything about the challenge ahead, so I’d like your feedback. Please comment under this post, send me a tweet or an email.
Trisha is the Head of Content at GDS. You should follow her on Twitter.