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GOV.UK’s content operating model: what’s next after discovery

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Content, Vision and plans

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

What’s next?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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  1. Comment by lynner posted on

    Agree wholeheartedly that content should be part of service design. There's a big difference between task-based content that people need to do a thing (service), and things we want to tell people about (comms).

    • Replies to lynner>

      Comment by trishadoyle posted on

      Hi Lynne, thanks for your comment and great to see we're aligning with cross-gov colleagues.



  2. Comment by Angela Moore posted on

    Great read, Trisha. It's really heartening to see the things we all kinda know are wrong being properly identified.

    I think one reason I have littered GOV.UK with content is that it's not clear whether / how we should be using GOV.UK as an archive. What should we keep, how should we keep it (and how do people know what's current)?

    I write a lot of statutory guidance about big government schemes - for example, guidance to farmers about what they need to do to legally get their EU farm subsidies. I almost always lose the html/PDF argument on these. One reason is that the manuals format is still not great - hard to use, hard to publish, hard to print (though we appreciate the work GDS have done to sort the issue of not being able to delete sections.)

    I agree that content teams are still not properly empowered to do their jobs. It's a battle every single time and you're often doing it on your own, without a proper publishing structure or much structured support from senior teams in departments. That Titanic is turning *really* slowly.

    On the divide between professionals and citizens, I think a one-size-fits all approach to content doesn't always work. I get that everyone should have straightforward content based on what they need. But sometimes that straightforward telling them what they need ('Email us your BP5 if you have one') is complicated by (for example) following style ("Email us your BP5 if you have one - that's the form some farmers are sent if they have declared that they can't use the online service because of x").

    Sorry about the essay.

    • Replies to Angela Moore>

      Comment by trishadoyle posted on

      Hi Angela,

      Thanks for your thoughts - really useful, and great to hear the blog post resonated with you. One of the areas we're focusing on is improving our guidance for content designers to make things clearer.



  3. Comment by MarkG posted on

    Just because something is less popular doesn't mean it's necessarily less important. Some things only have relevance to a smaller set of people, or to people in general on fewer occasions. Removing content just because "hardly anyone" is looking at it risks losing stuff that is key information that just happens to be needed rarely.

    By all means, optimise the search and browse facilities to prioritise content that is more commonly viewed. But make sure there are still routes to the more obscure stuff. The people who make the final decision about whether it's useful are not the content providers, they are the content consumers. Even if something only gets viewed by ten people a month, that's still ten people who have a right to access the information they seek.

    • Replies to MarkG>

      Comment by trishadoyle posted on

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comment. To clarify: we don't intend to remove content - for us archiving means making sure it's not confused with current and more relevant content from a user's perspective. But we do need to organise our content better, consolidate the things that need to be read together to get the full facts and make sure it doesn't contradict.

      It's part of making sure the continued growth of GOV.UK doesn't mean a decline in findability.



  4. Comment by Cat Macaulay, Digital Directorate, Scottish Govt posted on

    Agree with the points in the post and previous comment *so* much. Content is delivered to afford a service - if we design the service right we are in a better place to ensure the content we deliver is the right content and designed right. We've made a start on this in Scottish Govt - working across gov depts and public sector (and beyond) bodies who (often collectively) deliver services to start working towards a shared approach to public services design (digital and otherwise) for the whole country since without that joined up service design is not sustainable. Delighted to be able to tap in to your learnings as we do that. And grateful to our cousins in GOV UK for getting us all to the place where we can really understand the problem we need to solve.

    • Replies to Cat Macaulay, Digital Directorate, Scottish Govt>

      Comment by trishadoyle posted on

      Hi Cat,

      Thanks for your comment and great to hear you've made a start on this at Scottish Govt. As always, delighted to help in any way we can and we'd love for you to share what you've learned too.



  5. Comment by Tim Blackwell posted on

    > 73% of the content on GOV.UK is looked at by less than 10 people a month.

    This is not a problem. If scarcity of use becomes a criterion for deleting material - that would be a big problem. If there is a plan to weed less viewed material from .GOV.UK using a top down approach - that would be a very big problem.

    In particular:

    * You can't tell what the future will need access to.
    * You can't tell what use people are making of material downloaded from .GOV.UK - especially PDFs which may be circulated outwith your knowledge or control.
    * You can't tell what the ultimate reach of a document is - I may produce work based on a rarely used document which is then used by many thousands of people. A journalist may produce a report that is seen by millions.

    That said, there is definitely scope for tagging less used content:

    * by its originators or departmental owners
    * to mark scope - in time, in place,
    * for context - context is _paramount_ and historically .GOV.UK has excoriated context


    Benefit claimants entitled to help with paying mortgage interest receive that help based on a notional interest rate fixed by government. Regulations eg [income support]( specify that this rate will be published - at <;

    This webpage no longer exists. Perhaps it was very rarely consulted. Nonetheless, it contained information of relevance to hundreds of thousands of people. I reported the absence of the page to GDS and a redirect was belatedly put in place.

    In general:

    * nothing should ever be unpublished, it's fine to mark content as obsolete - but it should remain _visible_ and be readily accessible via both browse and search
    * everything ^ should be digitally signed, part-works may need multiple signatures - versioning may need multiple signatures.
    * all content should support change notifications
    * errors should be dealt with by supersession, not delete and replace

    ^ 'thing' in everything clearly needs teasing out.

    > There are too many PDFs

    Absolutely. PDFs are terrible. But one thing. When I download a PDF I take control of it, I can copy it to colleagues. It's mine. It has _integrity_. You can't change what I've got. And if I download a second copy, I can easily tell whether its different to the first (though diffs in general on PDFs are a bit ropey). There are hundreds of local council tax support schemes, on hundreds of local authority websites. Generally these are published as PDFs and this is actually pretty convenient. They don't disappear from under you.

    Any new publishing format should support offline use in the same way.

    • Replies to Tim Blackwell>

      Comment by trishadoyle posted on

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your comment. The challenge we're trying to address is making sure all of the content published to GOV.UK is necessary and of a good standard - so written in a way users understand, with a clear, distinct title and in an accessible format.

      We don't intend to delete content, but to archive it to make sure it's not confused with more relevant content.



  6. Comment by Clive Bates posted on

    A few observations...

    1. "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". This betrays a major misdiagnosis. The government's website is also a reference source - no-one would take a dictionary and delete words in it because they aren't looked up very often. So take the example of the Treasury's guidance on the treatment of inflation in PFI contracts - it's hardly a bodice-ripper, but when people need it (not very often) they need to be able to find it.

    2. Policy is inherently hierarchical - a government has major statements, outlining themes and strategies. Then these are rounded out by more detailed policies and finally there is a thicket of implementation detail, consultations, dispute resolutions etc. The problem seems to be that treats these all basically as 'objects' which it then lines up as lists of policies or displays them by date or alphabetically. This leads to incoherent displays of policies that just look random. Test your own 'user journey' by trying to find out what the UK's policy on climate change is. It's not that easy.

    3. The idea of pruning the site to make it more searchable is absurd, and will further degrade the quality of the service. If had a better search engine or better SEO, then this would not be necessary.

    4. Just take a look at some of the most prominent pages - eg. No 10. There is nothing on there about the Prime Minister's priorities for her premiership or the most pressing issues facing the nation. It has her most recent statements but not her most important. The existential issue facing the UK isn't mentioned, but her statement on World Aids Day and a trip to the Gulf has pride of place.

    And there's more to say...

  7. Comment by Jonathan Schofield posted on

    Great article.

    While applying for a gov UX job I’ve experienced deprecated content that nearly took me down a dead end. Only by enquiring about process through email did it become clear it was irrelevant.

    It was an example of cross divisional content that should be marked as deprecated/archived, or removed, or flagged as relevant to only particular divisions.

    Best wishes with getting traction on this challenge.

  8. Comment by Graham posted on

    "We need to move right past an idea of a split between citizen and professional users."
    Do you know yet if this means re-structuring the presentation of content - getting away from having a mainstream section on the homepage and a professional section elsewhere? Or are you talking more about the back-end content production process and improving how content designers use professional content 'within' mainstream content?

  9. Comment by Paul Treloar posted on

    I'd agree that just because something isn't looked at often, it doesn't mean that it should be removed simply on that basis. This is particularly the case for information related to social security benefits, in my opinion, because for all sorts of reasons, people need to know about particular rules, and especially, the rules of entitlement at different stages in time.

    However, at the same time, I can entirely see the case for looking to rationalise content to improve accessibility of information. As this approach moves forward, at the very least, I would hope that an archive of removed content is maintained (as happens with some "old" versions of government webpages now).

  10. Comment by Ian Stirling posted on

    I can't avoid the conclusion that in many ways, for many departments, content delivery was significantly better before the merging.
    Being able to search for documents produced between two dates, from a given provider, is not an alternative to a properly indexed site.
    It relies on knowing what is there beforehand, and is essentially useless otherwise.
    Being able to navigate to a departments site, and then an area of responsibility (whos specific name you may not have known beforehand) and then subsequent pages is a really, really powerful way to find things.

    I personally have - directly due to the change - perhaps viewed a half of the documents I would have before, simply as there is no effective way to discover them.
    Going on to use the lack of use as a reason to reduce content...

    I am regretfully reminded of the Douglas Adams quote "“But the plans were on display…”
    “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
    “That’s the display department.”
    “With a flashlight.”
    “Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
    “So had the stairs.”
    “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
    “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.” "

  11. Comment by Mike Hughes posted on

    There will be some consternation about the proposal for less content but I do think it reveals something about which many of us have known for far too long. The reason so little content is browsed is not because of complexity at all. Generally speaking it's the lack of complexity.

    A couple of good examples.

    1 - Access To Work. At the point at which was created Access To Work documentation needed bringing together. There was a lot of it. Some was out of date and some was incredibly detailed. It was the detailed stuff: employers guidance, excluded items and so on which was useful. comes along and basically removes 90% of that content. What is left is basic, simple, very presentable but replicated in many many places on the internet. There is nothing of substance which might be of use to a disabled person; an employer; an assessor and so on. Funnily enough after people have accessed the site once looking for those materials they are unlikely to come again.

    2 - Carers Allowance - similar message really. All the good stuff? Gone. What's left can be found elsewhere and with more detail; more depth and breadth.

    One could probably do some fascinating research as to the number of FOI requests generated by such nonsense but the key message is that if you want a site to be useful you put useful and detailed content on it and don't spend years doing the exact opposite.

  12. Comment by Clive Bates posted on

    May I continue with more observations on this post (1-4 above)...

    5. "The division between citizens and professionals is arbitrary" - this is simply untrue. There are many expert publications designed for professionals only. Here's one: "Capacity Market parameters for T4 auction for 2020/21, and early auction and transitional arrangements auction for 2017/2018" - this is not written in 'jargon', a disparaging term, but the language that the energy industry professional use. As for simplicity, it should be no more complex than necessary, but not so simple it is simplistic or verbose. There are of course documents that are both technical and of considerable public interest. So in that case, the challenge is to cater for two audiences, not to imagine they are one audience.

    6. "Content is co-located but not coherent". The content is not coherent *within* departments or within policies - the problem is much greater than the cross-cutting incoherence described in this section. That is because the policy content is not organised thematically or following the natural hierarchies that policy forms. Try this experiment: imagine you want to know something about the funding of universities. (1) go to 'Policies' type in 'university funding' select relevant-sounding departments... here is the result: "0 policies containing university funding from Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy or Department for Education". (2) So go to the Department page for BEIS - no sign of anything to do with universities on the homepage, so click on 'See all our policies'. A list of policies appears - the words university or higher education are not listed. (3) Try a general search on 'university funding' but this produces 4,303 hits and not obviously in any order. (4) Give up on navigation and try a Google search "university funding" result is lots of hits related to student grants and finance. (5) Drop the term from the search and you start to get somewhere: for example to this Universities UK guide to university funding:
    The point is that you cannot easily find the most basic policy material on The user journey I just described is not untypical or deliberately contrived.

    7. "There are too many PDFs". How did you determine that? For a substantial document, a fully functional PDF is highly appropriate. It is a popular document format: there is widely-used free reader software, searchable, embeds graphics and photos, consistently printable, can have active hyperlinks, easily created from the government's main office software, MS Office. And it is possible to make PDFs accessible if some care is taken (Acrobat has these functions). Please try to imagine documents of more than 10 pages, and there are many of these. do you really want them in some other form? I want a convenient format, but above all, I want to find them in the first place.

    8."The user-centred culture change that GOV.UK started has been adopted". I disagree. For a certain type of user things may have improved, but for anyone with even a modestly specialist or expert interest in government, the service has dramatically worsened. It is as though the government web presence has been dumbed-down but made to look nice instead. A culture of (superficial) tidiness has come in and destroyed much of what worked better in the past. It would have been better to identify different kinds of user and content and design accordingly.

    The three things the blog concludes with proposing miss the point in my view.

    1. The primary focus should be on different types users and a realistic segmentation of their needs, not on publishers.

    2. The problem is not the enormous stock of content and the solution is not to reduce it. The issue is that it is chaotically organised, and its organisation does not reflect the underlying reality. For some reason, it is difficult to search, even from Google from outside the environment.

    3. While I agree that the organisational ownership of policy is not especially important, I do not agree that there is no distinction between professional and citizen use, and denying this will only lead to more problems. Nor do I think that is the main issue. The key for policy content is to organise the material or navigation thematically and hierarchically so that a user can start with high-level statements or overview material and navigate down the hierarchy to whatever level of obscure barely-accessed detail they need. When the organisation of information starts to reflect the real-world relationships between elements of information it holds then it will begin to function more intuitively.

  13. Comment by Peter Kibby posted on

    Maybe this is obvious, but just in case...
    Categorization is as important for authors as for readers. A common relevance, preference and access model can support different views for different types of user. To get the resourcing to support it requires visibility of the link between the cost of doing so and the benefit. Calling out the current failings is definitely the first (and a brave) step. Next is quantifying them by linkage to a financial benchmark, like the cost already incurred/wasted (easier but only useful at the beginning not as a means of sustaining the budget over the years) or the impact on readers and their impact on the publisher, for example the reduction in incoming requests for information and the cost saved.
    Good luck,