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Wednesday, 22 August 2007

DirectGov's new boss

Michael Cross interviews the new chief of central government portal DirectGov, Jayne Nickalls, for the Guardian.

Not wanting to slag off the poor women as she's just walked in the door but this sort of thing is a bit of a warning:
A report, Power of Information, published in June by the prime minister's strategy unit, has questioned the whole basis of the way government works on the web. Rather than trying to control electronic information, it argues that Whitehall should let go, for example, by giving citizens' groups access to (non-confidential) government data to create self-help websites and encourage civil servants to chip in openly to blogs, wikis and social networking sites.

One of the report's authors was Tom Steinberg, interviewed in these pages in January, whose MySociety group fired a warning salvo at the government's ambitions when it created one of the best running jokes on the web: It mocks Directgov by racing its search engine against Google's. (Generally, Directionless wins.)

Unfair, says Nickalls. "Directionless does work a lot of the time. But it misses the point that Directgov joins up information for the citizen in a way that they understand. If you do a Google search you will get the information from a number of places and the citizen has to do the linking up for themself."

Why not just say 'one of our priorities is going to be to ensure we're #1 in Google so we're there for the citizen right at the gate and we can help them find what they want from where they actually are.'

The rest of Cross' article suggested to me that Nickalls thinks success online is all about branding. It's not, the thing's got to work for one thing and it's got to give the customers what they want and, actually, anticipate what they want (back to the BBC Web Principles).

Many a brand has been burned online by focusing just on branding. And see yesterday's Jakob Nielsen post for a warning about how easy it is to put money down drains chasing that.

I wonder if Cross edited this out but Nickalls take on Power of Information would, actually, be interesting. Has she read it?

Another concern is the coverage of local government in DirectGov — absent in this article, as usual.

The biggest source of friction between DirectGov and local government is that they appear to want our traffic but on what basis? Where's the evidence that customers want to deal with my council via DirectGov?

Last year's £12m marketing exercise for local services (via DirectGov) gave very little benefit to local government - handing us the cash, or spending it on something like the American government's Web Managers University, would have had better, more sustained, effect.

Another source of friction is the absence of any channels whereby DirectGov supports local government in other ways — an excellent example of which is their new relationship with Google (they're partnering with them on mobile) and leveraging that for all our benefit.

It is a major hole that local government by-and-large hasn't got it's act together with search engines. Many councils just don't have the capacity. That's best accomplished in partnership with Google (my posts ad nauseum), and DirectGov could facilitate that but, unfortunately, experience tells me that this may well just not occur to them. Another example would be sharing what they've learned about usability.

Cross says:

Her empiricist training left a mark - she comes over as someone who prefers facts to opinions.

Let's hope that's true. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, for a while!


  1. Quite right Paul. It is only worth promoting a good product.

    Spending money on creating awareness of a bad product is wasting money.

  2. It's not a 'bad product', it's a national portal. Every other country has one. How it works is the question for me, really, how it works for citizens, not whether it should exist.