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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

When government stops outsourcing: Celebrate's design win

There have been some predictable reactions to winning a top design award, beating, amongst others, that sublime Olympic cauldron. The Daily Mail's story (pictured) is distilled essence of ignorance and stupidity: 'but it looks boring'!

Here's on why it won:
Yes, it looks more like an expired domain page than an integrated central location for government services. (We’re not the only ones to notice.) Then again, it’s a little like the DMV: you’re not going to spend any more time there than you have to. Wham, bam, thank you for registering your vehicle with us, ma’am.
Ir won because it achieved the aim of 'simpler, clearer, faster', which is not easy. The content, what it actually says and how it is tailored to the medium (which is now centrally directed and rules driven), is not mentioned by Wired, but is what struck me because 'simple' text is very hard to pull off. Wallpaper's report does notice that:
The website adheres to a strict style guide. Visitors will no longer be baffled by words such as ‘tackling’ (unless the context is about rugby), ‘deliver’ (unless it’s about pizza or post, not policies), and ‘disincentivise’.
Interestingly I have yet to see a real whinge about the win, just other versions of 'boring' or cloaked bitchiness, nothing from anyone of substance, with skin in the game, say, from a webbie, designey, background having a serious go at the site and the award committee. It will be there because this website is the product of civil servants not bleeding edge, Silicon Hub/Fen/Roundabout private enterprise. There will be teeth knashing going on privately.

This award is a slap in the face to those wanting government 'drowned in a bathtub', who see all public servants as losers, if not inherently corrupt. The sort of people who write for the Daily Mail, come to think of it.

For years government has been told that they are naturally incompetent and must outsource work like web design. It has been seen as bleeding obvious that a project such as centralising all government in one place online can only be done by a 'efficient' big company.

Big companies had proved adapt, using fair means and foul, for years and years, at seducing the actual decision makers and getting such contracts. But they failed. The websites may not have looked "boring" but they were crap and I documented some of this history on this very blog.
Here's three posts of mine on the 'Great 2009 Birmingham City Council website disaster', a product of the world's biggest outsourcing contractor Capita, or as it was dubbed 'Crapita':
Lessons from the great 2009 Birmingham City Council website disaster
Postscript -- Postscript two

Public service beats outsourcing: Hurrah!

What is so spectacular and the untold story behind this award is that the Crapitas of this world didn't, for once, fail upwards ... that some key people in government were prepared to battle them, to actually end the chicken and egg, revolving door of yet more failing contractors. To bring it back into government, to trust government, and that this evolving process wasn't cut off by Conservatives when they took over!

The winning GOV.UK design team
What this award is built from is not just the appearance of Martha Lane Fox, great though she is, but an ethos built up over many years in many parts of government of service and a user/citizen focus. Folks I've known as well as marginal idiots like me banging on about it. Lots of connections to others, like those who have built the BBC's world leading web presence on the back of that same service ethos.

Private companies have a harder time doing 'service and a user/citizen focus' precisely because of the profit motive. Their operations are bent by what will make the most money for them, and this includes what they offer government and that, yes, includes design. It is near impossible to imagine any of them creating this award winning design. When I revived this blog the first thing I wrote/ranted about was the massive bloat happening in current web design and how this was due to website needs increasingly impinging on customer needs -- the opposite of what something like has to do.

What has changed with government websites, the bit which deserves celebrating, is that the outsourcing enablers, those whose egos the companies can tweak or flirt with, who business knew how to make look hip and not "boring", are gone. For once the good guys won.

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