The first major product of sweeping changes to how the government handles its internal IT systems and public-facing websites is to be unveiled on Wednesday, as a new unified website for online public services goes live for testing.
The “simpler, clearer, faster” site has been designed with search engines and smartphones in mind. Early testing on 2,000 people by civil servants cut by a third the time it took people to find information or complete a task. In some cases, dozens of pages have been whittled down to a multiple-choice process to guide users to their particular destination.
The “beta” gov.uk test site is the flagship project of the new Government Digital Services unit, which was established within the Cabinet Office after a 2010 report by Martha Lane Fox, the internet entrepreneur and the UK’s “digital champion”, recommended “revolution not evolution” in how public services are delivered online.
GDS, based at Aviation House in Holborn, central London, is staffed by a new breed of young geeks, several of whom turned down jobs at Google or top advertising agencies to improve public services used by millions every day.
Banks of Apple laptops – many nonetheless costing a fraction of the price of a computer bought through traditional government procurement channels – and several Brompton folding bicycles are strewn across the open-plan GDS office.
Any vertical surfaces not bedecked in Post-It notes, binary-code wallpapering, or geeky variants of the iconic “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster have been turned into floor-to-ceiling whiteboards, charting “success walls” and “burning platforms”. A line of bunting hanging from the ceiling mimics a digital equivalent which will greet visitors to bank-holiday listings pages on the new site.
The culture instilled by Mike Bracken, the former Guardian and MySociety technologist who runs GDS, is to behave like a large-scale start-up – in stark contrast to the traditionally “analogue” Whitehall.
“Instead of a government with an IT department, we need to be a digital government,” Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, told the FT. “Our approach to the way the public sector should be doing its digital offering is very different. We want sensible platforms with common standards and a move away from the big overarching IT projects which had a terrible reputation for running over budgets and over time.”
Mr Maude said that the new gov.uk was a prime example of this new “agile and iterative” approach, built entirely using open-source software and put out for public testing to improve it before a final release later this year.
The beta is currently running within its projected budget of £1.7m. When complete, the common digital platform is expected to save £50m a year in software licensing and other infrastructure costs when every Whitehall department begins using it.
In a symbolic yet hands-on manifestation of the new tech vision, Mr Bracken and Mr Maude are this week visiting innovative new technology companies in Silicon Valley.
Alongside more familiar names such as Google and PayPal, stops on the tour include Joyent, a cloud computing software provider, 10gen, developer of open-source database MongoDB, and Cloudera, developer and distributor of Hadoop, a large-scale data processing framework used by the likes of Groupon.
“It’s an immersion in the new world,” Mr Maude said. “This whole approach is less about technology and more about mindset and culture.”
The initial beta test of gov.uk meets around 1,000 common citizen needs, with some of Directgov’s less essential pages – such as a guide to beekeeping – ditched altogether as its online library of 5,000 items is migrated over. However, many more complex sections, including underlying transactions and highly technical manuals have yet to be tackled by GDS.
Hundreds of millions of pounds could be saved if the new gov.uk can cut the 150m calls to government contact centres annually from people who fail to complete a transaction online, at an average cost of £6.28 each, Mr Bracken says.
Further cost savings will come from shutting off physical and offline channels, a move which is controversial with some campaigners for the elderly and less able.
“We believe in some places, instead of looking for savings of 20 to 30 per cent in what we spend at the moment, we will be looking at providing the service better for 20 to 30 per cent of the cost,” Mr Maude said, while adding: “Giving a better service to the public is the first driver.”