The great big website bonfire

So, the Coalition is going to close lots of unnecessary government websites. Hurrah. The Web Rationalisation project has been going for quite some time and though it’s not without its problems, it’s broadly a good thing. The coalition seems to be taking it up with renewed vigour, which is great. But making websites is cheaper and easier now, so we need to be mindful about how we do it.

There are serious problems with the way Government procures, develops and manages websites, and unless we change that, closing down websites will only be a short-term solution. People working in departments will always want new websites to do useful, valuable things, and they’ll usually find ways to make them. To call these “vanity websites” isn’t really fair. And pushing all citizen-facing content onto Directgov, NHS Choices or BusinessLink isn’t really sensible. Such large platforms bring a necessary degree of inflexibility which isn’t helpful to people who are trying to innovate.

I think that, as with many of the difficulties facing Government, IT and the Web, the problems begin with procurement. Government’s traditional suppliers just aren’t very good at making websites. Government needs to make sure that the new breed of suppliers can get their collective feet in the door. We need procurement processes that make it practical for SMEs to bid for work, civil servants who are keen to try a new approach and project management that takes account of the fact that a lot of “best practice” just isn’t, anymore.

But I think the most important thing to bear in mind today is that this response from the Coalition is a reaction to the problems of the past. Lots of Government sites are genuinely bad, and totally useless. And some of them date back to an era where that’s more or less all we could expect: because the ideas, the theory, the business processes and technology weren’t there. Expensive websites were the only websites there were. Bad was the best we could do. It’s a bit like comparing an AMC Gremlin to a modern car and expecting it to stack up.

But that’s emphatically not the case anymore. Technology and software development processes have improved substantially over the last decade. It really is possible to produce exemplary websites at a fraction of the cost that would have been unavoidable 6 or 7 years ago. NGOs and the private sector have seized on these technologies and ideas to unleash a new wave of products and services that have transformed the way we communicate and think about what the web can do. All the Government has to do is start commissioning it.

I hope that that’s what we’ll see happening over the next couple of years — and I especially hope that the problems of the past decade won’t blind us to the extraordinary opportunities of the next.

With thanks to Rory Cellan-Jones for the title!