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UK Government Launches Prototype Alphagov Website

The Cabinet office has unveiled its first attempt to bring all online government services under one roof

The UK government has today unveiled a prototype of the Alphagov website – its first attempt to consolidate the hundreds of public sector services and online resources under one roof.

Alphagov has been developed at a cost of £261,000 by the Cabinet Office, in line with the recommendations of a review by the government’s digital champion, Martha Lane Fox. The website offers an example of what a single UK government website could look like, but is not permanent and is not intended to replace any other government sites.

Digital by default

The home page is dominated by a single large search box, in which users can enter keywords to describe what they are looking for. Users are also invited to enter their location, in order to receive details of local services. Beneath the search box are links to ‘popular tools and topics’ – such as paying your council tax, reporting a stolen passport and booking a driving test – and below that is news from individual government departments.

“Shifting government services to being digital by default would save everyone time, money and unfathomable bucketloads of hassle. So making gov.uk as simple as possible really matters,” said Tom Loosemore, deputy director of the Alphagov project, in a blog post. “It needs to be so good people actively prefer it to offline alternatives, so much so that they recommend it to friends and family who are not yet online.”

Developers are now asking members of the public to offer their feedback, in order to help them improve the site. It is hoped that Alpha.gov.uk will eventually replace the government’s unpopular Directgov portal.

Savings for all

As part of her Race Online 2012 challenge, Martha Lane Fox (pictured) commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to assess the economic impact of everyone in the UK getting online. The research found that if all ‘digitally excluded’ adults did just one of their monthly government transactions online, this would save the government around £900 million a year.

Subsequently, in November 2010, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude announced that public services transactions would increasingly be provided as online-only services. Existing services, such as student loans, applications for driving licences and jobseeker allowances, would be prime candidates for the move, he said.

The “digital by default” changes are expected to deliver savings of £1.3 billion when 30 percent of government services are moved online. This will rise to £2.2 billion when the 50 percent milestone is reached.

Lane Fox also recommended that all government digital services should be under a single URL. “The user should not have to navigate the departmental structure of government before finding the service or content what they need,” she wrote in an open letter (pdf) to Maude in October 2010.

Industry reaction

The government’s moves to digitalise and consolidate public services have been welcomed by industry commentators including Virgin Media Business, which views the Alphagov website as an example of government embracing shared services.

“By locating resources, services and information into one interactive hub, the public sector will not only benefit from lower costs as a result of website consolidation, but it will also be able to offer a significantly improved online experience for the public,” said Lee Hull, director of public sector at Virgin Media Business.

However, according to Colin Rowland, senior vice president of OpTier, the success of Alphagov will depend on performance, usability and the quality of the interface.

“All too often, over-stretched IT systems let big projects like this one down, as systems become overloaded. Once the website is fully launched, it will be by monitoring end-user experience in real time and proactively tackling potential performance issues before they impact the user that the UK will be able to provide world-class online public services,” he said.