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Watchdog criticises UK gov websites

Directgov more a case of 'Not Me Gov'

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The Directgov supersite has been labelled "Not Me Gov" at a hearing of the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

PAC chair Edward Leigh MP made the accusation at a hearing on the National Audit Office report, Government on the Internet. He questioned the government's plan to reduce the number of websites with an increased emphasis on Directgov and Businesslink, and claimed the functionality of the former could be better.

"I understand that the only thing you can do on Direct Gov is renew car tax, it's more like 'Not Me Gov'," he said. "It's not a very awe inspiring website is it when the only thing you can do is renew your car tax?"

Leigh also suggested that the emphasis on just two sites could lay the ground for another IT disaster in two years time.

Alan Bishop, chief executive of the Central Office of Information, which manages Directgov, disputed this and said the management and back-up procedures at Directgov were such that over the past four years there had been "hardly any outage".

Leigh asked why the government had allowed 10 years of uncoordinated growth, and why so few of these websites link to Directgov, the public services supersite.

Chief information officer John Suffolk admitted that it was actually difficult to identify all the government websites because they don't all end with the gov.uk.

"This is one of the reasons why we are going down the road of website rationalisation, which is about getting a handle on how many websites we have so that... we can concentrate our efforts around two websites, Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk," said Suffolk.

He added that the rationalisation programme is well under way, with 951 marked for closure and only 26 websites have been identified as exceptions which must remain open.

The report finds that a third of departments and their agencies did not know how much their websites cost, while many were also unaware of who is using their sites and for what purpose. It suggests that better information about choosing schools of hospitals would be helpful to the public.

Committee member Austin Mitchell also asked the IT experts why commercial sites are more efficient. He accused the government "over enthusiasm" in following a fashion for the internet. "It is only now that they are getting to grips with this," he added.

Bishop defended the government's position by saying that in a survey of ease of use, the public sector got the same rating as Amazon and came out well ahead of Tesco. But he said the complexity of functions the government had to provide could affect the efficiency of online services. In response, the government is carrying out customer satisfaction surveys, which "allows us to earmark changes", he said.

On customer satisfaction, Alexis Cleveland, director general of transformational government, said that search engines were being improved. "There is no point in putting information on when people cannot find it", she said.

Glasgow South West MP Ian Davidson raised the issue of exclusion, as a result of the large numbers of people in the UK who were unable to access new technology. Chief information officer John Suffolk responded that the government has to provide other access channels "so that our starting point is understanding people's needs".

Davidson was unconvinced by the reassurances that face to face services were being actively promoted, and called for the money saved by putting information online to be channelled into the personal approach preferred by many people.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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