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Alpha.gov.uk – it's nearly a beta

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The government has chucked £261,000 at a post-Directgov website that could, if disliked by taxpayers, be ditched before the site hits beta stage.

Alpha.gov.uk launched this morning, and like many recent online efforts from the Coalition, it has gone public as an "early draft" to test the reaction of British citizens.

If they like what they see, Alpha.gov.uk could eventually morph into a replacement for the government's current unloved Directgov portal.

That's a long way off, however. In the meantime, the prototype will be available for anyone to view for the next two months. In that time, the Cabinet Office is hoping to get feedback from the British public.

Tom Loosemore, who is heading up the project, told The Register during a demonstration of the site yesterday that he hoped the whole thing would prove to be a success.

"If people absolutely hate it would be nuts to carry on regardless," he said.

The prototype is intended as a "proof of concept", so the site could undergo many changes before a final design is settled upon.

The government claims such a central portal could save around £65m in internet publishing costs alone. In 2009/10 UK.gov notched up a £128m bill to cover its internet publishing expenditure.

If it does turn out to be a replacement for Directgov, the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is hoping it will offer a one-stop-shop for all government information. Down the line it is expected to include services such as tax returns and car tax applications.

But that's when it starts to get a whole lot trickier, and Loosemore confessed that while the publishing side of the government's online house was relatively straightforward, dealing with user data remained a much more daunting prospect.

He couldn't answer our questions about securing such sensitive taxpayer data online.

However, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman confirmed to El Reg that the government is in early talks with "trusted private sector identity service providers" to develop "the concept of ID assurance".

It's looking for feedback on identity verification and authentication for public sector bodies with particular attention on online and telephone channels, as well as the provision of related software and computer services.

"The government wants to make it easier for customers and businesses to engage with public services online. It is necessary to provide simple, familiar mechanisms for customers to register for and access any public service," said the Cabinet Office spokeswoman.

"Trusted private sector identity service providers will assure an individual's identity through a cross-government, uniform approach to identity assurance that ensures choice, personal privacy, reduces fraud and facilitates channel shift to more 'digital services by default' as recommended by Martha Lane Fox, potentially saving billions of pounds in the delivery of public services," she added.

A pre-tender notice was issued by the Cabinet Office in August last year. Since then Directgov, which began life in 2004, lost its CEO Jayne Nickalls just days before government digital darling Lane Fox's strategic review of UK.gov's websites was issued.

In the dying days of the Labour government, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown talked of plans to create a personalised web page for every UK citizen to access all public services online in a single location, which had in fact been the original plan for Directgov.

But Brown's "Mygov" centralised dashboard, which was supposed to help save money by cutting face-to-face services, never materialised.

So arguably we've been here before and Alpha.gov.uk is just the latest in a long line of attempts at joining up government information online. Just this time, the buzzwords are "simplicity", "agile" and "consistency".

If Directgov was Tony Blair's big lumbering Web2.0 elephant, then might Alpha.gov.uk – or whatever it ends up being called – prove to be David Cameron's very own social media Nelly?

Wade in here, readers, and make up your own minds. ®

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