Australia's communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has often expressed his admiration for the United Kingdom's Government Digital Service (GDS), going so far to say as to say it is the model and/or inspiration for the recently-revealed Digital Transformation Office (DTO).
As we've reported, the DTO looks to be off to a shaky start: it has no budget and no plan, but considerable power to do things like compel government agencies to adopt a single web site design.
Turnbull's hope is that uniform design will make government online services easier to use, but as our London team has reported here, GDS hipster digital gurus' decision to offer one interface meant that different types of users didn't get the tools they needed.
A visa application service, for example, was designed for individuals without much thought being given to the fact that immigration agents, businesses and universities often need to make such applications in bulk. The mess was so bad that at one point visiting athletes looked like being denied entry to the UK because the businesses that handle their applications simply couldn't get the functionality they needed. That's worse than it sounds: imagine if a visiting cricket team was denied entry to Australia because a government department's website removed the functionality needed to apply for visas!
The UK's Revenue and Customs service, meanwhile, deleted or re-wrote much of its site at the behest of GDS personnel, but in the process removed much specialist material needed to understand the UK's tax regulations. Some content now leaves covers complex topics with unsatisfactorily brief articles, confusing rather than clarifying matters for citizens. The service also left its online services as they were, and doing so rather than making sure they complied with GDS directives didn't stop them from succeeding.
Another online tax service earned the GDS' ire for not following design guidelines, even though it was perfectly functional. The Revenue just built the site itself rather than wait for GDS help or guidance, because going it alone was faster and cheaper. A government identity system overseen by GDS has run late, failed to deliver required functionality and has not won favour among its target user population.
Other complaints GDS centre on the fact that its preferred redesigns resulted in lots of information being removed from government websites, resulting in less self-service and more traffic to contact centres.
We'll stop there because talking up our London colleagues' work is a bit too involuted! If you'd like to know more read the articles we've linked in full.
But the warning here is clear: if it is Malcolm Turnbull's intention that his Digital Transformation Office ape the GDS, Australia's online government services effort will likely repeat some stupid and costly mistakes. ®