Governments don’t have websites: Governments are websites

Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon?

At one level, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, a public company listed on the NASDAQ. At another level – the physical – it is a collection of over 50,000 employees, hundreds of warehouses and zillions of servers.

But for most people Amazon is fundamentally a website.

Sure, it’s an extremely impressive website that can send you parcels in the post, and which can relieve you of money with terrifying ease. But to most people the company has very little reality beyond the big white-blue-and-orange website and the brown cardboard packages.

Vanishing Act

The same process is happening to the bits of the government that I interact with – the physical reality of bricks and mortar and people and parks is starting to disappear behind the websites.

Government is increasingly a thing I don’t have any mental images of. I don’t know what my local council looks like, nor am I even clear where it is. I’m sure you all have plenty of interactions with HM Revenue and Customs, but do you know where it is or what it looks like?

Increasingly, when I form a mental image of a branch of government in my head, what I see is the website. What else am I supposed to picture?

Governments no longer just ‘own‘ websites, they are websites.

Heartless Bourgeois Pig

Wait! Stop shouting! I know how this sounds.

I am not so out of touch that I don’t know that there are plenty of people out there who are only too familiar with the physical manifestations of government. They see the government as manifested through prison, or hospital, or the job centre. They have no problem forming a vivid mental image of what government means: a waiting room, a queue, a social worker.

And I also know that most of the poorest people in the UK aren’t online yet. It’s one of the great challenges for our country in the next decade.

But…

The majority of citizens don’t have deep, all encompassing, everyday interactions with the state – at most they drop their kids at school every day, or visit the GP a few times a year. That’s as physically close as they get.

To these people, interacting with government already feels somewhat like interacting with Amazon. It sends them benefits, passports, recycling bins, car tax disks from mysterious dispatch offices and it demands money and information in return. The difference is in emotional tone – the Amazon online interactions tend to be seamless, the government online interactions either painful or impossible – time to pick up the phone.

Increasingly, when a modern citizen looks at a government website, they’re literally seeing the state. And if what they see is ugly, confusing or down-right-broken, increasingly that’s how they’re going to see the state as a whole.

This change in public perception means that a previously marginal problem (bad websites) is now pointing towards a rather more worrying possibility.  As government websites continue to fall behind private sector websites, governments will slowly look less and less legitimate – less and less like they matter to citizens, less and less like we should be paying any taxes to pay for them. Why pay for something you can’t even navigate?

It is time for the directors and CEOs of public bodies everywhere to wake up to this possibility, before the ideologues get hold of it.

Governments have the wrong management structures for a digital future

I don’t buy the argument that government websites are bad because all the ubermensch have gone off to work for the private sector. The public sector can often teach the private sector a lot about information design, like British road signs and tube maps, which are fantastic. And, of course, there’s the super team at Gov.uk, who represent the kind of change I’m writing about here.

The real difference is one of management structure and focus. At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos and his executive colleagues worry all the time about whether their site or app or Kindle are as good as the competitors. But in central and local governments around the world, the top bosses do not stress every day about whether the user experience of their website is up to scratch, or whether conversion rates are lower than desirable.

The main reason that they don’t worry is because their management boards don’t historically contain anyone whose job it is to worry about the performance of digital services. A council chief exec will worry about finance because their finance director will constantly be nagging them about money. But a council CEO won’t be worrying about whether 10,000 people left their website bitterly disappointed last week, because such issues are not ‘normal things to discuss’ at a board level.

Getting digital people to the top table

The solution, at least in the near term – is to recruit or promote people with digital remits and experience right to the top tier of decision making in government bodies. It means creating new roles like ‘CIO’ or ‘Head of Digital’ which have the same seniority as ‘Head of Adult Social Care’ or ‘Head of HR’. And it means empowering those people to make painful changes that are required to make digital services become brilliant and user-centric.

Clearly, this presents dangers. How do you know what powers to give the new role? How do you stop them damaging critical services? And, most problematic of all – how can you tell that a digital expert isn’t a charlatan? After all, they have niche expertise that you don’t have – how are you supposed to sniff them out?

The answer is that it isn’t easy, and that a lot of knowledge sharing and learning from mistakes will be required. As a shameless plugwe can help here – we can help vet candidates and define their roles in Britain and abroad. But none of this hides the fact that becoming digital – learning to run a public organisation that is a website, will be a fraught affair. The reward, though, is nothing less than helping to guarantee the ongoing legitimacy of government (quite apart from all the happier customers). To me that seems well worth going through some pain for.

 

10 Comments

  1. Hi Tom,

    I really like this post and I really like the thinking…I agree that more people nearer the top need a greater awareness of this thinking.

    I actually started using Amazon as a conceptual model about 18 months ago when I started working on a strategic ICT development plan for our web presence. It has helped position the web as something that people can really start to understand as most people understand Amazon and as you say pretty much see it as a website.

    We’ve followed that work with a Content Strategy and an Application Strategy but as a council we have benefited from using Amazon not just in the context that you highlight above but also as a model for service delivery.

    We are looking at how we can provide a gateway onto local public services in a trusted framework – like amazon do with the marketplace.

    One thing which nearly everyone agrees with in relation to the amazon model is a central “resolution centre” or where the equivalent democractic accountability lies.

    Carl

  2. I agree, not just because people need seniority to have clout, but because appointing good people with clout lifts the ambitions and drives the motivation of the team that supports them. There are a lot of somewhat downtrodden people in digital roles, and not just in the public sector.

    I’m interested in the MySociety stamp of approval on these potential leaders. Without giving too much away (and obviously it will depend on role etc), what would you say are the top three characteristics of the new breed of digital leader you’d be happy to recommend?

    Steph

  3. You are right how we as citizens interact with government is changing and our interactions will increasingly take place on digital platforms. You have cited websites as a place citizens will interact and get services from government. True when the GDS launch gov.uk single domain citizens (modern ones as well) will get to experience its Amazon like features.

    However increasingly citizens will interact more and more as they already do on networks that cannot be characterised as websites the most obvious being Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Google Plus.

    This will not happen overnight but signs are appearing, for example voter registration in Washington State can be done via their Facebook page as reported in the +The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/washington-facebook-voter-registration_n_1682366.html

    If you can register to vote on a Facebook app why can you not register for other government services? We are constantly told in digital that we must “go were the people are”. I am not saying websites are irrelevant and GDS are launching what are the next generation of websites that are data led and focused on giving the citizen want they want with the minimum of fuss. Yes, an Amazon experience.

    I disagree with your assertion “Increasingly, when a modern citizen looks at a government website, they’re literally seeing the state. And if what they see is ugly, confusing or down-right-broken, increasingly that’s how they’re going to see the state as a whole.”

    I think the average citizen is just a bit more rounded and would not see a poor website and think “Yeah the state is a bit shit, its ugly, confusing and down right broken”. One bad experience does not form an entire view. On airline website you might have a fairly good experience but that alone might not lead you think Ryan Air are brilliant. Never judge a book by its cover nor should you judge an government by its website. Good or bad.

  4. I’m not sure I totally buy this. Councils aren’t”their web-sites any more than they were Councils never their front offices when such things were the main transaction point.

    Amazon isn’t just its web-site, its also the Kindle, it’s also the corporate present, the advert on your telly.

    Councils are the schools, the missed bin lorries, the shut youth centre, the saved library just as much as they are the web-site.

    So the web’s the only channel you use? Are you sure, don’t get your recycling picked up? don’t notice when your wheelie bin is missed?

    Of course we should fix crap council web-sites, just as we should put drop kerbs outside the revenues office. But in trying to make it about institutional legitimacy I think you’re really over-playing your hand.

    This is trying to make function follow form, and I think in terms of delivering public services that’s a really really bad idea

  5. Great post, thinking how to convince elected menders to implement….when in my large unitary many do not appreciate impact and potential…some are quite hostile!
    When central gov launches it’s initiatives such as the 4 community budget pilots currently underway…should be a key space for role of digital leadership?

  6. 07.19.12 The Morning Buzz | Oregon Emerging Local Government Leaders Network

    [...] Governments don’t have websites: Governments are websites - Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon? [...]

  7. Totally – well, roughly, but surely totally – I agree that the things are rapidly going online and that governments have to fully change the way they handle citizens.
    In the same context I’d like to share my idea of a similar tsansition towards digital world:
    Please visit gobanknoteless.wordpress.com and find out a way to a richer and better society.
    Thanks

  8. Currently reading James Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy, which explores at length how and why organizations function. It was recommended to me as a classic, and I second that (despite loathing Wilson’s politics). I think its insights could make this good post better, specifically WRT why Amazon’s site is good.

  9. [...] Quick question – don’t think too hard about it: what is Amazon? At one level, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, a public company listed on the NASDAQ. At another level – the physical – it is a collection of over 50,000 employees, hundreds of warehouses and zillions of servers. But for most people Amazon is fundamentally a website. Sure, it’s an extremely impressive website that can send you parcels in the post, and which can relieve you of money with terrifying ease. But to most people the company has very little reality beyond the big white-blue-and-orange website and the brown cardboard packages.  [...]