UK Constitutional Law Association

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Liz Fisher: Gov.Uk?

fishereAs some of you may have noticed, the UK government has a new website which not only replaces the old site but also the individual government department and public body websites. Since late last year the 24 major government departments have been moving to this new platform. That move is now complete and smaller agencies and public bodies are now undertaking the shift. The new website won a Design of a Year Award in mid April with one of the judges describing it as ‘the Paul Smith of websites’ and another noting that ‘it creates a benchmark for which all international government websites can be judged on’ (BBC Report,  last accessed 9 May 2013).

I do not pretend to have any expertise in web design, information technology or anything like that, but I do think the new website is something that public lawyers should be thinking carefully about for three reasons. The first reason is that the shift to the new website raises a practical problem that many of us as scholars know too well – a consequence of the move is that some old web addresses are now defunct. In some cases, new links have been provided (and work seamlessly) but not in all. This is not a new problem and applies across the public and private sectors. It is a particular problem in relation to government websites because many government documents are web based and websites are now being cited as the way to find them. As a lecturer, author, and a journal editor the shift to the new platforms have caused all kinds of issues. Government websites are a major scholarly resource and yet there has been little discussion about that fact among public lawyers. Part of the debate of course needs to be about how these websites are stored and archived. Many documents have been shifted to the National Archives and a welcome development is that the British Library has since early April begun to harvest websites in the UK domain (British Library  last accessed 9 May 2013). But part of the debate also needs to be about how we as scholars cite and deploy such websites. Thus for example style guides for journals and scholarly works don’t often provide guidance on how to manage the fact that websites are likely to disappear. We as scholars need to have a conversation about these issues.

The second issue raised by the new website is about transparency. As I have written before on this blog (last accessed 9 May 2013), the Coalition government has had, and still has  a major policy about transparency,  but I’m afraid I haven’t found the new website very transparent at all. On the old website it was relatively easy to find documentation in relation to topics – that required clicking through a series of subheadings. As you did so, you not only found documents but also explanations of how the documentation fitted into the bigger legal and institutional perspective. These frameworks were not always perfect, but generally speaking they provided a good map of the activities of a government department. The new website is focused around ‘policies’ which don’t seem to have any logical order. The search tool works quite well, but provides no context for the documents you find. Thus you can produce a list of documents, but no explanation of how they relate to each other. Again, there are some exceptions to this (the page of biodiversity protection on the DEFRA website springs to mind (accessed 9 May 2013)

This relates to the third issue that the new website raises, and perhaps the most significant. As I have argued elsewhere (accessed 9 May 2013), the creation of an administrative transparency mechanism is really about building the architecture of public administration and a website is no exception. To paraphrase Harlow and Rawlings, behind every government department website is a theory of public administration. The theory behind this website is very much a ‘rational-instrumental’ one (Elizabeth Fisher, Risk Regulation and Administrative Constitutionalism (2007). The website’s focus on ‘policies’ and subsequent ‘actions’ taken pursuant to such policies means that a government department is largely conceptualised as a conduit for delivering an agenda set by the political party in government. Some of these policies are about specific reforms (planning for example), and other ‘policies’ are a continuance of a long entrenched complex regime (nature conservation). The overall impression however is that the role of public administration is to deliver the government’s particular strategy.  This approach raises an interesting question of how the website will need to evolve with a change in government. It also gives very little impression of the institutional structure of a government department or the way in which some policy areas develop incrementally over time from a variety of sources. The rational instrumental model of public administration has of course come to dominate understandings of UK public administration in the last three decades (David Faulkner, ‘Government and Public Services in Modern Britain? What Happens Next?’ (2008) 79 Political Quarterly 232) so the structure of the new website is not surprising. With that said, we should not let this website narrow our vision, and thus debate, about the nature and role of public administration.

I do appreciate that my response could be seen as akin to those people who get annoyed when the supermarket is rearranged and they can’t find where the eggs are anymore. Likewise, it is also clear tweaks and adjustments are being made. My overall point is not that change is bad, but in the information technology age, a government website really matters. It is a resource we regularly use that frames our understanding of what public administration does and what we should expect of it. The website maybe a marvel of design but I do wonder what kind of ‘benchmark’ it is which other ‘government websites can be judged on’. Whatever the case, we as public lawyers should be taking a keen interest in this new site and thinking about its role and nature, and its implications for the practice and study of public law.

Liz Fisher is  Reader in Environmental Law at Oxford University.

Suggested citation: L. Fisher, ‘Gov.Uk?’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (9th May 2013) (available at

13 comments on “Liz Fisher: Gov.Uk?

  1. simoncramp
    May 9, 2013

    Couldn’t agree more with your post typicial government complaction I hate gov uk as it just as bad and incovericed as direct dot gov .

    And everything is online and if you carnt access it there no one to ask it a b@@@ joke and I don’t see why I should pay my taxes for this ruBblish
    Sent from my BlackBerry smartphone from Virgin Media

  2. Caroline Brook Boysen
    May 9, 2013

    I think you have been very polite and that the new site possibly puts a load of things quite untransparently under the carpet! But then I’ve had some run ins (not as a lawyer) with the govt. and may be rather jaded!

  3. Aileen McHarg
    May 9, 2013

    I was mystified to learn that the website had won design awards. I have encountered all the problems you identify – broken links, difficulty in navigation, and, worst of all, much reduced content.

  4. Paul Twyman
    May 9, 2013

    I agree with your (highly critical) assessment. GOV.UK is a disgrace – made worse by the fact that the officials running it do not respond to complaints and are, no doubt, hiding information such as customer satisfaction data from their bosses and ministers.

  5. As someone who logs on to various bits of government almost every day, I do not find the new site an improvement. Sure, it looks more “corporate”: but so what? Overall, it’s simply less useful.

    And I don’t think that your reaction is “… akin to those people who get annoyed when the supermarket is rearranged and they can’t find where the eggs are anymore” because that’s not an exact parallel. If you don’t like the layout at Sainsbury’s you can go to Waitrose – but there isn’t an alternative, differently-arranged Government website to go to.

  6. Dominic
    May 10, 2013

    Entirely agree, at least on the face of it there is a significant reduction in content. The style is also frustrating and patronising (stupid people need large letters) and replicates the advice of Tony Blair’s voice trainers (stupid people need slow speech and short words). A convenient method of printing would also be useful, although that error may be on my side.

  7. Pingback: Ed Balls Ed Balls Ed Balls: Official, Spad, or Both? The Joys of Research and Government Transparency | Constitution Unit Blog

  8. David Pocklington
    May 13, 2013

    The “curse of the URL” is problematic wherever a non-updated medium is used, and in the Annex to the second edition of The Law of Waste Management, I advised readers that “since the URL addresses are frequently subject to change, particularly those of government departments, web addresses have not been included only limited reference has been made to these”. However, book publishers need further persuasion, as citation of sources is an essential academic discipline, and as you state, many government publications are only available on line.

    Writing a “hard copy” column in journal Environmental Law and Management presents more problems that blogging as the latter uses a significant number of hyperlinks, they can be updated. A potential problem, however, is in using early reports, such as uncorrected Parliamentary proceedings or the daily Vatican Information Service reports, URLs can change overnight as the information is finalized.

    To date, Law and Religion UK has not suggested any citation, but this post has now prompted Frank Cranmer and I to introduce the practice.

  9. Francesca McGrath
    May 14, 2013

    I believe that the website was praised because it makes it easy for people to “fill in forms”. The new website is aimed at the general public and no real effort appears to have been made to cater for ‘professional’ users of government information.

  10. dmossesq
    May 14, 2013

    When links are broken, a bit of history is lost. This vandalism is always happening on the web. We know that. The web is inimical to scholarship in that way.

    The advent of GOV.UK was exceptionally vandalistic. The Government Digital Service (GDS), whose baby it is, left behind a trail of destruction. Or rather, they didn’t. They eradicated it.

    They did so under the terms of reference of a project called “the single government domain“.

    They are prone now to congratulating themselves on completing the transfer of all central government departmental websites to the single government domain, GOV.UK, and several non-departmental sites. Their congratulations are premature., for example, lives on, thank goodness. A rare case of GDS’s discretion being the better part of valour.

    There was internal dissent to the policy-centric GOV.UK approach identified by Liz Fisher. Jeni Tennison argued that destroying departmental identity involved losing something valuable. Judging by the comments on her thoughtful blog post, her objections were slapped down, rather than refuted, and she left GDS.

    Who grants the licence for GDS’s vandalism?

    The answer may interest Constitutional lawyers. Martha Lane Fox.

    Now a peer of the realm, Lady Lane Fox of Soho, it is she who first called for GOV.UK in a letter dated 14 October 2010 where she wrote:

    A new central commissioning team should take responsibility for the overall user experience on the government web estate, and should commission content from departmental experts. This content should then be published to a single Government website with a consistently excellent user experience.

    The “new central commissioning team” is GDS. And the departments of state are to be reduced, in Lady Lane Fox’s view, to waiting to be commissioned by GDS to publish their policy.

    She didn’t stop there. GDS should be able to countermand the law as well as the expertise of policy-makers wherever “user needs” are adversely affected as judged by GDS:

    [GDS] SWAT teams … should be given a remit to support and challenge departments and agencies … We must give these SWAT teams the necessary support to challenge any policy and legal barriers which stop services being designed around user needs.

    We all used to get emails from the individual departments bringing their press releases to our attention. Now those emails all come from GDS,

    Unprecedented power is being centralised in GDS, whose qualifications – they are a team of website developers – are questionable. It’s a new world.

  11. Jane Young
    May 16, 2013

    Totally agree, but a friend of mine has been even more brutal – calling it a ‘Peter and Jane’ website (Ladybird reading books from several decades back!), which assumes its readers have the literacy standards of a primary school child. It is would be much better in practice, given how many of us have to access material in the bowels of departmental websites, to have a public website which provides a portal for the transactions we need to make with Government services, with the departmental websites kept as the ‘back office’. It is indeed the lack of transparency which is the most reprehensible aspect of the new site, which doesn’t hang together at all.

    This is what happens when you consult someone like Martha Lane Fox but not a lawyer, researcher or historian. The broken links are a complete nightmare, and I can’t face the thought of going through documents written even just 4 months ago to replace all the links.

    I dread to think of the chaos that will greet the next Government in 2015. As if there aren’t enough problems around services that don’t work, policies that have led to extreme poverty and hardship, but they’ll also have to sort out a mickey mouse website to boot. Bring back – pleeease!!!

  12. Carol Harlow
    May 29, 2013

    I have only just read this blog item and hadn’t noticed the gvt website had changed. But isn’t this all of a piece with the ICT failures of successive gvts? All the UK IT compares very unfavourably with the Europa website. This too raises questions about motivation and transparency but it is notably easy to access and use.

  13. tu van mua laptop cu
    August 17, 2015

    I think you have been very polite and that the new site possibly puts a load of things quite untransparently under the carpet! But then I’ve had some run ins (not as a lawyer) with the govt. and may be rather jaded!

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