As some of you may have noticed, the UK government has a new website www.gov.uk which not only replaces the old Direct.gov 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 http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).