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Opinion: Does the government now 'get' digital?

Posted by James Cartwright,

This week James Cartwright wonders whether the government has finally grasped the digital world, and whether we can expect to see more transparency from our political leaders. More importantly, we’d like to know what you think in the comments section below…

Filled out your tax returns recently, or updated your driving licence? If you have you’ve probably noticed that the go-to online location to deal with all those niggling chores is no longer a minefield of dead links and useless information. It’s remarkably different. We interviewed Ben Terret of the Government Digital Service back in April about this transformational project and were mighty impressed with what we saw, but now it’s all up and running it seems as good a time as any to examine this progressive initiative in greater detail and see if its achievements live up to the hype.

The first thing that’s apparent when you arrive at the GOV.UK homepage is how little it looks like any other government webpage you’ve ever struggled to navigate. In place of endless lists, incongruous typography and an apparent lack of information hierarchy is a simple set of clear headings that quickly point you in the right direction. The typography is crisp – an updated version of Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert’s legendary Transport typeface, produced in collaboration with A2/SW/HK – there’s an abundance of white space and the green, orange and grey headers and columns that proliferated government sites during the Blair years are a distant memory. It’s no-frills design, but you really can’t fault the clarity.

Aside from the notable design reforms, it’s the Government Digital Service’s treatment of information that truly marks a break with tradition. GOV.UK has been built with predominantly open-source software – ruby on rails powers all of the site’s applications. With this in mind they’ve also opened up their code to the world, fixing bugs via crowd-sourcing on github and allowing other governments across the world to use their templates to create their own online databases. Pretty progressive for an institution that so often seems baffled by the machinations of the online world.

It’s definitely a huge leap in the right direction, but ultimately we have to ask whether this site marks a real progression in our government’s attitudes towards data. Can we expect to see a policy of transparency applied to more public services and is this a sign that they’re starting to grasp the complex landscape of the digital world? Or are we looking at a beautifully designed, impeccably functional piece of digital design that will simply mask a slow-moving bureaucracy that’s still unsure of the web’s influence over every aspect of how we live our lives?

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Jc

Posted by James Cartwright

James started out as an intern in 2011 and is now one of our two editors. He oversees Printed Pages magazine and content wise has a special interest in graphic design and illustration. He also runs our online shop Company of Parrots and is a regular on our Studio Audience podcast.

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