Civil servants ‘wasting time’ producing unread online content

By on 13/12/2016
GDS Accessibility Hack Day (CC Image courtesy of GDSTeam on Flickr)

As governments around the world rebuild websites and create online services, the UK’s digital unit has urged civil servants to ensure that the web content they produce meets users’ real needs and interests.

The Government Digital Service, widely regarded as a pioneer in the e-government sphere, this week pointed out that huge amounts of civil servants’ time is being “wasted” producing reams of online content that nobody reads.

According to the GDS, 73% of the content on GOV.UK, the UK government’s main digital service portal, is looked at by fewer than 10 people a month.

“That’s a problem, because civil servants’ time is being wasted producing content hardly anyone is looking at and users’ time is being wasted sifting through hundreds of pages on the same topic,” wrote GDS head of content design Trisha Doyle in a blog post this week.

According to Doyle, GOV.UK now supports over 300,000 items of content and 250,000 downloadable files, with those numbers increasing by 2,500 and 2,600 a week respectively.

“A reasonable question might be – ‘well, what’s the problem with lots of content if it’s being used?’ The trouble is, it’s not,” Doyle said.

Because content teams across government are unable to stay on top of the large volume of online material being published, many areas of GOV.UK now hold old and inaccurate information – to the detriment of service users. “When users can’t find what they need to know, understand it or trust it, they make mistakes and hit the phone,” Doyle wrote, revealing that the term “contact” is searched for on GOV.UK more than “passports”.

To fix the problem, Doyle said, the amount of content online must first be reduced and then the quality of what is left improved.

And she said better governance structures are needed to prevent sites filling up again with unread content: “We have to find a way to stop doing this every few years – the cost to government is huge, and even bigger to citizens.”

One weakness highlighted by Doyle is that articles designed to provide guidance and texts providing access to services themselves are often seen as separate forms of content, managed by different teams with limited interaction.

“To really start building coherent services that meet user need, the silos between transactions and content have to be bridged,” she said.

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See also:

Justice services lag in European e-government, report finds

UK Government Digital Service sets up international team

Mike Bracken, former head of the Government Digital Service (GDS): Exclusive interview

Former UK digital chief offers a welcome and a warning

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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