GDS: Civil servants ‘wasting time’ producing content that users can’t find

Written by Rebecca Hill on 6 December 2016 in News

Three-quarters of GOV.UK content is looked at by less than 10 people a month, according to figures from the Government Digital Service.

GOV.UK pledges to improve search functionality to help users find what they need - Photo credit: Pixnio

There are more than 300,000 items of content across GOV.UK and more than 250,000 downloadable files, and GDS said that civil servants across central government were adding 2,500 items of content a week and 2,600 new files.

However, Trisha Doyle, head of content design at GDS, said that 73% of that content is looked at by less 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,” she said in a blogpost.

Moreover, as the content teams across government are asked to produce and publish new content they are struggling to maintain existing content, meaning it becomes out of date or inaccurate.

The volume of content, along with the low quality of the things that are on GOV.UK makes life difficult for users, Doyle said, adding that when users can’t find what they need to know “they make mistakes and hit the phones”.

She said that the only way to fix search and browse was first to reduce “our enormous stock of content”, then improve the quality of the rest and have better governance structures to stop the same thing happening again in the future.

“We have to find a way to stop doing this every few years - the cost to government is huge, and even bigger to citizens,” she said.

However, in response to a comment that cautioned against removing content just because it was less popular – noting that it could still be important to a smaller number of people – Doyle said GDS did not intend to remove content permanently, but to archive it instead.

“For us archiving means making sure it's not confused with current and more relevant content from a user's perspective,” she said. “But we do need to organise our content better, consolidate the things that need to be read together to get the full facts and make sure it doesn't contradict.”

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In an effort to make it easier for users to search and find the content they need – and so cut down on the number of phone calls staff are dealing with – the content team carried out research on GOV.UK content.

Doyle said that these findings fall into seven themes, including that the approach to content – which involves one central government team overseeing content across government to put users first – remains “a really good thing” and is valued by the community.

However, she said that the division between content aimed at citizens – managed by the central content team across 3,000 pages – and the rest of the content – managed by other teams and accounting for more than 300,000 pages – is arbitrary.

“For example, users could start on a ‘mainstream’ (citizen-facing) guide, but to complete their task they end up in a 70 page PDF written in departmental specific language and jargon,” Doyle said.

“The split was appropriate for the transition of government’s websites to a single domain, but it’s not helping our users who need to complete a task.”

Other findings from the research are that content designers are not empowered to challenge decisions in their departments and that the environment they work in “varies wildly” across government.

In addition, it was found that, although content is now co-located on GOV.UK it is not coherent, while there is too much separation between guidance content and service design. “To really start building coherent services that meet user need, the silos between transactions and content have to be bridged,” Doyle said.

Finally, the research found that “publishing isn’t really digital by default” because government is still operating from a paper-based, traditional and reactive process.

“Our guidance to publishers doesn’t spell out clearly enough what good looks like. And our tools don’t make it as easy as it could be,” she said.

“There are too many PDFs and we know they’re not great for accessibility, but it’s hard to change behaviour when the alternatives aren’t yet simple or intuitive enough to use.”

Doyle said that the content operating model had to be built around publishers’ needs and that the GOV.UK team needed to do the hard work to make publishing simple.

She added that the content team now looking at the priorities and seeking people to help run pilots on changes to content.

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Submitted on 6 December, 2016 - 13:57
Perhaps GDS should also consider the fact that it takes several months of arguments with them to actually produce said content first which they insist on watering down to the point where anyone looking for meaty information cannot get it. Also their platform that can only deal with the least engaging "flat" content that a large section of our audience say they don't want. I completely understand where they are coming from and what they are trying to do but they are focused on miniture transactions in a large IT system that no one ever seems to look at the wider picture of what people actually want on a larger scale than "As a person, I can only deal with one piece of information on this page" without proper context.


Submitted on 7 December, 2016 - 14:21
Dear Simon - have you ever actually sat and watched real users trying to make sense of all this 'meaty information' you say they want? I don't work for GDS, but it seems to me that they are one of the few organisations who ARE looking at the 'wider picture of what people actually want'. I'd imagine the several months of arguments you refer to are what happens when a user-centric organisation tries to stem the tidal wave of opaque, bureaucratic waffle. Thank God someone's trying to do it.

avangelist (not verified)

Submitted on 7 December, 2016 - 23:15
How is it that we now have an influx of GDS staff bashing the work their predecessors have done whilst blaming the people they designed the service to be maintained by for coding it wrong. This report means that the governance for content on hasn't been maintained - fix that.

Keith R (not verified)

Submitted on 14 December, 2016 - 08:47
Aeronaut wrote: "but it seems to me that they are one of the few organisations who ARE looking at the 'wider picture of what people actually want'" YOu seem to be missing the core point Simon makes - which is that most of the problems against which Doyle rails, ARE CAUSED BY GDS. As Avangalist rightly observes: "This report means that the governance for content on hasn't been maintained - fix that."

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