Directgov: Five years on

We reached the fifth birthday of Directgov, the nation’s official website, this year. Launched in 2004, Directgov provides access to information from many government departments in one place and allows tasks such as ordering passports and paying car tax online to be completed quickly. Like any website of its kind, it is informative and transactional. You can find out what you need to know. You can do what you need to do.
The rationale behind the creation of Directgov, and behind our commitment to development, innovation and expansion is obvious. Over the past decade, people have become increasingly accustomed to the ease of shopping, banking and keeping in touch online. Naturally, they have come to expect public services to be available with the same speed and convenience. Therefore we aim to be as accessible as possible; content is written in plain English and we offer the service across a variety of channels: internet, mobile, Teletext, Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media.

The creation of a government ‘supersite’ was first discussed in 2002, when the Office of the e-Envoy (OeE) carried out an audit into the experiences and wishes of current and potential users of e-government services in the UK. It revealed a need for a single, citizen-centric, cross departmental website. Based on this research the OeE drew up plans for an ‘online government store’ and Directgov was launched in April 2004.
There is also a strong cost-saving imperative underlying the need for Directgov. The on-going convergence programme will bring all citizen-facing content to Directgov by April 2011 allowing many departmental sites to close. Sir David Varney’s Service Transformation Review estimated that up to £400 million savings could be made over three years because of e-service improvement including website rationalisation, channel shift and shared infrastructure if every department rigorously applied the agreed policy.

There have been several notable milestones since our launch. For example our popularity as a trusted source of easy-to-understand information lead to a record 606,000 visits to our site on Budget Day 2009.
Perhaps the biggest validation for Directgov is the sheer number of visitors it attracts and how many of these visitors go away satisfied. Directgov received more than 20 million visits in July and is the second most visited government website. In February 2009, Directgov became the most-visited government website in the UK, and was ranked as the 46th most popular website in the UK overall.
In March 2009, we conducted a brand tracker survey to evaluate the success of Directgov’s last advertising campaign. The study was carried out via face-to-face in-home interviewing amongst interviewees all over England. In many of the questions those surveyed were asked questions that compared Directgov to other brands. We were especially proud that Directgov was rated as better than eBay, Amazon and Tesco for being up to date and a trusted source of information and services.
A Web Customer Monitor survey in March of this year revealed that 81 per cent of visitors said that they would recommend the site to their friends.

Why Directgov is necessary
With an ability to reach out to such a wide group of people, it’s natural that we should be the public’s first point of call for information about some of the year’s biggest news stories. For example, since April of this year Directgov has been the source of essential government information on the swine flu pandemic.
With such important information to communicate, naturally we’re always trying to find new ways to get our message across to the public and increasingly this means engaging, and more importantly engaging effectively, with social media and new digital technologies. Thus another milestone came in January 2009 when we launched Directgov \ Innovate. The Innovate project is a platform which allows us to communicate with the developer community about the innovative use of digital technology in government.
Perhaps the first notable challenge for Innovate came just a month after its launch. Britain was hit by one of the worst periods of snowfall in recent memory and schools all over the UK were closed. The Directgov \ Innovate team moved quickly, building a School Closures Prototype that used non-personal school data, and employed crowd sourcing techniques to experiment with how government could use digital technologies to respond to such an emergency. The feedback received from the developer community on the School Closures Prototype has informed how we will further develop such an application for the future. Just as we’re using Directgov \ Innovate to ascertain how we can improve government use of digital technologies, we’re also always keen to learn how we can improve the Innovate site itself. To this end, we listened to the comments of our users and relaunched the site in July 2009, using an open source content management system which added the capability for users to submit their own innovative applications and ideas.
As well as experimenting with the future use of digital applications, we are making use of the social media applications already available. We tweet on Twitter and in April of this year we developed a prototype application called ‘Moneyspeak’, our first tool to be used in conjunction with social media. Moneyspeak provides explanations for confusing financial jargon and leads readers to Directgov content that could be helpful. While this prototype is trialled it can be found at:

Digital inclusion
While we work hard to ensure that we use appropriate new technologies, we’re also mindful that many citizens do not have access to or rarely use the internet. So we are also using other channels, such as Freeview and mobile, and work with UKOnline Centres to promote digital inclusion.
A survey of the users of Directgov’s TV Service conducted in late 2008 and early 2009 (which users were actually able to complete through their TV) showed that the service on Sky and Virgin increases reach to the socially excluded citizen. Viewers of Directgov’s interactive television service tend be older, with 70 per cent over 35 and 54 per cent over 45. Our research tells us that 49 per cent rarely (less than once a week) or never access the internet on a PC
Through the convergence programme, and because of the way we employ multiple channels to reach as many people as possible, as well as building up our reputation as a trusted source of information, we have grown visitor numbers year-on-year. In our first year of existence, there were five million visitors to the site. This year so far there have been more than 58 million visits.
As an ever-increasing number of the population know that they can come to us about everything from day-to-day matters such as recycling to finding a school for their children, we anticipate that Directgov will play an increasingly important role in providing citizens with trusted information and services when and where they are needed.

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