Friday, September 29, 2006

Fisking the DTI

I saw this a few months ago, but I keep checking back for updates. It’s worth a long look if you’ve got a moment.

Here’s the backstory. A few years ago now, the DTI issued an invitation to tender for their website. Fujitsu won the bid and – with a smaller agency partner - built what can only be described as a pile of crap that didn’t do a lot of the stuff that the tender demanded. And they charged at least twice as much as any decent agency would charge for the job. Whether the fault lies with the suppliers or the DTI, I don’t know. I’ve seen the way that the public sector manage projects so nothing would surprise me.

The good citizens at Blether.com have made a pretty convincing fist of caring about the quality of public websites. They started asking questions – using Freedom of Information legislation where they could. It was picked up by Private Eye and it’s caused no small amount of fuss. You can read all about it here – there’s a lot to the story as it has developed, so browse around the site to get it all.

In the industry that Mr Blether works in (and I declare an interest here, it’s my industry as well) it is kinda important to us that public websites should improve government’s ability to explain itself. Making Civil Servants present all of their work in a navigable and intuitive way can sharpen the blunt instrument that is Freedom of Information legislation.

We have the legislation that makes civil servants disclose stuff to us, but we also pay good taxpayers money to send them on courses where they learn how to remain as opaque as possible. To realise the potential of this legislation, information should be easy to find. It should be presented in an intuitive way. A well thought-out and properly implemented website can make this possible.

There is also the equality issue as well. Those websites should be easy and intuitive to use, and they shouldn’t exclude people because they have the kind of physical barriers that can be overcome quite simply using fairly standard technologies. For instance, if you have poor eyesight, it should be possible to alter text sizes or change font / background colours. The site should be laid out in a way that speech-browsers (e.g. readspeaker or JAWS) can read them out in a way that doesn’t make them incomprehensible.

And if you know anything about professional standards in website design, this issue is rendered to two words: Usability and accessibility.

Despite tortuous (and – again – expensive) guidance on how this should be done properly, the DTI website was launched showing only a nodding acquaintance with usability or accessibility standards and good practice, even though the original invitation to tender made the usual strenuous demands for the highest standards in this field.

It would probably take a large lorry-load of dynamite to thoroughly change this state of affairs, but in the meantime, fisking specific government projects would seem to be a powerful tool that the blogosphere has created. The Blether story - if it were duplicated (and there is plenty more ammo around for this) will help to galvanise a coalition of professionals to do something about it. There is definitely mileage in using Freedom of Information legislation to demand systematic changes that will result in real Freedom of Information.

2 comments:

Katherine said...

I like the new look, and I do actually have proper comments to make, but for now all I want to say is: you were a student of my mum's (Mary) in the late 80s, and you were the inspiration for what now makes up about half my record collection, and for many other things besides. You were great to me and my mum at a really crappy time. It's very good to rediscover you, and it was only the fact you were writing about Forest on the day that I followed a link to your blog that meant I figured out who you were. Can you send me an email, and we can all have a drink sometime? It'd be great to be in touch.
I'm ibbett At umich DOT edu.

Tim Almond said...

The more information requests that are turned down by departments, the more people can realise what a crock the FOI act is.

Government should be far more open. FOI rejections should be on the basis of protecting the confidentiality of individual citizens or for reasons of security.