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Photos: Prototype portal lifts lid on future of public services

Cabinet Office reveals alpha.gov.uk vision for a single government website domain...
By Tim Ferguson, Contributor on
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alpha.gov.uk

Cabinet Office reveals alpha.gov.uk vision for a single government website domain...

An alpha prototype for a single web portal through which government online information and services could be delivered has been unveiled by the Cabinet Office. The alpha.gov.uk domain, shown above, is now available for the public to test-drive and to provide feedback to aid development.

The concept of a single website domain stems from a review of government online services carried out by government digital champion Martha Lane Fox. Her report put forward the idea of bringing all government websites together under a single direct.gov.uk domain.

By moving all departmental information to a single location, the government predicts it will be able to cut more than 50 per cent from the £130m it spends on internet publishing per year.

This is the first time the government has launched a prototype to test a web service. "This is not the finished article, but an early draft, an opportunity for the public to have a look and tell us what they think," Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said in a statement.

Deputy director of Single Domain at UK Government Tom Loosemore was appointed to build a prototype of the single government web domain and has been working with a team of six developers and a handful of other staff to produce alpha.gov.uk over the past two and a half months. When describing his task during a preview of the website, Loosemore said: "I was asked to build the future and not just talk about it."

When visitors first arrive at the website, they are shown a message explaining that it's a prototype and how they can provide feedback.

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alpha.gov.uk

The homepage, shown above, features a search bar at its centre in which users can type in the subject they are seeking information on. The prototype version focuses on the top 100 most frequently asked questions to government, such as the dates of bank holidays, what the minimum wage is and how to register for VAT.

The top of the homepage makes it clear that alpha.gov.uk is an experimental prototype. Loosemore stressed the prototype website should not be viewed as a fully functioning resource. "In no way is this complete," he said.

Loosemore's development team prioritised different criteria when building the website over a two-and-a-half-month period, focusing on more modern browsers for simplicity's sake. As a result, the alpha site may not be as suitable for older browsers such as IE6.

"We've not ticked every box in terms of accessibility," Loosemore said, before adding accessibility would be addressed if and when the single website domain becomes a reality.

The development team has incorporated elements of HTML5 and plans to expose the APIs that support the site for other organisations to use later in the development process.

Loosemore said linked data and semantic web are important elements of the single government website domain, as they are for the bbc.co.uk website domain.

Alpha.gov.uk is running on the Amazon Web Service infrastructure because the project team felt it was too early and expensive to invest in its own internal infrastructure for a prototype.

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alpha.gov.uk

The prototype website prompts users to enter their postcode to make sure their query is accurate for their geographical location.

For example, if someone loses their passport overseas, the website can work out the nearest embassy or consulate to their location to arrange the issue of a replacement. This approach also applies to areas such as council tax where the website can direct users to the relevant local authority website.

"That doesn't work as well on a static website so we use the power of the internet to make it easier. We've done quite a bit to work with geolocation," Loosemore said.

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Much like Google Instant, the alpha.gov.uk lists suggestions as people type in their query.

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alpha.gov.uk

The bottom section of the homepage lists the most common tools and topics, so users can get the answer to their question with one click, rather than by using the search function.

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alpha.gov.uk

One of the most common queries is what the level of the minimum wage is. Once visitors click on the relevant icon on the tools and topics section, they are taken to a page within the site containing all the relevant information. The minimum wage section includes the various levels of pay for different age groups and flags up the increase to the minimum wage level due in October 2011.

Loosemore said the design team has aimed for "consistency not homogeneity" when building the prototype so that users can easily use the service after their first visit.

The information sections have been designed so that users can see all the resources relevant to their query in one place. For example, if they search redundancy, the site will show there are seven key sections to visit as well as a glossary. When dealing with processes, the site will show the number of steps for the process and how long it should take.

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The alpha website also offers prototypes for revamped government department websites such as the Department for Education, shown above. Loosemore explained that the departmental website URLs don't include the department names because they change so often.

Departmental websites include sections on latest news, policies, publications, speeches and latest comments on social networks such as Twitter. Any relevant bills are also shown, the data for which is drawn from the parliament.co.uk website.

Loosemore said he believes the approach he and his team have taken for the single government website domain is the right one but admitted that public opinion will be the deciding factor.

"If people absolutely hate it, it would be nuts to think the right thing to do was to carry on with it regardless," he said.

The prototype website will be available for the public to test for two months and the progress of the alpha programme can be followed at blog.alpha.gov.uk and @alphagov on Twitter.

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