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How Britain started the digital government revolution

BY James O'Malley

22nd Nov 2022 Technology

How Britain started the digital government revolution

James O'Malley hits "refresh" on government websites and explores the digital government services on offer

Something that you might not expect happened last time I renewed my passport: It was completely painless. 

All I had to do was log on to the government’s GOV.UK website and click a few buttons on a page that was clearly laid out, which explained what I had to do in simple terms. No printing out forms or trips to the Post Office required. I didn’t even need to find a photobooth to take a formal picture—I could upload a photo from my phone, as long as I’d taken it against a blank wall with a fairly miserable expression on my face. 

And within a few minutes, I was done, and just had to wait for the new passport to arrive in the post. 

British passport

Thanks to digital government services, renewing your passport is now a painless procedure

This might sound crazy if you’ve not experienced it for yourself, as everyone knows that if you ever have to do some tedious life admin, you might need to mentally prepare yourself to spend hours on the phone, or ping-ponging emails back and forth to wrestle through the bureaucracy. I know that whenever I need to phone a utility company, I brace for a long, annoying call. 

So why is passport renewal, and a surprisingly comprehensive range of government services all so straightforward? It all stems from the decision over a decade ago to radically transform the way the government organises digital services, with the launch of GOV.UK. It was more than just a new website. It was a new philosophy about how public services should work in the age of the internet. 

A digital revolution

The genius of GOV.UK is that it breaks down the barriers between government departments. The idea is that you don’t need to know whether it is HMRC or the Department of Work & Pensions where you need to file your tax return. Instead, the website is organised based on “user-centred” design principles, and is focused on improving the user experiences where people interact with government the most—things like pensions, benefits, passports and so on. 

"Something unexpected happened last time I renewed my passport: It was completely painless"

Unusually though, the goal of GOV.UK is different from almost every other website on the internet: Unlike everything from Facebook, to your local newspaper’s website, the goal isn’t to make you stay on the site for as long as possible, but to help you solve whatever problem it is that you’re having as speedily as possible, knowing that the less time you spend interacting with public services the happier you will be. 

It is these simple principles that have revolutionised how the government works on the internet, and today doing everything from checking your taxes to registering to vote is a breeze. 

Still a way to go

But ten years on, GOV.UK is a long way from being "finished". Because the government is big and lumbering, some government departments are changing how they work faster than others—sometimes all the GOV.UK website does is put a shiny cover on a system stuck in the digital stone age

Post office

You may still find yourself queuing for the post office on occasion

I saw this myself recently when updating the address on my driving licence. After clicking through from the modern page, I was taken to the old DVLA website, which looks like it hasn’t changed since around 2002. Then the worst thing happened. The digital form refused to let me update my address because it hadn’t been programmed to handle the apostrophe in my name. So after trying many times and getting increasingly frustrated, I, a professional technology journalist and someone who knows a thing or two about computers, found myself at the Post Office, filling in a paper form. 

But at least it's all heading in the right direction. And though there are still problems, surprisingly this is something we should actually be proud of, as when it comes to digital government, Britain is arguably the best in the world. So much so that since the launch of GOV.UK, other countries have copied how we do it. 

"When it comes to digital government, Britain is arguably the best in the world"

In fact, some governments have even taken advantage of the fact that lots of the designs of GOV.UK webpages are “open source”, meaning anyone can use them. So if you go to GOVT.NZ, the New Zealand government’s website, or the websites of the governments of Canada, or Ireland too, you might notice it looking strangely familiar—because it’s literally running on the same code. Let’s just hope they remembered to change the name of the country on the passport page. 

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