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Articles on this Page
- 02/03/14--03:05: _GOV.UK page perform...
- 02/04/14--09:23: _GDS visits UKGovcamp
- 02/05/14--03:43: _Looking back at Spr...
- 02/11/14--04:52: _Improving GOV.UK on...
- 02/10/14--08:46: _Striking a balance ...
- 02/11/14--12:45: _Sharing Sprint 14
- 02/19/14--06:12: _How to find all the...
- 02/15/14--02:47: _Weekend links
- 02/19/14--06:06: _Guest Post: Clarity...
- 02/19/14--06:06: _GDS this week: Inno...
- 01/11/13--04:22: _This week at GDS
- 01/11/13--08:58: _The Future is Here
- 01/16/13--15:03: _Standing on the sho...
- 01/17/13--02:53: _To Identity and Beyond
- 01/17/13--08:52: _How much? Publishin...
- 01/17/13--09:26: _Government transact...
- 01/18/13--08:10: _This week at GDS
- 01/21/13--10:00: _Sprint 13 – the sto...
- 01/22/13--08:57: _High-resolution images
- 01/23/13--07:58: _Cold comfort farm
- 02/03/14--03:05: GOV.UK page performance: are we fulfilling our content goals?
- 02/04/14--09:23: GDS visits UKGovcamp
- 02/05/14--03:43: Looking back at Sprint 14
- 02/11/14--04:52: Improving GOV.UK on mobile devices
- 02/10/14--08:46: Striking a balance between security and usability
- 02/11/14--12:45: Sharing Sprint 14
- 02/19/14--06:12: How to find all the maps published on GOV.UK
- 02/15/14--02:47: Weekend links
- 02/19/14--06:06: GDS this week: Innovating with SMEs and fast track apprentices
- 01/11/13--04:22: This week at GDS
- 01/11/13--08:58: The Future is Here
- 01/16/13--15:03: Standing on the shoulders of giants
- 01/17/13--02:53: To Identity and Beyond
- 01/17/13--08:52: How much? Publishing the cost of government transactions
- 01/17/13--09:26: Government transaction costs – the story behind the data
- 01/18/13--08:10: This week at GDS
- 01/21/13--10:00: Sprint 13 – the story in pictures
- 01/22/13--08:57: High-resolution images
- 01/23/13--07:58: Cold comfort farm
In the content team we’ve developed new theme dashboards that give us a page-level indication of GOV.UK mainstream content performance.
These dashboards are useful to everyone in GDS, as GOV.UK user data can reveal how people interact with government services, and how they’d like to. Data is the voice of our users – we need to interpret this language to give you what you need.
Trying to find a couple of data sources that would give us an insight into the performance of GOV.UK pages wasn’t easy. Our pages have different functions according to the user need they’re meeting, and Google Analytics can quickly turn into a rabbit warren without a clear idea about how a page should be working. Add to that the fact that the Google Analytics data we use is sampled, and you’ve got some pretty big challenges to overcome.
After lots of trial and error, we stripped our analysis back to show us whether we’re meeting the original aims of GOV.UK, namely:
Using the Google Analytics API, which John will blog about separately, we’re able to isolate the most useful Google Analytics metrics in our own customised spreadsheet. This allows us to include data from other sources, such as user comments from Zendesk.
Are we optimising for the common case?
GOV.UK is probably just as successful for what we’ve left out, as what we’ve included. We need to see at a glance what content is getting the most traffic so that we can ensure that the most popular content is really good, and is prioritised within the site. Likewise if content isn’t being used, we need to question why. The first column shows how much traffic each page is getting, and the pages are ordered by popularity.
For example in the Education dashboard, the most popular page Student finance login is getting about 200K more unique pageviews than the second most popular – the Student finance guide. A bit digging reveals that this is because these students are returning visitors – they’ve already created their student finance accounts, and now just need to log in to these accounts. Even those unfamiliar with student finance can see at a glance what the top user need within the Education section is.
How is the common case changing?
Percentage changes in unique pageviews, month to month
Which brings us to the second column, which shows month-to-month changes in unique pageviews. We need to monitor changes in user needs and reflect these on the site.
For example, the Winter Fuel payment benefit got about 160% more traffic from October to November, and is now the fourth most popular benefit. We prioritised this content in the browse page, and made sure people were getting what they needed from related links. It’s pretty obvious that winter-related content will get more popular in winter, but with thousands of pages on the site we need an over-arching view of demand cycles.
Here you can see how demand for the Winter Fuel payment benefit has varied from July to mid-December. See a post on GOV.UK traffic from last winter if you’re interested in seasonal cycles.
Of course not all changes in popularity are related to seasonal demand. Sometimes traffic will change in response to changes we make to the content, like if we’ve optimised content to appear higher in Google, or added a link that generates a lot of traffic to a page. For example, pageviews to our Make a SORN page increased by about 70K from October to November because we added a link to this page from the car tax related links section. Likewise a change we make could inadvertently reduce traffic – we need to keep an eye on this.
Are people finding our content in Google?
The next column shows how many people are coming to a page from outside GOV.UK. This figure covers people coming from a link on another site, typing the URL in the address bar, or using a bookmarked link, but generally our external traffic comes from Google. So this column gives us an indication of whether Google is acting as the home page for GOV.UK. People looking to get something done online have a specific task in mind, and often and don’t know or care whether government provides the service. They’ll search for their need in Google and choose the best result.
For example the Jobseeker’s Allowance browse page is only getting about 6% entrances, which seems alarming. But we need to consider the context. This is a browse page, we’d rather people got straight to the actual content page that fulfilled their need. In this case it’s the Jobseeker’s Allowance guide, which as you can see below gets a higher percentage of entrances (though this could still be improved).
How can we be simpler, clearer and faster?
Searches on pages
The fourth column reveals how many people are searching on each page. This metric allows us to make GOV.UK simpler, clearer and faster by giving people what they want on a specific page so they don’t have to search. See our blog post The search is over… almost! to find out what we’ve done with the Search pages report in Google Analytics.
This is our starting point for page-level performance analysis. We also have a user comments column waiting in the wings for when we can plug Zendesk data into the spreadsheets. User comments are probably the most useful bit of data we have, as people can tell us exactly what they want on every content page. Data is the voice of our users, and we’re doing our best to interpret this language with both the dashboards, and our deeper content analysis with Google Analytics.
Note: sampled data means that Google Analytics has only given us data based on a proportion of visits to GOV.UK, and this proportion varies. This will be less of an issue when Google increase the amount of unsampled data we can get, but in the meantime we’ve designed the dashboards to give content insight despite this limitation. Anyone using the dashboard needs to refer to corresponding reports on Google Analytics before using the data.
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On Saturday 25th January 2014 we visited UKGovcamp; the annual ‘unconference’ for people interested in how the public sector does digital stuff. The event was held at City Hall, Southbank, London.
Jeremy Gould, Founder UKGovcamp
I spent 2006 and 2007 meeting lots of really interesting people around government and around the outskirts of government, and working for large organisations who were interested in working with government, and I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be great to get them all in the same room together in one day. And that’s really what Govcamp was about.
Lizzie Bell, Ofsted
UKGovcamp is an amazing opportunity to meet like-minded people and also to meet people outside the kind of people that you’d normally work with or meet in professional life.
Rhammel Afflick, Govcamp attendee
My favourite thing about Govcamp has to be the people really because everyone’s really welcoming and everyone’s really respectful of their views.
Mark O’Neill, Government Digital Service
It provides a very supportive environment for conversations and topics that are sometimes very challenging because we’re talking about collectively how do we deliver the kind of services that people should get not the services that we think they should receive.
The idea is that you turn up and there is no agenda essentially, the people who are part of the audience, part of the event, get the opportunity to pitch an idea.
Lloyd Davis, UKGovcamp compere
That’s the thing that’s really always so important is that we haven’t decided what it is they’re going to talk about; they talk about what they want.
Livia Oldland, Cambridge County Council
It’s my first time in Govcamp today, and I’ve really liked the unconference style, meeting lots of new people, meeting people from government working in technology.
I think an awful lot of the changes we’ve seen in recent years in terms of focus on the user, digital transformation, I think those would have been an awful lot harder to drive forward without Govcamp.
We made two short videos for Sprint 14 that give you a little glimpse into the work being done by teams all over the country to transform services. Both show what it’s like to be working on the exemplars, but they’re also a celebration of how far we’ve come in the last 200 days.
Mobile use on GOV.UK has increased significantly since launch in October 2012, moving from around 15% to 23% of the overall audience.
We are now starting to improve the experience for mobile and tablet users accordingly, so here’s an outline of a couple of simple initial changes we’ve made.
Screen space is in short supply on small devices. So making good use of what’s available is really important.
One thing that had troubled me for some time was how little content was actually immediately visible in the view on a lot of pages when browsing on mobile. The navigation and titles dominated too heavily.
We’ve just deployed some changes that help tighten up this space and get more of what our users need in front of them — content.
It’s a subtle change, but an important one.
Testing our assumptions
Another thing that I think we’ve needed to address for a while is the ‘Not what you’re looking for’ link in mobile views seen above, and below in more detail.
On desktop screens, related links are shown to the right of the main body of content. This is to help users navigate to content that is associated with what’s in front of them (and in some contexts may be more useful). Though this depends of course on how they found their way to the page.
On small viewport screens however, there is no space to show these links in the same position, so instead they sit at the foot of the page.
The ‘not what you’re looking for’ link was originally added in the belief that it was still important to allow users immediate access to these ‘near-miss’ pieces of content on mobile.
What’s never sat right is how jarring it is to be presented with a statement ‘Not what you’re looking for’ as soon as you arrive on a page. It assumes a user is in the wrong place and second guesses their intentions.
Decisions based on data
We don’t like to remove things based on hunches. Our iterations are based on users’ behaviour and research.
So, we added click tracking to the ‘not what you’re looking for’ link at the end of last year with a view to waiting and letting the data do the talking.
The result was unanimously in favour of the redundancy of this link.
Just 0.352% of pageviews in mobile viewports resulted in the link being clicked.
So, we have removed this item, safe in the knowledge that it will not be missed and that the related links are still there at the foot of the page where they are still useful.
We have more improvements in the pipeline to improve the experience of GOV.UK on different devices and will keep you updated as and when we ship them.
Last year our boss Mike Bracken talked at the Code for America Summit in San Francisco, and spoke about the need to strike a balance between usability and security. There is a point beyond which over-zealous security gets in the way, and puts people off using the technology that’s being protected.
We wanted to explore this in a bit more detail, so we asked out director of technical architecture, James Stewart, to talk us through the issues. We wanted to know: how much security is too much? How do you find the right balance?
In this short interview, James talks about taking a “measured approach” to security that looks at likely risks in context. New services must be secure and fit for purpose. It’s no use making something secure if that results in a service that’s unusable. In practical terms, that means making sure that everyone on a project is thinking about security and possible “misuse cases” – it’s not a job that should be hived off to a separate team.
To listen to the full interview (about 10 minutes), click the play button in the embedded SoundCloud widget below. Alternatively, you can download the audio directly from the Internet Archive.
Follow James on Twitter: @jystewart
Follow Giles on Twitter: @gilest
Interviewer: Hello. Can you tell me who you are and what you do?
James Stewart: I’m James Stewart. By GDS standards I’m a long-time member of the GDS team, and I’m currently director of technical architecture.
Interviewer: What is a director of technical architecture?
James: It’s a new role that we’ve only introduced quite recently. It’s about establishing a new way of doing technical architecture in an agile, digital delivery kind of world, making sure that the way that we build systems is flexible; that we’re approaching things in a coherent way across government, and also taking responsibility for the products that we build at GDS and the platforms that we build; that they’re fit for purpose; that they can evolve as our user needs evolve. All that kind of thing.
Interviewer: For the benefit of the uninitiated, what is technical architecture? What does that mean?
James: Well, that really depends who you talk to, and the organisation that you’re working within. But generally, it is about taking a step back from the way that bits of code are being written, to think about the system as a whole, thinking about products as a whole, or platforms, and making sure that they’re fitting together in a coherent way; that they’re exhibiting whatever characteristics your organisation needs, and that you’re looking a little bit ahead. In agile, you’re always trying to focus on which value, which bit of value are we trying to deliver immediately? What are we trying to get to next? But it’s always important to be looking a little way ahead. Is this going to be flexible to the directions that we want to take it in? Is this coming together to meet the general requirements to meet user needs? Rather than just, does this piece of code work in a micro-perspective?
Interviewer: Fantastic. Let’s talk a little bit about security. When Mike Bracken went to the Code for America conference, one of the things he said was this:
The third one is security. I don’t mean Snowden security; I mean this pernicious view that security must come ahead of usability at all times. When I started in government, I was given a laptop that required 22 discreet pieces of information so that I could work it. I couldn’t send an email to all my staff, and why not? Because of security. We’ve just got to get usability ahead of security.
Two things arise out of that. What is the “pernicious view” that he’s talking about, and why do we need to get usability ahead of security?
James: It’s very common for people to take a very, very risk-averse approach to anything that they’re building. Whenever you’re providing a service or building a system that people have to use, there’s a set of risks around that, and that’s the case whether you’re doing it in government or doing it for something that you might use in your home. But you have to be thoughtful and careful about balancing risks.
Rather than listing out everything that could possibly go wrong with something that you build, and then protecting against every single one of those, think about what, would the outcome be if that thing went wrong? Think about how likely is it that that’s going to happen? And take appropriate steps to prepare for those situations.
People in general aren’t great at thinking through risks and thinking through things in that kind of measured way. We can get scared quite easily, or we worry about things which are what’s on our mind, not the sort of balanced, really think this through approach. Often in computing, in service design in general, in all of those areas, people have taken this approach of: “We need to make this secure because people are going to want to attack it, and therefore we need to lock it down in every way that we possibly can.” But that stops people using it, and it means that any efforts that you’re making to meet user needs are flustered; they’re blocked by the fact that people can’t use this thing.
If we want people to work with government online, to adopt Digital by Default, we need to make those services that people want to use, and that are simple enough for them to use, and we need to start with that. We need to start with: how are we going to make these services really great? How are we going to make them attractive to people? Then think about the risks around that in that context, and always driving back to: how are we making this fit for purpose and something that people will want to use?
That can often mean having to think outside the box around security; think about how you can, not just lock things down, but perhaps seek verification for something through a different channel. Rather than making it such that you have to enter lots and lots of pieces of information to sign into a system, that you use different channels for checking that information.
You know that somebody’s got a mobile phone. You could send a message to that; gives you a little bit of extra verification of their identity. Rather than asking them half a dozen extra questions, can we use these different tools at our disposal to balance the security and the usability of a service? It’s really vital that we do that, if we actually want people to use these services. People just aren’t going to use them unless they can.
Interviewer: How do you strike the right balance between those two opposing criteria; between the security and the usability? At what point does something become insecure because it’s too usable, or the other way round?
James: I think we have to not really set those things up quite in opposition. They’re often in tension, but they’re not necessarily opposed. You might find that you think that the best way to give people a great experience of a service is to put on one page on the web everything that you know about them. There’s a lot of risk associated with doing that. It means that somebody who’s malicious who’s just looking over their shoulder suddenly knows everything about them, and can use that to commit identity theft, so you probably don’t want to be doing that.
But actually when you look at it, putting everything that you know on one page is probably information overload for somebody as well. One of our design principles is: “Do less”, and it’s a really good idea to think about that throughout the whole thing. “What’s the real core of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to offer people? Let’s not decorate that with lots of extra information.”
That’s a really good starting point, is that: “Do less. What’s the real core of what we’re trying to do?” Then start doing real user research, and exploring, “What are the particular risks that we’re trying to protect against, here, and how do other people think about those? How do the users of our service think about it?”
A very common one is if you’re sending an email to somebody as part of your service, and you’re putting a link in that, that sets up a context where it might be quite easy for somebody to forge that email and send people a link that looks like it’s to your service, but actually it’s to their honeypot thing that will capture their credit card details and steal all their money. It’s called phishing. We have to really think about how we’re signalling to people whether this is a genuine email or not, and you can only really do that if you start sitting down with them, understanding: how do they read those emails? How else to they receive information? How do you give them confidence in the right things? A lot of it’s back to, work with the users as closely as you can.
Most people who use the internet much have received a lot of phishing emails, whether they call them that or not, but the things that pretend to be from HSBC or pretend to be from HMRC, offering you a tax refund, if you just give them every piece of information they could possibly want. People know there’s an issue there, and then they just want to make sure that they’re not really inconvenienced by what you do.
But generally there are all sorts of techniques, and you have to think about what could go wrong if this thing got exploited. How likely is it that they’ll be exploited, and then what do we do? Do you actually make sure that you always include a phone number; that people can call up to verify that this email was real? Or do you just offer them part of the information that they need, so that they can match that with what they already know about the way that they’ve used your service, and see that it’s genuine?
It’s one of the many things that we do that really lends itself to the cross-disciplinary way of doing things, that we want everybody to be building into their services. There are content issues, there are design issues, there’s technology, there’s just general service design; it all comes together.
All too often, it’s been the case that people have approached security as something that either people who deal with compliance and writing documents deal with, or that the techies deal with. It’s a fundamental part of the service; it’s not this separate thing that one team thinks about, and that email thing is a really good example of why that’s the case.
Interviewer: The whole team needs to be thinking about it from day one?
James: Yes. But making sure that they do it proportionately; that they don’t get paralysed by fears about security; that they’re just sort of conscious. There are some nice techniques, like one of our colleagues elsewhere in government talked about “misuse cases”. When you’re writing some user stories and thinking about your use cases for some feature that you’re building, also think about the misuse cases; think about how somebody might play with what you’ve built, or abuse it. That’s quite a nice technique.
With Sprint 14 now behind us, we wanted to share Baroness Martha Lane Fox’s opening speech, and the presentations and workshops given on the day.
Martha used her talk to remind everyone how far we’ve already come in our mission to transform government services – and how hard the work left to do is. If you can’t watch the video you can read a transcript below.
The day then turned to digital public service showcases – demonstrating how transactions like registering to vote, applying for a visa, tacking PAYE for employees, viewing your driving record or organising a prison visit have been transformed into digital services.
Workshops and talks
The parallel discussions were workshop focusing on specific topics – including an online identity panel discussion, a digital capabilities break-out session and a talk by Go ON UK about their work towards making the UK the world’s most digitally skilled nation.
Tom Read discussed fixing government technology, whilst Raphaelle Heaf lead a discussion on working with suppliers on the new Digital Marketplace in government.
The day concluded with a panel discussion on the topic of challenges and priorities for 2014.
We’ve included presentations from the parallel discussions below for those of you who couldn’t make it, or if you need a refresher:
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(Applause) [0:00:07] Good morning. Can you hear me? Good morning. Last time I came to this building it was for a very, very high-glitz celebrity party and everywhere you turned you bashed into somebody who was on television. I can tell you this room is full of much, much, much more important people right now, so I feel very honoured.
I have a very small brain, as Mike knows, and I can only ever write three or four things on a piece of paper, which is why my report that kicked all of this off was very short [0:00:37] and why I’ve really only got a couple of things to say to you this morning, the first of which is a very heartfelt thank you, properly, a big thank you. It’s only one person saying, “Thank you,” but I’m speaking on behalf of the millions of people that use Government services every day and who have seen a massive leap forward in how easy it is to use them.
I still get a thrill, because I’m slightly tragic, when people say to me, “Did you know that it’s really much easier to look up…?” whatever it is online, your driving licence [0:01:07] or do something. I say, “Yes, I did actually; I think it’s brilliant.” It’s fantastic when I get tweets or I hear from people round the world who cannot believe what GOV.UK has done. I can’t even go near the Design of the Year Award; that was just completely awesome. Thank you; thank you from me but thank you also for all the people who are finding that Government surprises them. That’s quite an extraordinary thing to have achieved.
The second thing, which I’m sure many of you are aware, is that this year is [0:01:37] the 25th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web. At the risk of sounding like a terrible namedropper, when I was talking to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, in case you didn’t know, and my close personal friend – not really (laughter) – he said to me that… I asked him about this year and what was happening and he said, understandably, that he was a bit embarrassed. He didn’t really want to go there, but the Americans were building him a sort of tribute park and they were doing some enormous thing to say, “Well done for inventing the World Wide Web.”
It [0:02:07] got me thinking and I was thinking, “What the hell are we doing? We are his home country,” so I’ve been on a kind of mission to make sure that the UK recognises Tim’s amazing achievement. Actually when I stand here – and I was thinking about [it] this morning – you guys can help me, because I don’t think there could be a better testament to his invention than Government, one of the most important forces in UK society and economy, embracing the Web in the way that he wanted, making it open, making it [0:02:37] inclusive, making it transparent, making it available to all people at the best possible quality.
It’s in your gift to continue what Tim started. What an incredible position to be in, to be able to lead the world in how Government thinks about the delivery of its services, going back to that original spirit that Tim had when he produced his first paper about the World Wide Web, which I’m sure many of you know he handed to his boss and his boss wrote on the top, [0:03:07] “Vague, but interesting.” (Laughter)
This is not vague and what you are doing is certainly interesting. On behalf of Tim, please continue on this journey, because the UK has an opportunity to continue to be world leading. We’re doing lots of exciting things in the technology space, but it’s not easy and it never stops. I think maybe the weather today is quite a good sign for all of this; it’s a bit of a struggle, it’s quite hard, you think, “Can I be bothered?” You’ve got to carry a lot of things, you maybe fall over – I [0:03:37] definitely fall over – but it’s worth doing and worth continuing.
The final thing I want to say to you is please don’t be dispirited if the journey is a bit more bumpy this year. “Keep calm and carry on,” in the words of the mugs and posters that seem to be all over the place these days. This is the hard bit. I so remember in Lastminute.com when people would come up to my desk and go, “It’s just not the same any more.” I’d say, “What do you mean?” and they said, “It’s just not the [0:04:07] same; you don’t stand on a desk, and we don’t have cake on Fridays, and you don’t have lots of fuck-ups from customers in the middle of the night.” I’m like, “No, exactly; we’re growing up, we’re becoming more professional.”
Sure, you lose some stuff over here, but you gain a lot over there, the potential for real scale change being one of the most important. Everybody goes through the teething pains, there are always bumpy bits in the road, but it requires absolute commitment and total clarity to keep going. That’s what I think this next year is [0:04:37] going to be about.
If you ever ask me back in the future, then it would be amazing to look back and say, “This really was the year when we moved from Government thinking, ‘That’s all quite interesting over there’ to this being a proper paradigm shift in how things are done.” That, to me, is what I was trying to urge Francis to take on when I wrote my report. Of course, in a much more profound way, that was what Tim was trying to do when he invented the World Wide Web.
I’m serious – 25th birthday of the Web; I cannot think of a better [0:05:07] birthday present than Government delivering on its promise of much more open, much more inclusive, much better services. Thank you, really, for everything that you’ve done and for everything that I know you’re going to do this year. Have a fantastic day, thank you (applause).
Government does a lot of stuff with maps, and if you like maps you might like to know about this clever trick for finding every single one that gets published on GOV.UK.
Start off at the Publications page, which by default shows you everything – all publications, on all topics, from every department. Look closer, though, and you’ll see the filter tools on the left that allow you to drill down to the stuff that you’re interested in.
For maps, then, click the “Publication type” filter and select Maps from the list. The list of tens of thousands of publications is suddenly reduced to a much more manageable few dozen.
If you’re a really keen map addict (some people are), you can use the updates tools at the top of the filtered list to sign up for an email alert every time a new map is published, or grab a RSS feed (shout out to the RSS massive).
We’re just using maps as an example, but there’s lots more you can discover lurking behind the publication filters. Whether you want to see open public consultations on business and enterprise or independent reports published by the Department of Education or perhaps transparency data from the Treasury, it’s all there.
Either way, enjoy the maps.
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We wanted to try something new – sharing the things we’ve liked over the past week in a blog post. Let us know what you think: @GDSTeam
2014 is the Year of Code – encouraging people across the country to get coding for the first time.
Find out more about how we use github on our technology blog.
The GDS design blog asks: how do people use related links?
If you want to apply for the civil service fast track apprenticeship scheme you have until Wednesday 19th.
The National Archives create a huge variety of podcasts – if you want something interesting to listen to this weekend you can find them here.
We liked this post over on the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency blog about an unlikely cause for squeaky brakes.
New funding has been allocated for new ways to encourage voter registration.
We discovered Hemingway app to help us make our writing clearer.
And finally …
This week we had a visit from HRH The Duke Of York, who came to GDS to find out more about what we do. Among the topics discussed were apprentices, digital government, and getting SMEs involved with digital services. See more images from his visit here.
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Mark Morris is Head of Clear English at the Department of Health and a former speechwriter for the Health Secretary.
Speech is the mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so he is.
So said Publilius Syrus, about two thousand years ago. He had a point.
The way we speak, speaks volumes. Whether someone begins a sentence with, “Mr Speaker…” or ends one with “innit?” tells us a huge amount about who they are, where they’re from and even what they’re doing. The same goes for the way we write. Words have power. Unfortunately, as civil servants we are serial abusers of that power.
A few years ago, Linguistic Landscapes, an independent language consultancy, analysed 6 years of research into how Department of Health documents went down with their intended audiences.
Their report found that too much of our writing was either not understood, greeted with cynicism, found irrelevant or just plain boring.
Only this month, in a response to a consultation on changes to NHS pensions, one pension scheme member said:
This paper is unnecessarily complicated to read and the use of jargon makes it impossible to follow the government’s intentions with this proposal. The application of Plain English would ensure full understanding of the planned changes to NHS pensions.
This, not to put too fine a point on it, is not good.
Across government, our sentences are too long, our words too complex, and our phrases stuffed with management jargon, technical language and acronyms. It’s enough to bring people out in a rash.
Even if people do understand the words we use, they’re still unlikely to read them. In 2012, research by Christopher Trudeau at the Thomas M Cooley Law School in Michigan, into the use of language in legal documents found two things, one obvious, the other surprising.
First, when given a choice, 80% of people preferred sentences written in clear English (for example, 97% preferred ‘among other things’ over the more traditional Latin phrase ‘inter alia’) and the more complex the issue, the greater that preference.
Secondly, the research found that the more educated the person, the more specialist their knowledge, and then the greater their preference for plain English. The old argument (or ‘excuse for lazy writing’) that ‘these readers will understand this language’ may be true, but it doesn’t mean they want to read it. Do you?
Remember this: those with the highest literacy levels and the greatest expertise tend to have the most to read. They just don’t have the time to wade through reams of dry, complicated prose. This is supported by some 2012 research by Ipsos MORI for the Department of Health. One person said:
If the target is to increasingly be frontline clinicians, they’ve got to be realistic in what they expect those people to have time to go through. [What they write] needs to have greater brevity and clarity and will need to be more succinct.
As civil servants, we have a reputation for incomprehensible writing. But in five years of running speech writing and clear English training courses, I have found that fault lies less with people’s ability, more with the pressure – perceived or real – to conform to a supposed ‘civil service style’. We become institutionalised. Yet when given the right support, the permission and the clear expectation that they should write clearly, they do.
That’s what we’re looking to do in the Department of Health. We’re looking at everything from recruitment and induction to better policy making and annual review. We’re also creating a range of online training resources, all available in one place and drawing on best practice from across government. These will cover everything from how to use an apostrophe to how to answer a Parliamentary question.
In work, we write so we can do something. If you want your writing to achieve its goal, then do all you can to make life easy for your reader. Keep it short, avoid unnecessary technical language and use clear, simple words. It will increase your chances of being read and understood rather than skimmed or binned.
If your organisation has developed good ways of improving the quality of writing, do get in touch. If we share our expertise and experience, we can all get better together.
If you have questions or comments, please drop Mark a line: Mark.email@example.com
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Speaking on the day HRH The Duke of York visited GDS, Dr. Brian Gannon of Kainos Software talks about the innovative work SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) are doing with government departments like DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency). During the visit, the View driving record service was demo’d by Rohan Gye, Iain Patterson and Dudley Ashford of DVLA.
The visit was also an opportunity for HRH The Duke of York to meet GDS fast track apprentice Michael Stokes and Jerry Arnott, Director of Civil Service Learning, who speaks here about how the Fast Track Apprenticeship Scheme is helping transform the Civil Service.
Follow Dr. Brian Gannon, UK Civil Service and HRH The Duke of York on Twitter:
UK Civil Service: @UKCivilService
HRH The Duke of York: @TheDukeOfYork
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