GOV.UK offers best practice insights

Technical architects gearing up for launch advocate open coding and ensuring URL strands don’t break

On October 17, GOV.UK will replace Directgov and Business Link as the primary location to find government services and information. The site launched in beta earlier this year, and right from the start it was clear this was an ambitious and modern undertaking. The team’s decision to work with open technologies was further confirmed with the release of its design principles document. Now, the Government Digital Service (GDS) team has provided further insight into working with open technologies and web development best practice.

In Coding in the open, technical architect James Stewart said open source helped the team “focus on user needs by helping us to quickly test and iterate software and systems”. Specifically, he noted open technology meant the team could try tools that seemed right, without a “lengthy pre-sales process or costly and complex licensing arrangements”. And although GOV.UK code is, according to Stewart, heavily tailored to its system, it’s nonetheless available for others who might have overlapping needs.

Paul Downey, also a technical architect, focussed on another aspect of the web in No link left behind. Sites that have been used for many years are being replaced, and countless objects are in the wild with old URLs. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee has said, “cool URIs don’t change”, and Downey agreed, adding that the GOV.UK team didn’t want people to visit old URLs and find broken or abandoned websites, nor for departments to have to partake in costly reprinting exercises.

Downey said that many organisations “decide that redirecting sites is an onerous task, so they either redirect all the old links to the front page of the new site, or simply switch the site off in its entirety”. Instead, GOV.UK has created individual redirects for every page on the old Directgov and Business Link sites. With pages with multiple potential redirects, user data determined the new location. Interestingly, Downey added in his article's comments that the concept of a staging page was considered but fared poorly in user testing, hence the straightforward redirects.

All of these things showcase the changing nature of government websites. Once considered old-fashioned and out of touch, GOV.UK is pushing on with not only a sleek and modern design, but also working practices that many others in the industry would do well to consider.