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A Government website has won a design award?! It’s true and, what’s more, it’s deserved

By Peter Hoskin
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_MG_3243[3]Mike Bracken, Nick Hurd MP, Ben Terrett and Rohan Silva with's award.

If I told you a Government IT project had won an award, you might be surprised. If I then added that the award was a design award, your surprise might turn into shock. And then if it was for Design of the Year as chosen by London’s Design Museum… what the Hell?!

But that’s exactly what happened last night, when the website – which collects information that was previously spread across numerous other websites – beat off competition from the Shard, Louis Vuitton and others to land the Design Museum’s top award. And much deserved it was, too.

Why so? Well, in truth, the website isn’t exactly a paragon of beauty. As designed by Ben Terrett (pictured above) from inside the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service, it’s more about clarity and functionality – and that’s precisely the point. The idea is that ‘most anyone should be able to use the site, from someone starting up their first business to a granny checking up on her pension. As anyone who’s struggled against Government websites in the past will know, that idea, and its execution, was precisely what was needed.

And it delivers benefits for the Government, as well. By making it easier to write and administer to things such as passport applications, is expected to save taxpayers around £50 million a year. Not much, perhaps, against a deficit of £120 billion – but it’s only a start, with more to come. Last year’s Digital Efficiency Report suggested that the “greater digitisation of transactions” could save around £1.8 billion a year.

This clever use of IT was always one of this Government’s most promising ideas. Indeed, in an article for The Spectator in 2010, Neil O’Brien (now an adviser to George Osborne) and I suggested that – in the guise of the “Post-bureaucratic Age” – it could even count as David Cameron’s Big Idea. What’s happened since then is that Mr Cameron has spoken about it less and less, but the Cabinet Office, supported by folk such as Rohan Silva (also pictured above), has kept on working at it, programming code while the rest of Whitehall sleeps. And it’s got to the point where the PBA, as a public concept, has rather come back to life. There was last night’s award, of course, but ministers such as Jeremy Hunt are also eager to deliver reform by keyboard and mouse.

Of course, it’s not all perfect: itself isn’t yet complete, and there are still dark question marks over the Government’s ability to deliver bigger, trickier computer systems (here’s looking at you, Universal Credit). But at least progress is being made. Whatever happens at the next election, future governments will have a better operating system installed thanks to the efforts of this one.


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