Remember that story about 75% of government websites closing down?
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New minister Francis Maude was anxious to start early with some tough action, so in June he announced a bonfire of the existing 820 government funded websites.
The review… will aim to shut down up to 75% of existing sites and then look at getting the remaining sites to cuts their costs by up to 50% and move onto common infrastructures.
I reported on 30th June that the full list of which websites the government department DEFRA intended to close had already been revealed. The priorities seemed a little odd: is http://www.nationalparks.gov.uk/ really to be closed, whilst http://www.lovechips.co.uk remains? Apparently so. Now the Ranger has been researching this issue further, with some interesting results. I asked Robert Jones, from DEFRA’s corporate communications section, the key question – what will happen to all the information on the websites that are to be closed? He explained:
We plan to move website content that is relevant to our audiences to alternative locations. In the short to medium term, we also plan to use website redirects to ensure users are taken from any closed website addresses to where content has been moved. The aim of the website review policy is to reduce the costs of maintaining government websites, not to deprive the public and key user groups of their information. Indeed, extending the release of government data and public transparency are key principles of the new government.
So that’s actually quite reassuring: at least we no longer have to worry about big swathes of government data going dark when they stop paying the bills. And a bit of rationalisation, in theory, could be a good thing. But what is still a concern is what isn’t said. Nor is it fair to say that the media have over-simplified the message and confused closure of websites with rationalisation of their contents. Mr Maude was clear about the action he expected, saying “we will take tough action to get rid of [websites] which are not up to the job and do not offer good value for money.” But if we now know these websites are not actually to be closed, then how will the money be saved? That’s probably where the bit about cutting their costs by up to 50% comes in (did you notice that ‘up to‘ the first time?). Almost every news outlet interpreted this story along the lines of “Government to scrap three quarters of its websites“. But the truth is, the websites are not to be scrapped at all – they’re just going to be rearranged. The money will be saved, but not by closing websites. It will be saved by not maintaining websites or not creating new content. A side effect of this forthcoming rearrangement – and we can expect this to probably apply across the board, not just within DEFRA – is that anyone who has linked to the old websites might find that all their links go dead. And yes, I am thinking of Naturenet here: I still haven’t quite got over all the English Nature website addresses changing in 2006. This further information reveals that the ‘closure of government websites’ announced by Francis Maude will be a cosmetic exercise which at worst will serve to confuse access to government data, and at best will have a neutral effect. It would have been better if the minster had awaited the results of his review before announcing what decision he was taking as a result. Had he done so he might have been better able to announce details of the far more significant process through which he was going to save money by cutting website management and content development costs. What has happened instead is that he has us all worked up about useful websites being abolished, when actually nothing of the sort is happening.