The Victorian project helping government websites make sense


There’s no point in government agencies having their own branded websites if they don’t make sense to the public, argues Victorian DPC digital engagement director Jithma Beneragama. His Single Digital Presence project is rethinking how government builds websites.

Too often government websites are set up not with usability in mind, but around the siloed structures of the public sector.

Ease of use was one of the big concerns users had in a Victorian government study back in 2015 — internal government divisions didn’t make sense to regular people, who find reading government websites “almost like another language sometimes”.

It’s a feeling Jithma Beneragama, director of digital engagement at the Department of Premier and Cabinet, knows himself.

“When I first came into government, I think I was like most people who had never worked in government before — they think it’s all one coherent beast, and you sit there going, ‘oh wow so that’s how it works’,” he tells The Mandarin.

Beneragama is now in charge of the Single Digital Presence project, which will bring DPC’s more than 50 websites onto a single platform that will one day stretch across the Victorian government, currently the owner of more than 1000 websites.

Rethinking user experience is a big part of Single Digital Presence. Their alpha of the new-look Victorian government website is testing out a more user-centric way of organising information: for example, the first home buyers’ checklist thematically sets out information based on home buyers’ most common needs, providing links to services provided by DPC, the Department of Treasury and Finance, and other agencies.

Common design patterns key

“If your brand doesn’t make sense to the end user, then why do you need to have a brand in market?”

Common design patterns should make it easier for users to navigate sites, rather than learning new layouts for each different area.

“Users will know all buttons look like this on Vic gov websites, the menu will always be on the top right,” Beneragama says.

Increasingly sites will be branded as belonging to the Victorian government, rather than a specific agency, better reflecting the public understanding of how things work.

“The way we manage content publishing is we’ve brought in a rule that says that if your brand doesn’t make sense to the end user, then why do you need to have a brand in market? A lot of our content will now be published under vic.gov.au.

“So it is the Victorian government’s position, or ‘the government is doing X’,” he explains.

The Single Digital Presence team is also developing a common content management system. It will be what’s known as a headless CMS, which will be easy to use, as well as allowing content to be syndicated across platforms and sites.

“We needed a system that would be really easy for public servants to publish content with, because you could create this amazing front-end and amazing technical solutions, but if the guys in strat comms or the guys in policy teams who need to get content out can’t get it out easily then you’ve failed,” says Beneragama.

And while it won’t be visible to the public, one of the biggest benefits of the Single Digital Presence project will be its open-source, containered hosting environment using Drupal 8. This means there will be a library of reusable website design modules — a bit like digital lego blocks, he explains.

“Pre-designed, and they all fit together nicely, that can be used to build a really good, simple, easy-to-use front-end digital experience for Victorians — well actually for anyone, because it’s going to be open source. So if you want to build a website you can grab it.”

As more departments come on board, subsequent agencies will have access to the patterns created by those already using the system, increasing the likelihood they can be reused. This will increase the return on investment for the whole government.

“If you’ve got $100,000 to spend on development, instead of spending the $100,000 to build something from scratch, now you’ve got $100,000 to take that experience to where you truly want it to go,” he says.

“You can really start to push the boundaries and create something amazing. You can leverage all the stuff everyone else has done before you.

“That I think is the beauty of the platform and the approach we’re taking because it means that every dollar that we spend as a government gets reused across government.”

The positive reception from Victorian agencies has been “crazy”, he says, with DTF signing on before DPC’s initial proof of concept had properly gotten underway. Another agency will be launching its websites on the platform “in a couple of months”.

And in a significant validation of the idea, the federal government has also taken on using a containered, open-source hosting environment, and has signed on the same two vendors. This will increase the utility of the whole system, as Victoria and the feds will each be able to use features developed by the other.

Bringing tech workers and government together

Between outdated systems and a few high-profile projects going badly, Victoria doesn’t have a very good reputation on government IT.

Beneragama remembers being wary about moving into the public sector back in 2013, but he thinks government is increasingly being seen as a good place to work for people with tech skills. Recently, he was successful in recruiting someone who had also received job offers from Facebook and a startup promising juicy perks.

“We’re trying to deliver a project using an Agile methodology in a system that’s 100% risk averse.”

“I think we’re building a reputation for pushing the boat out, trying to do different things in terms of the tech. But also on the other side of it, it’s how meaningful the work we’re doing is. It’s not just selling another widget online, it’s trying to help a lot of people access and find what they need,” he says.

It can still be a challenge moving from the private sector, though.

“When I talk to a lot of the new people who come in it’s the shock of trying to deal with the bureaucracy and trying to a) get your head around why it exists, because there is a reason for it, and b) understand how you work with it.

“We’re trying to deliver a project using an Agile methodology in a system that’s 100% risk averse, so how do you structure your approaches to be able to make those two things fit together?”

The challenge now is how to build on that success sustainably. While other agencies start coming on board, there’s still a backlog of content areas and functionalities to bring online on the alpha before it can move to beta and then go live.

“We’re at this point where we’re building and scaling our organisation at the same time. Prior to government I worked in startups for a while and it’s a lot of the same problems,” Beneragama says.

“I describe us as a bit of a startup within government, where we have been building a product, testing it with what we thought was a contained customer set, and we put our toe in the water to see if anyone else wants it — and it’s just gone bang!”

He thinks part of the success of his team has been to blend together people with different experience.

“We’re actively trying to create a really diverse culture within our team. We have people from government, they are our bedrock, they are so important for us to be able to deliver and achieve what we want to achieve. Then we’re layering in people from other walks of life — startups, pure digital backgrounds, large corporate — and we’re mixing it up.

“It’s a bit of a boiling mess — well not a mess, but a boiling culture right now. What we’ll get to is the best of government — the governance, the process and understanding of how we operate — melded in with true Agile from that startup background, with the more technical governance you get from large corporates.

“If I look at what we’ve done, I think that’s part of our success.”

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