So, I drive my car to the hand car wash

This post will hold little relevance for anyone not interested in government interaction online – and even then…

Every time I go to the Guildford hand car wash – funnily enough there is no website, there is a mobile number on my air freshener but I am sure it is unnecessary – I am astounded by how brilliant they are. That does not do them enough credit to be honest. I drive in, they descend on my car in a pack and clean the outside with almost extra-terrestrial efficiency; then they offer to do the inside, which I always accept as my children are wont to eat their breakfast in the car on the way to school. I drive into the next shed, hop out and read the paper whilst a further dozen descend upon the car – spitting it out a gleaming (if elderly) specimen of blue metal. Job done.

This über-efficiency has nagged at me, every time I go I want to somehow apply it to my life. I absolutely salute the genius who created this perfect business: an abundance of happy staff, the tools always work, responding to a need: lazy Surrey car owners.

Today whilst waiting sans Sunday paper (bad planning, Emma) I wondered how I could perhaps apply this to my life… nope, nothing. Then to work: *ping* – why this business works so well is because it effortlessly understands my need, responds to it, charges me a reasonable sum, job done.

Here comes the pedantic bit

So, in order for me to get my car to the car wash, I have to know how to drive. In order to know how to drive I have to pass a test. In order to pass a test I have to understand the laws of the road. Behind each of those three simple ‘to dos’ there are a multitude of rules, regulations and learnings that I have to comply with; as well as an acceptance that the car wash will have covered their arse with various ‘insurance’ statements around the joint as I pass through their premises.

Now, if this car wash was a government website *grin* it would be fully versed in what your need was, the people designing the service will have researched and will know exactly what it is you need to know/do. HOWEVER… in order to deliver the service, it will have to ensure that each policy unit that may have an interest in the service provided is 1. aware of it and 2. signs off the content/tool.

Each policy unit will insist that the right information is given before or during the delivery of the service, so all of the terms and conditions, the precautions, the advice (beautifully crafted) will be given to you, before, during and after you have done what it is you need to do. And how can this be ignored? Of course people need to be aware of what they are doing, the consequences and possible risks.

Coming back to the carwash a second, if it were a government website, from the moment you drove onto the land owned by the carwash guy (assumption here that it is a bloke) you would have a multitude, nay a dearth, of signs directing you down various routes, large bill boards explaining the rules of the road, the instructions for driving a car, possibly a small inlet for the DVLA to check your licence and insurance on the way (not collecting data of course). All done in the very earnest belief that you need to *know* this stuff.

Well, OK, we do. But we learn this stuff en route to getting to the car wash. It has probably taken years and really the re-affirmation of ‘the rules’ at point of service is firstly irrelevant and secondly hugely annoying. More often that not rendering the beautiful simplicity of the carwash service pointless. Far easier to go home and get the kids to do it/do it yourself.

Enter Directgov

Directgov is going to be, by 2011, the only place you will need to go to online to interact with government. Their strapline: Public services all in one place. Transformational government and website rationalisation – (jargon for those in the know, put simply: stop wasting millions of pounds on thousands of disparate websites giving often conflicting advice; spend the next few years getting it all in one place online: Directgov for citizen info, businesslink.gov.uk for business and departmental corporate sites for the ‘corporate’ stuff) – has meant that Directgov is now going to be your Guildford hand carwash for… everything.

This post is already long enough but you get the problem? Poor old DG comes in for much criticism, and I have my own frustrations trying to marry departmental need with DG requirement, but basically what I am trying to do on behalf of the department I am working in – is ruin the simplicity of their service by doing the ‘yeah but’ signs. There is no way to avoid this. Public sector information must carry all health warnings, all of it. The information the Home Office delivers through Directgov on Immigration, Identity, Passports, Police and Border Control comes with a very definite list of ‘yeah buts’… so how on earth can Directgov maintain its simplicity and integrity?

I don’t know

But what I do know is that this problem needs to be solved.

If I were to be actually helpful in my scribing here, I would suggest that the carwash efficiency is looked at as a business model.

It works because:

  1. It assumes that you know how to drive
  2. It assumes that you know that they will not pay for any damage to your car
  3. It assumes that you are familiar with the rules of the road
  4. It knows what you want done
  5. It knows it is not your mate
  6. It does not try to sell you anything else

Perhaps Directgov should be brave enough to make some assumptions. Perhaps departments and policy owners should ensure that the R&Rs of the service are fully understood before the customer gets to using any online service. Perhaps there should be various points of entry… I don’t know and as I write I feel the wrath of my dear friends Paul Clarke and Sharon Cooper who work tirelessly at developing a working proposition for Directgov. I am not trying to develop tin-pot solutions, I just think that sometimes we need to take a GIANT step back and have a look at it from the simplicity of a working service.

Maybe it won’t work, but it will be a damn shame if it doesn’t – if not taxing on the public purse.