There was a surprise winner of this year’s Design Museum Design of the Year award – GOV.UK, the website which aims to bring together in one place access to most government information and services. (‘CAPPED UP COS WE MEAN BUSINESS’, apparently. There’s a debate for another occasion.) Looking at the array of cool and funky things on the shortlist and the previous winners (the Olympic torch!), you can imagine that the Government Digital Service (GDS) were probably genuinely amazed – and thrilled – to win. Deyan Sudjic, the museum’s director, described it as ‘the Paul Smith of websites’ – and although I did pause to wonder what the mercurial ex-Warwickshire cricketer had to do with any of this, even I can see that it’s a high compliment in the design world. And it’s a proper competition, this one, unlike some media awards where you have to enter, which immediately limits the field to those who have the time and budget to put together a submission, and can be bothered.
When Mike Bracken, head of GDS, appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme he was naturally keen to emphasise this point. Perhaps he’d been hoping to bask in the glory, but when he found out that his fellow interviewee was going to be Money Box’s Paul Lewis I imagine he would have pretty quickly realised that he wasn’t going to be in for an easy ride. Mr Lewis’s contention was that the website might look good, but the search facility wasn’t all that great, you couldn’t find key policy documents (I never thought I’d hear someone sounding nostalgic about the old Department of Health website) and – most importantly – in places it wasn’t accurate. He seemed to imply that government was adopting a wiki-type approach, with visitors to the site pointing out where information needed correcting.
Mr Bracken mounted all the defences that you’d expect, but it did raise the question of whether there needs to be a trade-off between ‘design’ and accuracy. Of course, in an ideal world, there shouldn’t and, as Griff Rhys Jones (one of the competition’s judges) suggests, the key element of good design is that the thing actually works properly and is useful. Difficult to argue with that, but it’s also difficult not to sympathise with the probably diminishing band of civil servants who have the thankless task of ensuring that the ever-changing and sometimes insanely complicated world of government business is communicated with 100 per cent accuracy. I suppose that, if it comes to a choice, it probably is more important that the detail is correct, even if it’s presented in the wrong font with a dodgy line break and a link that doesn’t work – and then fix those issues, rather than the other way round. But you’d like to think that it shouldn’t come to a choice.