In the last ten years, one of the great things about being an academic has been the explosion of public information available online. While I miss aspects of browsing through dusty archives and stacks, it’s been an awrful lot easier and an awful lot quicker to go to the relevant department or ministerial website and download some policy papers at a few clicks of the mouse.

Developments in the world of online government information in the UK are damaging that. Badly.

Government departments in the UK are moving their online presences to http://gov.uk, a development of what used to be direct.gov.uk which was a general information portal for citizens wanting to know how to access a service, download a form, make a payment and so forth. Which is all very well if that’s the only way you engage with government — as a consumer of goods and services.

But if you are an active citizen, a journalist, a lawyer, a lobbyist or scholar who engages with government at a different level, that is not sufficient. I am looking not just for the rules and regulations but for the detailed arguments and justifications for the rules and regulations, the numbers and assumptions underpinning the claims, the rebuttals and counterclaims. All that is disappearing from government websites and going into mass archives like that run by the National Archive, which includes material from the Parliamentary Library, or the Audit Office, or various archives in university libraries, or the Internet Archive and Google’s own caching service — accessed by tools like http://deadURL.com .  And those mass archives are, right now, harder to search.

I’ve spent hours this morning searching for a policy document that I know used to be on the Home Office website, except the Home Office website no longer exists as an independent entity and the “policy” pages that now exist — eg, here — are mere portals leading down endless rabbit warrens of meaningless detail with no overview, no “policy”. Instead I have to trawl through a gigantic haystack of white papers, Commons committee papers, and minor statements of rule changes to find the needles I’m looking for.

And I’m a professional researcher. This is what I do for a job. Imagine how much harder it is now for the average engaged citizen.

There’s a benign and a sceptical interpretation of this. The relatively benign one is that this is just a mistake. In the rush to make information more ‘user friendly’, government and its advisors have started with a narrow conception of ‘user’ and then built the online edifice on top of that, instead of recognising that people come to government with a wide variety of information needs. It’s a common-enough mistake. Universities do it all the time, building websites geared for prospective undergraduates and not for everyone else (like me, for instance). Businesses do it too, making their websites sales portals and not things that help you engage with the company when problems arise. It’s fixable with a little thought.

But I guess I’m getting more cynical in my middle-age. I suspect this is a deliberate effort to hide information under the most cunning cloak of all, a cloak that looks transparent. “Look, we’re being so open, we have this wonderful website for downloading forms, and it’s so user friendly — our customer satisfaction research tells us so!”  Meanwhile those who want the arguments and justifications are left scratching their heads wondering where they’ve all gone.

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