Recently I was fortunate enough to meet with David Pullinger from the UK governments Central Office of Information (COI), who are driving our government’s citizen engagement strategy  and mandating the policy around which government must adhere to.

It was an incredibly absorbing meeting as we took a fast ride around all elements of where a citizen touches the government, (each of which I would love to have explored for longer than we had) and an interesting mix of mandatory policy, education and technical enablement that his department are driving.

David courteously and patiently indulged my interruptions and there is plenty to write about but, in this post, I’m just going to focus on one very interesting topic – the reduction in the number of government websites.

At first glance it’s easy to assume that this initiative is the old clumsy cost cutting exercise, a not terribly enlightened confusion between the words ‘platform’ and ‘website’,  which we’ve seen before. Whilst there is an understandable element of cost consciousness in this initiative – of recognising that a single WCM platform can manage multiple sites and a new website shouldn’t demand a fresh procurement process – I thought there was a more interesting driver behind it.

That driver is a recognition that the people look for information using search, not by turning up to the correct government agency website (or some obscure sub-site) and dutifully following the navigation. They are using Google and choosing from a list of results which is in direct contrast to the early days of DirectGov – of grouping information around ‘life stage’ on a single portal and assuming people will slot into the right shaped information hole. Today there is recognition that our lives are much more complex and subtle than that, and the way we access information reflects this.

Recognising that would not seem to be rocket science, ooh Truscott that’s SEO you say. But I say this is subtly different. It’s different because if you are looking for the cheapest TV or the information about Persuasive Content, the dynamic of sites competing for those clicks is different from if you are a Government hoping to engage with your people.

If you are a Government agency that provides services, advice or benefits for your citizen you are not competing for clicks – you are the authority, the source; you have the likely #1 search result the searcher needs. For example, there is only one definitive version of the truth when it comes to entitlement to state benefits, how safe a certain food is, the cheapest public transport to Manchester, whether it’s safe to travel to Uzbekistan and how to get a Visa.

What I think COI are saying is that by pruning the number of websites it avoids agencies and other government bodies, sub-sites and campaign sites from competing for those positions on the Google rankings, enabling the citizen to cut through the clutter to the single source of the truth.  They are looking to effectively manage that search page as our portal into government.

This then shifts their focus from individual website silos, to figuring out how search can bring together the information that the citizen needs – a single web page then needs to stand alone in terms of content and context.

To deliver this the UK government is on the vanguard of adopting the semantic web, standards such as RDFa and attracting the advice of Internet luminaries such as Tim Berners-Lee (read about their call for developers).

There is plenty more to explore here, but first lesson of Citizen Engagement seems to me to be that the COI have recognised that Google is the new Government portal.