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Why Britain banned mobile apps for government agencies (govinsider.asia)
206 points by robin_reala on June 3, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 115 comments

GDS have done a fantastic job of what you might call "government UX", by getting people with the right technical ethos in charge. HN would approve of their minimalist, functional, responsive approach.

Letting govt agencies who don't know what they're doing go out and tender for private sector building of internet services would be a disaster; they'd be oversold six ways from Sunday. Treble the cost to build the same thing three times for the three mobile platforms? Sure. Given that 99% of the stuff is simple secure form-filling, it doesn't need to be more than a web page.

I can file my taxes or renew my driving license online. The system works.

> Letting govt agencies who don't know what they're doing go out and tender for private sector building of internet services would be a disaster; they'd be oversold six ways from Sunday.

You mean like this? $1.4 million for an app that chooses left or right.



Fun fact: The US Digital Service works closely with the GDS to bring over proven strategies to the US government.

Don't forget 18F (part of the new technology transformation service). 18f.gov

Can someone help me understand why "treble" means triple? I know it's technically correct, but why in the world would we use the word "treble" when triple is so much better? Even triple has the right prefix.

Treble comes from Old French, while triple comes from Latin. They mean exactly the same thing, and both words started as "triplus" in Latin. "Treble" is more commonly used in British English. In American English the word is used only in musical contexts.

It may be more commonly used in British than in American, but even in British, i think it's less commonly used than 'triple'. For me, a native British speaker, the only things that are ever treble are twenties, whiskies, and clefs.

You must be upper-class. The only treble that working-class Brits know, is when you win the Premier League and two other cups in the same season.

"It may be more commonly used in British than in American"

What is this American you speak of? Perhaps it's the unique dialect of Spanish spoken in southern California? Or the Canadian French spoken in bits of northeastern North America? Or the dialect of English spoken in Belize?

By my mind, 'treble' is more associated with amount (3 x some value) while triple means three objects (3 of something). I don't know about dictionaries, but that's how I understand and use the words.

And also fish hooks in American English (treble hooks). The demographics of people knowing the definition of treble would be an interesting slice!

And legal, but that's the common law coming through.

It's frequently used in law contexts as well in American English ("treble damages")

It's basically the same word. Just spelling/pronouncation getting corrupted down the years as it went latin-french-english.

The top thread on HN is always a digression.

How could it not be? The site culture here encourages pedantry.

In my defense it was a comment on a comment, and I was genuinely curious.

> Even triple has the right prefix.

Unlike, say, three?

double -> treble? Only reasoning I can think of. Why do we use double? Who knows.

At a guess, it was probably "duo-ble" originally, but the pronunciation eroded from "due-wobble" to "dubbel" over time.

trouble was already taken

Can you link to some favorite examples?

Overall, gov.uk is really well done; minimalistic but works.

Some things bug me though, as some services are only available during "open hours" (https://www.buysellvehicle.service.gov.uk/sell-private/vehic...): I didn't know that servers needed to sleep.

I recently came across a system in a bank that is available from 0800 to 1500 and 1530 to 1700. Apparently it not only needs to sleep, but it takes a tea break in the afternoon.

The person responsible for the system can hardly be held responsible when they're on a break, can they?

That'll be a web frontend to an old batch-processing system - the backend system will be configured to respond to interactive requests for information during the daytime, and perform some other process in batch mode after office hours have ended.

There's quite a few such systems still left in Government, finance, and certain very large companies. Even some "modern" systems - especially in e.g. stock management - will lock their database for hours at a time overnight. Part of the issue is that these systems implement a huge amount of informally defined business logic, making it very difficult to migrate off them.

Couldn't you run read only during those periods of batch processing with very little change.

Not if there's no transactions over the entire batch process - the system is very likely in an inconsistent state.

For companies house, say, my naive view is I'd duplicate the companies record at 6pm. There are about 4 million companies. That at least would allow access to basic company information. I can't imagine 4 million tuples of basic text, with indexes and such, would ever be more than 1G in size? Work on the duplicate and then replace the static version at 6am - I'm sure I've overlooked something, interested to know what.

Sure, you could duplicate the records and work on them - but these are likely to be old COBOL systems working on fixed-width records where the location of everything is hardcoded and the application is covered in global variables. If you're going to refactor one of these applications, you might as well spend the money migrating away from it (into a language the agency can actually hire for).

A possibly more doable approach would be to provide a read-only dump into an external SQL database at the end of every batch job for external systems which desire such a thing, but I'm not convinced there's a whole lot of benefit compared to the cost of doing so. There's no part of the agency which needs the information out of office hours, and it's honestly quite reasonable to say "come back tomorrow" in the few cases where the public might want the information out of office hours - note that the web interface is replacing having to call up the DVLA or visit one of their offices, which would have the same restriction.

It'd be much more reasonable to spend money and the time of the people who have experience with the system attempting to migrate off it. Hopefully they're trying.

Appreciate your analysis thanks.

This is pretty representative: https://www.gov.uk/transformation/exemplars/apply-visa

Very clean uncluttered forms with clear direction.

I just sold a car and it took 120 seconds to do the government transfer. Kudos to that. https://www.gov.uk/sold-bought-vehicle

For what it's worth, think of a couple of things you might need to interact with the government on. Go to http://gov.uk/ and see if you can find the right website, and see how many clicks it takes to get there.

A couple of maybe odd examples to try:

* You're a Brit abroad, had a kid, want to register them as a British citizen (children of British citizens are eligible for it provided they're under 18)

* Renew a passport

* Renew your driving license.

One of the design rules mentioned in the article is that they don't rely on the home page. Instead they assume you get there from Google.

I just tried "renew uk driving license" in Google and got the right page as the first result. Same when I wanted to renew a passport recently, and for the birth example you mentioned.

There used to be one downside to this: scammers would sometimes get search results above the gov.uk one with sites that were not-quite-claiming-to-be the official site, and charge you extra for the "service" of applying on your behalf. However that seems to have been stopped now. Maybe HMG have had a word with Google about it.

I just had to renew my passport in Germany, which in involves making new (biometric) photos, having them print out at the shop, going to the proper authorities, who will then scan those photos and fill in a form with basic questions for you. I expected to be able to do all of this online by now, but it is definitely not possible in Germany yet.

So this seemed like a good test run for the UK gov site and the experience (as far as I took it) has been nothing but pleasant. That's how it should be done.

Many sections of HMRC's website are now integrated into gov.uk. For example the PAYE (Paye-As-You-Earn) for employees/employers/agents. Have a look at the screenshots [1], the UX is superb. In a single page, you clearly see your gross income, your estimated income tax, and the history of pension contributions.

I see there are guidelines about coding in-the-open in Scala [2].

Or, have a look at the todo-list of the DWP [3].

[1] http://hmrc.github.io/hmrc-screens/

[2] http://hmrc.github.io/

[3] http://dwp-digital-services.herokuapp.com/

>In a single page, you clearly see your gross income, your estimated income tax, and the history of pension contributions.

And now so can Google thanks to gov.uk forcing use of Google Analytics on all government departments just because "it's private industry best practice".

Injecting untrusted third party javascript controlled by a foreign corporation into the tax forms of all citizens seems absolutely insane to me.

Wow, I haven't noticed Google Analytics is also injected in the "logged in" sections. That's insane!

My Mother is British and my Father is American. I grew up in the states but retain British citizenship. I started looking into getting my first British Passport just before their transition to the new digital services setup.

Before hand there was a mess of documents, pages etc to hunt through, applications to fill out, things to do, documents to include. After the transition there was a small little questionnaire that got me to a beautiful well designed page. That page then had links to all the various things I needed for my application.

There was even a web application that filled out 90% of the application for me and then provided me with a super nice PDF with instructions to submit it, and a check list of all the documents that I needed to provide with my application. It was excellent far better than the preexisting setup.

good. anything from the govment should not even be allowed to use colors or css. to prevent current party image association and such.

The dept logo on the header and that's it. leave the rest to the user's browser default.

As a Briton, the idea of having to access government services through mobile apps seems vaguely offensive.

Apps are expensive to build, allow rampant surveillance that it's very hard to audit under the hood, and mean that customer information is distributed based on your ability to access a smartphone.

The U.K. government also has a poor record of delivering large scale IT projects with complex chains of dependencies (the overhaul of the NHS IT system was cancelled after spending several billions on a Patient Information system that no one ever ended up using). Given the chance, departments would have tried to create the 'Everything App' at enormous expense and with zero interoperability between depts.

The decision to push the GDS methodology across the whole of government was hugely unpopular within the civil service at the time but they've been absolutely vindicated in their approach.

    >Apps are expensive to build
    >The U.K. government also has a poor record of delivering large scale IT projects with complex chains of dependencies...
Staying on the web and skipping native isn't a panacea for budget bloat, poor project scoping, and loosely supervised bidding processes. State and municipal agencies routinely pay stupid amounts of money for trivial functionality on the web.

No, but telling each department that they can tender for their own contracts, put non-technical people in charge of project planning, and deliver services in whichever format they want more or less guarantees those things. The money wasted on Connected for Health (often paid directly into the pockets of management consultants) is nothing short of criminal.

> Staying on the web and skipping native isn't a panacea for budget bloat, poor project scoping, and loosely supervised bidding processes

No, but bidding on one (web) project rather than three (web, Android, iOS) certainly helps.

Exactly. And there are very few applications which require native apps. I typically avoid them. A good "app" or OS/browser function that makes a special icon to link to a specific page could replace 90% of apps. Games would probably be one of the few exceptions although web game programming has come a long way since HTML5.

Especially as most interfacing with the Government is one-way information push, or form-filling, or in very few cases request-response - all things that web browsers are really good at.

Which is why the GDS builds in house rather than getting bids.

I agree with most of this except the 'allow rampant surveillance' and 'very hard to audit'.

How are apps special in these regards?

Some academics tested 110 popular, free Android and iOS apps in the Journal of Technology Science. They found that "73% of Android apps shared personal information such as email address with third parties, and 47% of iOS apps shared geo-coordinates and other location data with third parties".


It is significantly harder to audit the security of an app than a webpage, because with a webpage all the code is visible to you, the end user.

Anyone vaguely skilled can reverse engineer an android app. Modern versions of android (ie Android 6, which I appreciate only 0.0001% of android users actually have) let you control which permissions an app can use.

If "vaguely skilled" is what it takes to audit an Android app, then "borderline incompetent" is all you need to audit a web app. Other commenters are talking about relative ease, not absolute impossibility.

For a very loose definition of "all the code"

All the client-side code then.

Apps tend to ask for far too many permissions beyond those available to the browser, including your contacts list, SMS history, etc.

(Of course, the government already has all of this stuff)

Ok - so I see the answers, but we're taking about apps shipped by the government. What's the concern? That they'll bug your microphone, or do identity theft?

Makes me wonder if GDS is going to do the NHS

Yes, they are (the website, that is)! Here is the NHS.UK beta blog


The current www.nhs.uk website may not look pretty and is a bit messy in the way it's organised, but it's a real goldmine of health information. Plus, you can trust that it's written by qualified medical practitioners.

I really hope the GDS team can make the new NHS site as simple, clear and easy to use as gov.uk.

Slight digression: I'm always a little annoyed when Google gives livestrong.com top billing in their search results when you search for a medical condition. I can understand that people outside the UK might prefer livestrong.com, but I think most UK web users (using Google UK) would consider the NHS website as more reliable and appropriate than livestrong.

By "do" the NHS I meant the whole interactive system, not just providing information.

User interaction, booking appointments, reading case notes etc, sharing data between medical staff, the big ugly monster that scuppered the previous attempt. Was it really £14b wasted? [0]

I wish them all the best!

Regarding the the NHS information; this has always impressed me. They put a date on each page when it was last reviewed, and when it is next due to be reviewed. I keep wanting to do this on the websites I work on, if I only I could get beyond maintenance.

[0] - http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/18/nhs-records-s...

> I think most UK web users (using Google UK) would consider the NHS website as more reliable and appropriate than livestrong.

It is strange, as there have long been rumoured to be manual tweaks within Google search that say, for instance, BBC iPlayer radio will always come on top of a search for radio. You'd think there would be even more reason for the same to exist for health information.

GDS isn’t doing the NHS work, although many of their team are alumni and there’s definitely knowledge sharing going on.

Reading up about it, one of their tenents is for opensource software:


Also checkout https://github.com/18F - the US equivalent.

How are apps more expensive than websites?

Two further sets of developers, generally. Two extra deployment platforms. Two extra things to keep up to date. Etc.

I deeply believe this is the right way.

The Web is THE open platform of the Internet and if you don't need special native functionality , always go for web.

True! Web must stay open, services that are limited to smartphone owners are just classist.

I love that our government created GDS, they get a lot of flack but GDS has been an unmitigated success.

They've got really great public performance dashboards[1] as well, you can see how many people are using 'gov.uk' right now[2].

Edit: It's a bit disconcerting 'Give up (renounce) British citizenship or nationality' is the top trending content!

1. https://www.gov.uk/performance

2. https://www.gov.uk/performance/site-activity

I think the National Audit Office would disagree about GDS being an unmitigated success: http://www.computing.co.uk/ctg/news/2437392/defra-and-gds-sl...

We'll see in a few years if it's an unmitigated success.

When mid level bureaucrats are getting significant facetime in the media, you should be very wary. Civil servants are supposed to toil in obscurity -- they exist to glorify King and country. When you see exceptions to that, there's often a real shitshow behind the scenes.

What? Where do all of these conjectures come from? Is there any evidence?

> Key to the GDS’ approach is designing for user needs, not organizational requirements, Terrett says. “That is how good digital services designed and built these days. That is how everyone does it, whether that’s google or facebook or British Airways or whoever.”

> The problem is that public sector agencies tend not to design with citizens in mind. “Things are just designed to suit the very silos that the project sits in, and the user gets lost in there,” Terrett adds.

Amen. Unfortunately, it is very much not how everyone does it.

The Iron Law of Bureaucracy: In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.


To be clear, it's why the British Government banned mobile apps for government agencies. Good article though.

This actually goes back to Steve Job's original vision for the iPhone. He didn't intend there to ever be 3rd party apps for the phone, because he saw the internet as being the perfect platform for them.

> This actually goes back to Steve Job's original vision for the iPhone.

Yet without native apps the iPhone would not have been as successful as it is today.

The web is good enough for dumb CRUD apps though, which are like 90% of corporate apps.

> This actually goes back to Steve Job's original vision for the iPhone. He didn't intend there to ever be 3rd party apps for the phone, because he saw the internet as being the perfect platform for them.

Do you have a link that lays this out in more detail?

The most succinct quote from Jobs is:

    There’s no SDK that you need! You’ve got
    everything you need if you know how to
    write apps using the most modern web
    standards to write amazing apps for the
    iPhone today.
The full quote and the video in which he said it can be found here: http://9to5mac.com/2011/10/21/jobs-original-vision-for-the-i...

And then you can hear the sucking void of silence of a response from the crowd and a few months later an sdk was out.

It was a crowd of Apple Mac OS X developers though, with a great deal of expertise in Obj-C, not the web, so it shouldn't be taken as an objective verdict on whether it was a good strategy or not.

I think it was inevitable. And probably planned for a second release too. Not that web APIs were lacking, but purely from performance perspective. By then, web was designed for 2GHz/2Gb desktop, not a 200MHz cpu from a dvd player.

Well he changed his mind more often and quickly than you can say "magical thinking". Still, better to seem certain when speaking to investors, developers and other get-rich-quick types.

On the other hand: it's okay to be wrong if you can admit that you're wrong, it's okay to change your mind, and, of course, circumstances can change.

From Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs:

>He didn't want outsiders to create applications for the iPhone that could mess it up, infect it with viruses, or pollute its integrity


Then why did Apple launch Mac OS X instead of something like ChomeOS?

Chrome OS is to Linux what iOS 1.x was to Mac OS.

Because it was 1999-2001.

We don't really know what Steve was thinking, we only have what he said when there was no alternative. Clearly he realized at some point how much apps and an app store could benefit the platform. It might have been long before he said this. In reality it took some time to make the SDK usable by third parties.

That's not true about Jobs. Jobs badmouthed apps for exactly as long as it took to build and launch support for them, as was his standard marketing strategy.

Ok, we'll use your phrase in the title above.

Gov of Canada has a similar initiative with an open source project titled 'Web Experience Toolkit' [0], focusing on usability and cross platform support.

[0] https://wet-boew.github.io/v4.0-ci/index-en.html

> Most Ministers might want there to be sharing options on websites so that citizens can easily promote government on Facebook and Twitter. But the GDS tested this, and found that only 0.1% of citizens

No shit. Every design job I've had ever.

Every client seems to request this... But sharing buttons are crap and always will be... So frustrating!

Why do you think that sharing buttons are crap?

Does anyone live in a city (within the US) that takes a similar approach to GDS? I live in SF and developers usually create their own apps for services (Like MUNI/BART) but the city seems to have a mix of good and bad UX when it comes to municipal services (from my experience, at least)

Not sure about at a municipal level, but USDS was based on GDS (https://www.usds.gov/).

18F is also based on GDS. 18f.gov

Explanation of the difference between USDS and 18F: http://ben.balter.com/2015/04/22/the-difference-between-18f-...

Strange how it doesn't credit GDS

Link to https://data.gov.uk on that page in fact points to ’file:///C:/Users/mcallister_mj2/AppData/Local/Microsoft/Windows/Temporary%20Internet%20Files/Content.Outlook/5P3C0P9L/data.gov.uk’

Oh dear.

I live in Pittsburgh. I don't know if it is a "rule", but none of the municipal applications I've built are apps. As we show how much less expensive responsive web is to develop and maintain, it will only get harder for efficient and competent agencies to propose to build an app. Of course inefficient, corrupt agencies will probably still build apps.

+1 for that decision: apps can also cause security issues. I only have a few apps installed on my cellphone. Web apps are fine for Twitter, Facebook, etc. Having to install a lot of apps to register to vote, etc. would be maximally irritating.

This is an encouraging trend. It's inevitable that, within or lifetimes, legislation and regulations will eventually be tailored to existing software, rather than expensive snowflake systems being produced to automate arbitrary processes created by the whims of legislators and civil servants in every jurisdiction in the world.

Sounds irrational :)

Title needs to be improved, replace Britain with Britain GDS, maybe add "and use websites instead" (but that might spoil the article).

Yup GDS is not the British Government. And do not represent all of gov.uk.

True they are responsible for the main chunks of the new gov.uk. But far from all of it.

I should know, as Im involved with the development of a non-GDS part of gov.uk whom do also have some native apps...

The use of responsive websites instead of native apps is a good rule though.

"Why the UK Government Digital Service chooses not to build mobile apps"

Agreed. Terrible link-bait title, and the article is mediocre. Please change it to something like : "UK GDS bans apps in favor of responsive websites"

I third that. The article doesnt provide much in the way of explaining it clearly enough.

What a dumb title.

Let us take the whole thing with a pinch of salt as it is highly one sided story.

Governments having their services on web is absolutely must but passing a decree against apps does seem a bit odd to me. Isn't it the case that more citizens own phones and have relatively poor connection speeds than other combinations ? Isn't it the case that citizens would be better served by apps that do one job right and do so more efficiently than web ?

I can understand the cost part but it appears to me that the government agency has shut down a completely new avenue of innovation for government agencies with this decree.

It's obvious that they never heard of Hybrid Apps, or just never found them to be secure enough for their applications.

I'm not sure why you'd use a hybrid app over a minimalist, mobile-friendly website, particularly for something like form-filling.

As a user, getting me to install your app is a huge barrier. If I don't need to do something every day, I'm probably not going to download and install your app. So wrapping a webpage in an app seems like a really poor decision.

Agree. I intensely dislike having to install an app for a task that could be done by a simple Web page. I don't know what the app does; the amount of flashlight applications that want to access my files, location and call information is depressing.

Meh; for their usual scope of work they don't actually need apps (infrequent desktop use) so it's not a notable decision. Open Society do apps where they are actually needed (e.g. reporting potholes).

Their decision to use Google as a home page and having all websites as plain as possible is horrific; with a lot of departments and agencies having lacklustre homepages that anyway aren't even aimed at the general public (e.g. arms-length-bodies).

They also made a half-assed job of promoting Agile and UCD through the government, where Agile is now misunderstood and despised. Probably because they never really tried to understand civil service politics.

Good ideas; badly executed.

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