Civil service time "being wasted" producing unread web content, says GDS

Written by Rebecca Hill on 7 December 2016 in News

New Government Digital Service research reveals that 73% of online content is looked at by fewer than 10 people a month

Three-quarters of GOV.UK content is looked at by less than 10 people a month, according to figures from the Government Digital Service.

There are more than 300,000 items of content across GOV.UK and more than 250,000 downloadable files, and GDS said that civil servants across central government were adding 2,500 items of content a week and 2,600 new files.

But Trisha Doyle, head of content design at GDS, said that 73% of that content is looked at by fewer than 10 people a month.

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“That’s a problem because civil servants’ time is being wasted producing content hardly anyone is looking at and users’ time is being wasted sifting through hundreds of pages on the same topic,” she said in a blogpost.

Moreover, as the content teams across government are asked to produce and publish new content they are struggling to maintain existing content, meaning it becomes out of date or inaccurate.

The volume of content, along with the low quality of the things that are on GOV.UK makes life difficult for users, Doyle said, adding that when users can’t find what they need to know “they make mistakes and hit the phones”.

She said that the only way to fix search and browse functions on government websites was first to reduce “our enormous stock of content”, and then improve the quality of the rest. Better governance structures would also, she said, stop the same thing happening again in the future.

“We have to find a way to stop doing this every few years – the cost to government is huge, and even bigger to citizens,” she said.

In an effort to make it easier for users to search and find the content they need – and so cut down on the number of phone calls staff are dealing with – the GDS content team carried out research on GOV.UK content.

Doyle said that these findings fall into seven themes, including that the approach to content – which involves one central government team overseeing content across government – remains “a really good thing” and is valued by the community.

However, she said that the division between content aimed at citizens – managed by the central content team across 3,000 pages – and the rest of the content – managed by other teams and accounting for more than 300,000 pages – is arbitrary.

“For example, users could start on a ‘mainstream’ (citizen-facing) guide, but to complete their task they end up in a 70 page PDF written in departmental specific language and jargon,” Doyle said.

“The split was appropriate for the transition of government’s websites to a single domain, but it’s not helping our users who need to complete a task.”

Other findings from the research are that content designers are not empowered to challenge decisions in their departments and that the environment they work in “varies wildly” across government.

In addition, it was found that, although content is now co-located on GOV.UK it is not coherent, while there is too much separation between guidance content and service design. 

“To really start building coherent services that meet user need, the silos between transactions and content have to be bridged,” Doyle said.

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Rebecca Hill
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Rebecca Hill is the online editor of, where a version of this story first appeared

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Submitted on 7 December, 2016 - 12:53
It might be that only 10 people are reading it each month, because it is a niche area of guidance that has specific rules but that don't apply to vast swathes of the population. I imagine much of the tax detail, could fall into this category. Yes, content should be improved so it is easy to find, but don't get rid of content purely because it doesn't have many readers. Understand when and why people read it before applying some blanket clear out based on page views.

rick aston (not verified)

Submitted on 7 December, 2016 - 13:18
Quite a few customers have told me, when they ring up on my enquiry line, and i mention the website to them, say it is difficult to use and the content is poor...

Uncivil Servant (not verified)

Submitted on 7 December, 2016 - 13:39
Good points made by Rebecca Hill but it fails to metion one important thing and that is just how disengaged from Governemt, many members of the public are. The rise of 'Populism' in the last couple of years seems to be fuelling the already worrying level of ignorance about the Civil Service and Government in general. The majority now seem to expect the country to run itself and believe the only time they need to involve themselves is to shoult at a low paid 'minnion' when something that affects them, goes wrong.

Claire Potter (not verified)

Submitted on 7 December, 2016 - 13:45
I wonder if the content is aimed at the right audiences? Each government department has a range of stakeholders requiring more specialised content than that required by the general citizen yet, in my experience that more specialised content is not allowed on It would be interesting to know how much the archived content from the old department specific websites is being accesed.

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