24 Oct 2012 02:54pm

Government criticised over new business information site

The government has been criticised for spending £18.7m on a new information website

The new site, gov.uk, replaces businesslink.co.uk and directgov.uk, and is billed as a one-stop shop for government services and information, including financial and business advice issues ranging from how to set up in business to filling in your tax return.

The site, which launched last week, has been attacked as a “travesty”, a “fiasco” and a “disaster” by critics on the UK Business Forums site. Critics say the errors are so elementary, people who rely on the information on the site could end up being charged penalties by HMRC, or fined for failure to buy compulsory insurance.

The team behind the site at the Cabinet Office says it has already “reviewed and amended one factual error,” and is suggesting amendments “which are now being reviewed by the relevant experts in HMRC and Companies House. Once they revert to us we will publishupdated versions of the guides in question.” 

We want to make sure users' needs are met

Cabinet Office spokesperson

It has pointed out that running the old website was very expensive and that the new one should result in huge savings.

Deputy director for digital engagement Emer Coleman, who joined in the debate on the business forums site, said the estimated annual savings of gov.uk over directgov and BusinessLink total £36m. Over time, converging departmental websites will also realise savings of between £50m and £70m.

“This can be set against the cost of launching gov.uk which was £18.7m,” she says.

The government has also argued that the service, although suffering from initial implementation issues, is an improvement. A Cabinet Office spokesman said, “Gov.uk is a simpler, clearer and faster way for users to find government services and information online. Early results bear this out, with the average task success for users of gov.uk at 61% compared with 46% on Business Link; and the average time taken to complete a task one minute quicker on gov.uk than Business Link.”

However many practitioners remain angry that potentially incorrect information is available on a government site at what they see to be a high cost.

“We are all so outraged,” says Elaine Clark of cheapaccounting.co.uk. “The nonsense of the content is insulting, especially when you realise that this has cost £18.7m.

“The deputy director for digital engagement has said that this is only the first phase, to which I would say ‘Before you deliver more trash, let’s take a long hard critical look at the site’. They should put both directgov.uk and businesslink.gov.uk back up while they look at whether it is achieving its objectives. Then they should tell us what those objectives are so that we know what they are aiming for and how it is progressing.”

“The businesslink site was full of really useful information for SMEs,” says Philip Hoyle of Wellwood Hoyle Associates. “It was one of the key places to look if you were thinking about setting up in business and needed to know how to write a business plan or where to go for finance.

“The site started out with errors but over time evolved into something that was really good. I often used to point my clients to it but now there is nowhere for them to go. How difficult would it have been to cut and paste that information and put it on the new site? Instead, the government has killed it off. It’s a travesty.”

Hoyle points to simple errors, such as where the new site says that company records have to be kept for three years despite the fact that HMRC’s own website says six years. He’s also done a search for insurance on the site and it comes up with a blank, opening up the possibility that people setting up in business and employing new staff will not know that it is compulsory to buy employers’ liability insurance.

As well as the errors, practitioners are appalled by what they term the “noddy style” language that has been used on the site and the low standard of the information available.

Clark quotes the site’s suggestion about where to send a limited company formation form – “the address you need is on the form” – and when not to charge VAT. The site says: “You can’t charge VAT on exempt or ‘out of scope’ items,” and then under the subheading “Exempt” explains that “exempt goods or services are supplies that you can’t charge VAT on”.

The Cabinet Office told economia it has "analysed the way individuals and businesses use Directgov and Business Link, the terms they were searching for, as well as how users expect services to look, feel and behave online. We also looked very carefully at the information found on Directgov and Business Link, and chose not to reproduce some of it on gov.uk.

“We have done this in cases where the information doesn’t help users, or when it is better provided by other organisations. If a user cannot find what they need, however, we will monitor 'failed searches' and will be able to respond quickly. We want to make sure that users’ needs are met, even if that requires the creation of new content on the website.”

This has not appeased the practitioners, however. Clark says she can’t believe how much the new site has cost.

“I just cannot see how this amount could have been spent on such content. Nearly £20m for drivel. Frankly, a final year university student could have done better.”


Raymond Doherty
Julia Irvine


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