Jeremy Till

Glossing over the cracks


I was pretty depressed on the night of Wednesday 17th April. I was sat by myself overlooking the beautiful but bleak Norfolk marshes with a sense of foreboding about what the BBC would bring me the day after, the day of Thatcher’s funeral. And then my twitter feed flickered in to life. Lots of people praising the decision of the judges at the Design Museum to name the government website GOV.UK as Design of the Year. At a personal level I was pissed off because I had nominated stuff that was (of course!) much better. But then I got worried. And then I got furious. And because it appeared I was in a minority of one in my fury, I got still more depressed.

Don’t get me wrong, GOV.UK is a good enough piece of design, and in the face of general ministerial disdain about the contribution that design might play to the betterment of life, it is an almost miraculous piece of design. That’s what my tweeps told me: isn’t it great that the government is supporting good design. This was all mixed up with a general goodwill towards Ben Terrett, the Head of Design at the Government Digital Service, who oversaw the design.

Nice design, nice man, give them the prize. But is it really the best digital design of the year, let alone the best overall design of the year? Surely not. So one can only assume it was a point of principle to support the miracle that something good was coming out of this rotten government. But that point of principle, in its apparent endorsement, is in fact a political point, a fact confirmed when David Cameron took time out from the funeral arrangements to comment: “I delighted that the GOV.UK website has won Design of the Year 2013.” So far, so good.  But then he goes on: “This government is committed to being the most transparent in the world.” And here the decision of the judges begins to unravel: a point of principle is rapidly appropriated into official Orwellian rubric. I would uncomfortably argue that the judges were either naïve not to see this coming, or complicit in expecting it to come.

However, this elision of design with politics is not surprising if one digs into the website (which, to be fair, it is wonderfully easy to do, but in interesting break from all received wisdom of websites does not have a navigation system that allows you to backtrack, so you are stuck in silos that reflect the government’s separation in which the Department of Home Affairs legislates against overseas students as potential illegal migrants against the wishes of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills that depends on overseas students). In a section within GOV.UK called “Design Principles” one finds the following statement, under principle #2: “Do Less”.

Government should only do what only government can do?.We should concentrate on the irreducible core.

This may be presented as a design principle, but equally it reads as statement of ideological intent. As Robert McNicol writes in an excellent piece of spleen about GOV.UK: “In fact this whole paragraph is tantamount to an astonishing small-scale retreat and a capitulation that the civil service really are running scared.”

“Do less” as design principle elides with political dogma. The coalition government does indeed do less — for the poor, the disabled, the disposed. Less is not more in accord with that tired old design mantra. Less really is less, and GOV.UK becomes a digital cipher for Big Society, Cameron’s sleight of hand for scaling down of government in accord with neo-liberal and libertarian ideologies. In its very smoothness GOV.UK  is rather more sinister than the judges would have us believe. By` presenting a surface of ease and helpfulness, it belies the underlying reality of obstruction and confusion; ask anyone disabled who has been assessed by Atos Healthcare recently (that “healthcare” another Orwellian rubric if ever I saw one). Sliding through the detached worlds of GOV.UK is a very different experience to the embodied, messy, actuality of direct engagement with the government’s agents; ask anyone who has visited a job centre recently. And so suddenly Cameron’s vaunted transparency becomes more like fritted glass (that stuff with lots of dots on it), which suggests openness but gives you a headache if you look through it for too long.

There is another way that GOV.UK elides with government policy. Recently Michael Gove’s Department of Education issued the draft national curriculum for schools. The one for art and design comes in at a mere 478 words  (less really is less) and opens with the homily that:

Art and design teaching should instil in pupils an appreciation of beauty and an awareness of how creativity depends on technical mastery.

Elsewhere this Govine — I love that word in all its brutish rutting tendencies - agenda is described as a return to 1950s’ pedagogical niceties of rote learning and received facts, but in art and design it is truly 1850s, a Ruskinian rhapsody of beauty and craft. GOV.UK certainly pushes the button of technical mastery, and maybe even that of beauty (but that depends on your yearning for a 1960s typeface which, naturally, was Made in Britain). However, just as the national curriculum reduces, and so marginalises, the role of design, so does GOV.UK. This is where my real fury with the judges comes, because design is so much more than that. Design should propose new futures, disrupt the present, make things political in an intentional and not just complicit way. But here it just glosses over the cracks.