To celebrate the UK Government Web Archive (UKGWA) turning 25 this week, we have released a video showing the evolution of one of the most important sites in our collection: GOV.UK. The video, put together by my colleague Kourosh Feissali, shows the site from its earliest stages to the present day. In this post I take a look at some highlights from the history of this ‘website for the nation’.
From November 2008 the UKGWA started to archive a larger number of sites as part of our Web Continuity Initiative. This supported the creation of the single government domain, GOV.UK, by archiving pages that were being retired so that users could be redirected to the UKGWA where appropriate.
The earliest example of GOV.UK in our collection is an ‘Alpha’ prototype that was archived on 10 June 2011. The site’s about pages describe a bold vision for a new single government website, informed by UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox’s 2010 report calling for ‘Revolution not evolution‘ in the government’s online services. These Alpha pages clearly show experimentation with the appearance of the site, for example, early versions include large background images of significant places in the UK, such as the Angel of the North or Buckingham Palace (to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee in 2012).
Nevertheless, some key elements remain consistent throughout the 10 years of the archive: the prominent search functionality and the links to access key information and services would be familiar to modern users of GOV.UK, as would the responsive mobile-friendly design.
By the time of our July 2012 capture, the site had entered Beta testing and the large background images had been dropped in favour of a cleaner look. As the Government Digital Service responded to user feedback, we see several different variations on this theme before settling on a more familiar design. On the 17 October 2012 the site ended its Beta testing phase and officially replaced its predecessors Directgov and Business Link.
From November 2012 we can chart the next major stage in the site’s development: its absorption of individual government department websites. In our 18th November capture, the homepage records that two of 24 ministerial departments were live on GOV.UK. This work continued apace and by January 2013, six ministerial departments and 11 other public bodies had transferred to the site, with all ministerial departments having transferred by May that year. Though other public bodies continued to be added, this marked a significant milestone in the ambition to provide a single point of contact between citizens and the government.
In August 2013 the site design was tweaked again, emphasising the search bar and introducing the blue and white colour scheme that is still used today. Indeed, there now followed a period of stability in the look and feel of the site. We continue to see an increasing number of public bodies and agencies incorporated into the site but otherwise, the design is consistent, punctuated only by occasional banners and coloured areas to emphasise important information such as preparations for Brexit or the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That the fundamental design of the homepage has remained so consistent is a tribute to how effectively it has served the needs of its users over the years, and to the vision of the teams that conceived of and implemented the new site back in 2011.