remembering government.direct – the first interactive green paper

“Top 5% of all Web sites!”

“Networking industry awards!”

“Awards for excellence!”

No, these accolades aren’t for GOV.UK. They’re for the much earlier 1994 central government site, open.gov.uk. Known by the exciting name of, er, the ‘CCTA Government Information Service’ it was the first attempt to provide a single UK cross-government website. The first common platform if you like.

By 1996 the site had brought together information from 180 public sector organisations, 79 of which were hosted on the central service itself. You can see it being celebrated in (silent) low-def video below.

This video is taken from the interactive CD-ROM government.direct“A prospectus for the Electronic Delivery of Government Services”, 1996*. It includes this opening animated sequence (ensure you have your sound on to maximise your immersive time-travelling experience).

The CD-ROM was a pioneering experiment at the time, providing an interactive version of the green paper (PDF) of the same name.

The introductory screen from the 1996 interactive CD-ROM ‘Government Direct’

As they explored the CD-ROM’s contents, citizens could make contextual notes and then email their consolidated feedback directly to government, an early example of using technology for more open and participative engagement. I wonder how many other government green, or white, papers have used technology to encourage such direct participation in the years since 1996?

Gathering citizen feedback, 1996 style

The government.direct CD-ROM includes several other videos, useful reminders of the state of play 23 years ago. For example, this one highlights the use of kiosks to ensure accessibility at a time when the internet was far less widely available.

This next video provides insight into the infamous Cab-e-Net spin doctor information management system and its role within government.

And this video from Australia talks about a ‘clever new system which puts the client first‘, emulating the direction of government.direct which similarly placed citizens at the centre and aimed for iterative design to meet their needs:

The Government wants, as far as is practicable, to tailor the new types of service to public demand … Immediately after the Green Paper is launched, the Government will initiate a series of pilot schemes, so that members of the public can try the new forms of service delivery for themselves. Their reactions will shape the arrangements which are eventually launched on a national scale.

government.direct para 1.5

One final video from government.direct – a reminder of how smart cards were once seen as the future. Substantial work with smart cards took place between government and the private sector, particularly the banks and Royal Mail, from around the mid-1990s onwards. Some of this work is referenced in this Smart Card News from 1997.

Smart cards were an important feature of the Government Gateway (an interoperable SAML identity hub and transaction orchestration platform) when it launched in 2001. Third party smart card providers carried out user verification checks to agreed standards accredited by t-scheme, with users then able to use their cards to access online public services.

The Government Gateway supported these third party credentials (and later chip-and-PIN cards) alongside user IDs and passwords to enable citizens, business and intermediaries to access and use public services. It’s an early example of a mixed economy of private and public sector identity players working to common, accredited standards – one still being actively discussed today.


* I still have it running in a Windows 3.11 virtual machine (yes, yes, I know)

[I happily acknowledge all copyrights in the above and I’m very happy to provide any additional acknowledgements on ownership, etc. The videos have all been taken from the government-published 1996 CD-ROM in my possession and are being used here for non-commercial purposes in the public interest and, I hope, reflect fair use]

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