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Let's fix it, by breaking it!

Last week was a very trying week for me, website wise. One of those weeks when you just want to scream, because you can't believe people would do such frustrating things.

I monitor a lot of web sources for news that's relevant to my employers business, and to do that, I rely heavily on RSS feeds. They allow me to see the output of sites quickly, and mean that I don't have to visit those sites repeatedly each day to be able to track their content. So, RSS feeds are VERY important to me. And in the context of Government sites, they're important for the general public too, helping to enable them to see what's happening in various departments, e.g. if consultations have been published that they might want to respond to, or if new regulations have been issued that may affect their business.

Meanwhile...the Government has stated that it's consolidating websites into the www.gov.uk address, and 24 departments will be moving to that address over the next 18 months. The first two moved last week, and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was one of them. Of course, this move to a new web address broke all the RSS feeds. Since I'm monitoring hundreds of sites at once, it was only a few days later, when I saw a Cabinet Office press release about the move, that I realised that the RSS feeds were dead.

Not a great start for a new site - the feeds had been killed, with no warning, and no message to say "As of X date, these RSS feeds will no longer be active. Please go to X address to find the new feeds." Not even a temporary redirect to the new site - just dead, and gone, without notice. Thanks for that - I missed 2/3 days of press releases due to that.

So, off I go to the new .gov.uk version of the site, to try and find where the RSS feeds are now. The DCLG page looks nice: it has a "Latest" section, "Our Publications", and "Our Announcements" sections, all relevant to me.

However...the Latest section is just that  -3 stories, no archive of them is accessible that way. The Policies and Announcements sections do allow you to "see all of our publications" or "see all of our announcements", but clicking through to these, it's obvious that this is merely the results of a search being run on the site when you click through, not an actual archive. And there's no RSS feed from it. There's no RSS feed anywhere to be found.

Now, I have raised this issue via the feedback form, and have (quickly - top marks for a fast response at least) been told:


There is a feed for publications at www.gov.uk/government/publications
There are also feeds for each topic at www.gov.uk/government/topics
Feeds for orgs and announcements are coming soon. 


This is ok (ish) as a temporary fix, but it still has issues: the feeds are for ALL Government publications, and ALL Topics. You can go into topics, and take the RSS feeds for each of the various Topics, but it's not topics I want, it's specific departments. I may want to know about how a roads development may impact on certain areas, but I want the planning elements of it, so taking the feed for Transport means I'd be getting (and have been getting) large amounts of irrelevant information (Channel Tunnel safety, bus statistics, Concessionary Travel notes...).

So, until there's a specific Departmental feed, I just have to wade through everything coming in on those feeds. Joy!

To add to the fun, The Scottish Court Service also redesigned its website last week.To continue the popular theme of "not telling users in advance", it too broke its RSS feeds, without any notification. So the feeds that I subscribed to, to keep an eye on cases being issued from the Court of Session and Sheriff Court are no longer work. And there isn't even the slightest hint of an RSS feed on the new Judgments pages. So that's another site redesign successfully removing a way of monitoring the output of the site, and multiple cases that were issued that I've missed, because I didn't know the feed was dead.

Also, to see the cases involves going to the Search Judgments page, and clicking a radio button. This then causes the page to reload. Once it's reloaded (in the case of the "50 most recent cases"), there is now another button to click...which causes the page to reload again. Surely there must be a simpler way of displaying content that to have to go through all these clicks and reloads?

And the Infuriating Dropdown Menus (as demonstrated painfully for quite some time now by The Scotsman website) have made an unwelcome appearance. These dropdowns frantically appear if you accidentally stray too close with the cursor, and overlay the actual text you want to read: "The Courts" page in particular sits and overlays the page text for quite some time, and does not pop back up out of the way if the mouse is moved off it.

I don't understand how these things happen - yes, there has obviously been massive amounts of work done to redesign these sites, and move them. For example, all the old DCLG links to documents I have in our Current Awareness service still work, as there's a redirect in place for them (unlike when DTI/DBERR/BIS changed themselves every few years - that in itself almost gave me a nervous breakdown, hundred of dead links!). But at no point does anybody think "I know, lets ask the users of the site about how they use it, and what the most important elements of it are for them, so we can make sure we retain them." They could have asked for input via, oh, I dunno, a release sent out on the RSS feed? I'm no web designer, but this move towards removing methods that allow users to monitor Government output is frustrating, to say the least!

And do you know the best bit? Only 2 of the 24 migrating sites have moved so far, DCLG being one of the first. Even contemplating the chaos that could result from this move is making me whimper....

Comments

Neil Williams said…
Hello

I'm the product manager for the Inside Government section of GOV.UK (I'm the person who responded to your feedback via the site, quoted above).

I'm very sorry that we didn't alert users via the old feeds that they would be closed. That's a failing of communications between us and the people running the former websites, and a bad oversight on our part. We'll add that to our checklist of things to confirm with each department when they close their sites from now on.

On the new publications index page at www.gov.uk/publications, the content of the atom feed changes based on the filters you choose. So you can generate a feed which is very specific to your interests by any possible permutation of organisation, topic, date and keyword.

We'll be adding feed links in all the other places you mention very soon - we just didn't get to it in time before this first release. You can track our progress by following our work over at http://inside-inside-gov.tumblr.com and http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/

(And, if you're *really* interested, you can even see our development backlog at https://www.pivotaltracker.com/projects/367813)

Thanks for the feedback, it's useful to hear directly from people on how they want to use the site - and especially when we've unhelpfully broken something they use.
Dumpling said…
Fab, thanks for the super fast response, both on email and here!
My main worry was that this was going to happen when each site moved, and that it's part of a pattern of RSS feeds being neglected in web site redesigns (as it was also happening on the Scottish court Service website), but to know that it's flagged up on the To Do list for the next time around is reassuring :)
I know it's a small issue in relation to the massive ones the migration must have thrown up, but it's been frustrating for me. But can I also say a big THANK YOU for not breaking the existing links/setting up a redirect - I may have had to have a nervous breakdown if I had to manually fix all our records for links to the new site!

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