Searching for direction

Supplement leader

All-encompassing web portals such as the Wanadoo, Tiscali and BBC home pages have been found wanting. In an attempt to catalogue a universe of information, they have ended up displaying a mass of impenetrable options. In the era of Google, why does such presentation still exist? To overcome the inadequacies of the portal format, such sites have implemented search facilities as a means of secondary navigation. Yet, only in specific circumstances should this be necessary. A decent search engine can do it so much better.

Internal search tools should only be introduced in an attempt to improve the experience of the website user, to help navigate accurately to older content or to augment rather than replace existing site navigation.

If only someone had told the government this earlier. Early in 2005, the members of the Democracy.org.uk Collective, fed up with the uselessness of the Directgov (www.direct.gov.uk) search tool, decided that they would build something better. The result, Directionlessgov (www.directionlessgov.com), is a website that uses the Directgov search engine and Google to search .gov.uk websites. It then displays the two results. Use it to search for the term "Directgov" and you soon find that the Directgov search engine can't even find itself.

However, though few of the best new media projects have come from the government, e-democracy in Britain is the envy of the world. Websites such as TheyWorkForYou (www.theyworkforyou.com), one of this year's winners, and The Public Whip (www.publicwhip.org), a winner last year, are two such examples. Both have been set up by volunteers who believe that new media can do for 21st-century democracy what the suffragettes did for the 20th century. Both sites make the government more accountable and transparent to the public. The sites' developers have also understood how best to utilise the web. They have not tried to create one-stop shops for democracy but, instead, provide individual websites for specific purposes.

But the government is catching on. This year's winner of the modernising government award, Vehicle Licensing Online (www.vehiclelicence. gov.uk), is a little-known gem. It allows drivers to do exactly what it says: renew their tax disks online. It is a small (in government terms) and simple website that makes one thankless task much less tedious.

However, when it comes to thankless tasks, the medals should go to the few elected representatives who have engaged with their constituents online. This year, the judges did not choose a winner from those nominations. But it is was not because they felt their sites were lacking in effort, rather that they were lacking support, both from the parties they represent and the government. When the New Statesman New Media Awards were launched in 1998, only a handful of councils had websites. Now every council is online and doing much more. However, it is time to realise that the Google-reliant public now has similar expectations for their elected representatives.

Kathryn Corrick is the New Statesman online manager

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