Tuesday, August 02, 2005


branding and government: a pointless combination

I'm not one of those "anti-government" people who whines about there being too much government, or complains that all government is incompetent. Actually, I think the concept of government gets a bad rap. I accept government as necessary for a well-functioning society. It may not always work as well as we would like, it can often be improved, but one needs to accept government for what it is, and not pretend it is a corporation.

While I accept the value of government, I also tend to limit my interaction with it where possible. I don't, for example, surf government websites for the pleasure of it. I consult a government website only when I have some unavoidable need, like getting my car registered, or paying taxes. But somehow these simple certainties of life has become more uncertain, thanks to the pernicious influence of corporate branding.

I recently had to do my UK taxes, and found I needed a certain form. I googled "Inland Revenue" and UK, but only got a slew of websites belonging to tax preparers and accountants. To where had Inland Revenue disappeared? They had sent me mail only a few weeks ago. Further hunting revealed something called HM Revenue and Customs. I discovered that HM Revenue and Customs is the new, re-branded Inland Revenue. To my ears, the new organization sounds like its main mission is to collect fines from people bringing too much booze into Heathrow.

A similar frustrating experience happened when I needed to get my car registration updated. The responsible government department in New Zealand had decided to rebrand, a process that would take several months. In the interim, I get mail with the both the old and new name on it, depending on what stationery is being used. Being recently arrived to New Zealand, I am confused which is the old name and which the new one, and don't know what name will be listed in the phone book (when did the name change happen, and when was the phone book printed?)

However trendy discussion of "lovemarks" may be in the business world, I don't think they are appropriate for government. A wise person, maybe it was Steve Krug, said nearly a decade ago that users don't want to know your organization chart. In the early days of the web, many companies structured their websites around their internal functional department, instead of structuring information from a customer-centric perspective.

The last thing I want to do when paying my taxes or registering my car is to spend time figuring out what part of government is responsible for it. Perhaps well-meaning government officials believe that sending me announcements of an impending name change will help me learn who to contact. But it would be far simpler if governments did not change their names, ever, even when they do a bureaucratic merger or shuffle. And if you collect taxes, call yourself the tax department, not some euphemism like "revenue." Revenue from what? Sales of lottery tickets?

I am encouraged by the approach in the UK of Directgov, which offers a customer-centric view of government services. People don't care what the name of a department is that processes a form, they simply want to complete the form and have it acted on.

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