National Archives shed light on No.10’s first steps towards digital government

Newly released confidential files reveal the behind-the-scenes discussions held by senior officials over the creation of the first Downing Street website.

John Major was Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997 (pic credit: Getty)
John Major was Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997 (pic credit: Getty)

The idea was first mooted in late 1995. The Central Office of Information subsequently drew up a proposal in response to a brief for “polished, lively, professional Web pages that would showcase 10 Downing Street and highlight the commitment of the UK Government to information technology”.

In its proposal – which estimated the costs at £8,670 – the COI advised “a professional, modern look that avoids the kitsch of some other Web sites while reflecting British culture.”

It recommended that the home page include transcripts of speeches, press releases, biographies of cabinet ministers and a virtual tour of No. 10 using pictures and text.

“As people become more familiar with interactivity, the fashion is increasingly for live environments in which exploratory clicking produces fun results,” according to the document.

By way of explanation, it offered an example whereby “clicking on paintings could call up a text file of information" on them.

The papers, released to the National Archives during the Christmas break, reveal resistance to the suggestion of having an email address for No. 10 on the website. “Concern was raised at possible resource implications of such a move,” according to minutes of a meeting that took place in July 1996.

The website was initially scheduled to be launched on 23 October 1996, to coincide with the opening of Parliament. But delays meant this plan was abandoned. Instead, a low-key launch took place on 11 December 1996, with a one-page press notice announcing the website.

Officials briefed Prime Minister John Major that he would be required to attend a five-minute photo op with several pupils from the Douay Martyrs School in Uxbridge, whose headmistress, Lady Marie Stubbs, was an adviser to the Department for Education and Employment.

The schoolchildren were invited to No. 10 for an internet link-up with their classmates, who asked Major a series of questions via the internet.

In a briefing sent to the prime minister the day before the launch, his private secretary Angus Lapsley stressed that having an email address on the website was not yet an option, “although we will consider it”. He added: “The fact is that we would probably need a few full-time staff to cope with the demand.”

Major was told that he would need to sit with the pupils “whilst they explore the web site”, but was assured: “You will not need to operate anything.”

He was also given advance warning of the questions he would face from the children. These included: “We know that you are a keen sportsman. Will you be getting the latest cricket scores from the Internet?” and “What would you and Mrs Major like for a Christmas present?” A more challenging question was: “What do you find most difficult about being PM and what do you enjoy the most?” 

In a letter thanking Lady Stubbs for her help with the launch, Lapsley noted that “some 300,000 people visited the site on its first full day of operation”, and added: “The Prime Minister enjoyed the occasion.”

In the space of a single generation since Downing Street took its first steps to go online, the government’s digital operation has developed beyond all recognition. Last week alone there were more than 24 million visitors to the website. 

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