The real reasons the voter registration website went down

What is the real reason the voter registration website went down this week? And what does it have to do with the man who built London's sewers and Christmas 2005?

A decade ago, when we still used horrendous phrases like 'Clicks and Mortar' to describe a store with a website, I wrote an article about online shopping.

The piece followed a disastrous Christmas during which many retailers had seriously underestimated online demand. Websites had gone down, orders had not been delivered. At the time, we spent just £5bn online - in 2014, we passed the £100bn mark and if course, online shopping is still growing. Demand was tiny compared to today - and a huge number of online stores messed up big time.

While writing this piece, I interviewed the person in charge of a major retailer's online offering. One of the few that had come through Christmas unscathed  with no outages, no delivery issues, no problems at all.

They told me honestly - but asked me not to include in the piece - that early in the year they had estimated the likely demand for online shopping around Christmas. Then they sat back, had a think - and doubled that number more than once. They didn't want to say precisely, because of course, this was their competitive advantage, but it worked, and everything ran beautifully. 

You might call this the Bazalgette approach. The man who built London's sewer system worked out the densest population estimates he could; allowed for the maximum amount of sewage produced per person - and then said, "Well we're only going to do this once and there's always the unforeseen" - and doubled it.

So what has all this got to do with the voter registration? 

The answer is customers and reputation. 

Who are the customers of the government? It seems almost crazy to ask this question - governments don't have customers, silly! 

But they do. They just don't call them customers. Our expectation of the people to whom we pay a huge amount every year for the provision of services to support our society and life is very low.

We expect things to run badly - we are surprised when things run well, or simply work as they are meant to. When the Gov.uk website won its very well deserved Design of the Year award in 2013, it really underlined how terrible most other interactions - and all interactions prior to this have been. And though the voter registration service is run via Gov.uk - it isn't the fault of the design that it went down. This has to do with a decision made somewhere else, about how many people are expected to use the site, not allowing for spikes in demand and in almost complete certainty, how much this would cost.

Of course the voter registration website went down. There is no imperative for it to do otherwise. There is no reputation to ruin, no expectation to dash. It can even try to blame people for waiting until the last minute (but of course, who does otherwise?). The government won't generally lose any customers if if does the very least it can get away with - the stakes are low. 

In this case, things are a little different - a significant number of people unable to register for a vote this important may cause some sort of social upheaval, whichever way the vote goes. Expect protests (the first ever caused by insufficient server capacity?). 

But depressingly - that's why this happened.

Because there was no reason for it not to.