Bringing content to people, not people to websites – Gov2Radio

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As referenced in my last blog post, here is the podcast embedded below…I didn’t realise that I sounded so Devonian :)

A very open account and it comes from the heart as you’d expect..a good edit considering we spoke for just over an hour…for those who know me, getting me to shut up isn’t that easy…

Thank you to Allison for the opportunity to share some thinking and the conversation.

Enjoy….

http://gov20radio.com/2012/06/content-to-people/

#LocalGov #Content Strategy Group now live on Knowledge Hub

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Back in January at UKGC12 Sarah Lay and I said we would create an online community space for those interested in Content Strategy for people in and around government.

It has taken some time, for which we make no excuses other than we have been reflecting on which platform to use to best suit the immediate and future needs of the group. We considered a range of options but have settled for the Knowledge Hub.

Please join and sign up if you are interested…Sarah and I will be facilitating the group, but if others wish to help out then let us know in the group itself.

Digital Content Strategy Group

The ‘digital content strategy’ group has been created as a community space to discuss issues around delivering digital in local government and specific practice around web and digital content creation, curation, delivery and governance. This may include issues around web content, user experience design, content across different platforms, search, social media and methods of delivery and governance such as Agile working and devolved authoring.

Devon’s Content Strategy

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In previous posts I’ve talked about developing a content strategy for the council and shared my thoughts on what it might include, i’ve shared an example of how its already informing our development as well as sharing my thinking on the kind of support I believe web teams and local government in general need to improve the overall quality of our web estate.

There is a huge amount of work to be done moving forward and my team have essentially been delivering against this strategy already since last summer, as we have been reviewing and auditing our content.

The key point to outline is that in terms of how our web estate will actually look in 4-5 years time, we broadly see an Amazon style site emerging where our web domain acts as a trusted access point over a hybrid marketplace of services, some provided directly by us, some provided by voluntary / private sector and some provided by partnerships.

The content strategy’s primary purpose is to outline an approach and shift the current thinking around how we design, develop and manage our web estate.

I’m not going to republish the whole thing here as it is quite long, so I’ll include a few bits and pieces from the 4 year strategy and if you want to see the full version then please get in touch and I can email you a copy along with a Powerpoint presentation which helps to explain and illustrate it further.

There are 3 documents in total – in my view the background makes excellent bedtime reading when I struggle sleeping :)

  • A 4 year Strategy
  • A 2 year roadmap
  • Background information
The following is a short summary of the strategy document.

Vision

The content strategy aims to fundamentally change the way we think about our web presence, to reposition the user at the forefront of how and why we create content and services. It intends to exploit the social web and social networks to ensure our content reaches its intended audience.

The main aim is to ensure that users can access content where they need it and not have to rely on accessing and navigating their way through a council website to find critical or timely information and services.

If the strategy is successful then we will have a hybrid web presence with content being managed once and reused and shared where appropriate. A large proportion of our content will reside in social platforms and social networks directly targeting the primary audience, for example all of our content for parents should also be available directly via Mumsnet (if practical), or aspects of our content for people from different cultures in Devon should be directly available via Devon Grapevine.

However we would also have a strong and clearly branded presence providing core information which would act as a central hub. In maintaining a single domain this ensures that our content is accessible and findable via google which is essentially the majority of users starting point on the web.

Our vision statement:

“We will have a public facing web domain that reflects and supports the diversity and agility of the organisation, reaches out and extends our presence across the web whilst providing a framework for consistency, accountability and quality around the content we provide”.

The Strategy

The content strategy is also an enabler for a number of other county council strategies for example:

  • Access Strategy
    By providing a usable online web presence that is driven by the needs of users and provides access to a range of online services to support cost savings through the migration of users from more expensive channels of access to online.
  • Engagement Strategy
    By connecting people to content and information about council services, decisions, plans etc and providing opportunities and channels to provide feedback or have a discussion directly online.
  • Information Strategy
    By ensuring that our content is reusable, sharable, open and linked by default.
  • Communications Strategy
    By providing a key purpose for all content, and supporting the key themes and messages in line with the Communications Strategy.

This strategy aims to provide specific, well-informed recommendations about how we’re going to get from where we are today – bad content and too much content – to where we want to be – useful, usable content people will actually care about and in places that make sense to them.

Our Approach

To ensure the delivery of the strategy, we need to think differently and adopt a set of approaches which will provide the foundations for success – these are explained in further detail below.

Standards Driven – (a global experience language)

Our web domain will be an ecosystem or network of solutions all governed by a set of rules (a global experience language, or GEL ) so they look, talk and behave like part of the core and are also searchable and indexed from a single (federated) search facility.

The GEL itself will be developed using feedback and evidence around the use of our web domain and will be constantly reviewed and updated to ensure that it stays current and in line with significant changes in web delivery.

Taking the GEL further it will include standards such as:-

  • Content Standards and Lifecycle Management
  • Online Feedback
  • Web Publishing and Editorial Policy (including Plain English)
  • Accessibility (including EU Cookie Directive)

User Driven (evidence based)

Using web-based analytics is essentially about looking at how your website is being used. It gives you a feel for how many visits your site gets over a given time period, how many of these visits are unique, what the most popular pages are, as well as a whole range of other information.
In order to measure and evaluate our content effectively we need to adopt a blended approach which uses traditional web analytics along with additional sources of information/data. These would include

  • Heuristic Evaluations (end users and staff)
  • Data from Customer Service Centre
  • Data from Freedom of Information requests
  • Web Analytics
  • Feedback and complaints
  • Profiling and Content Engagement
  • Online Surveys

A Procurement and Commissioning Framework – (working with others)

It is important to acknowledge that the council will not be able to deliver and implement the content strategy in isolation or alone. In order to achieve the aims of the content strategy we need to ensure that the GEL is consistently applied whenever county council content is being presented online whether via a website, mobile phone app, digital TV service etc.

Development through iteration (agile and response)

The content strategy requires a new way of thinking about our domain and website and for these reasons we should adopt a more agile approach to development. The main reason for this is that the web is a dynamic, constantly changing environment and subsequently drove a large number of our “microsites” to be developed outside of our corporately provided systems.

A refreshed Web Architecture – (future proofing)

The content strategy also plays a key role in shaping and informing the web architecture as part of the ICT Corporate Business and Solution Strategy as well as the emerging Application Strategy.

Does local government need a local government digital service?

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NB: This post has also been posted on the Government Digital Service blog here. I am simply posting here to keep a record of my thinking on my blog.

The easy answer to the title question would be No…but I don’t like easy answers and I believe that No is fundamentally the wrong answer.

I’ve followed with great interest, admiration and actually envy the progress of gov.uk from within local government. I thought for some time, I want to do some of that here in Devon, it can’t be that difficult surely, we are a much smaller organisation than the whole of central government and therefore how hard could it be!

The web is an important channel, everyone knows this…blah blah blah and if done right, we’ll save money as people prefer to interact online. But for so many years most of local government has been accused of lacking innovation, creativity and useful online services. My situation in Devon is no different, we’ve done a variety of things which are relatively innovative, but web managers have lacked the credibility and influence to really take the web in a new direction…That is where the realisation of what has happened at GDS comes home – it is actually more profound than you realise until you actually try to do the same.

Sarah Lay from Derbyshire County Council blogged last friday about the #reallyusefulday that the GDS team put on alongside a bunch of local government people.

She sums up one of the biggest issues facing all web managers/digital champions and the like perfectly:

Your culture is not our culture – yet

The question baking my noodle throughout the day was ‘how is the GDS culture and direction going to get embedded in local government?’. The simple fact is that the Government Digital Service has been specifically created to do this (massive) task for central government and empowered to make it happen. They can’t force that on local government but they’re going to need to persuade them to follow suit if this is really going to work.

But at the moment Agile is alien, UX is theory more than practice and digital by default has yet to reach the provinces. Of course this is a generalisation. There is massive innovation in local government, bags of passion (also pockets of apathy and resistance to change).

My current thinking on the local government web domain is that over the past 10 years we have spent money (lots of it), redesigned and redesigned our sites, argued and debated what a consistent navigation structure should be and then all adopted a poor compromise but still useful structure and were measured against some national definition of our local areas, we’ve been guided by external forces on doing the wrong thing really well…often acting in blind faith that if we follow all this advice we will achieve the holy grail of the “perfect council website”…. A myth that for the last 10 years has failed to be realised…

There is nobody is to blame for this and we shouldn’t lay blame anywhere, instead we should take a long hard look at ourselves and decide how we wish to move forward…The GDS approach is a good model, it makes sense (for now anyway), it has shown us how things could work and how things could look if we follow a set of principles and processes – but that takes time and a level of commitment that simply doesn’t yet exist?

But the question Sarah raises still comes back – how do we get the same kind of culture embedded across over 400 individual organisations – because that is what local authorities are, individual organisations, accountable to their local people, not central government.

We are also fighting an online battle with external organisations who provide online services as well as though who we now commission to provide services to work toward the same “standards”.

So I ask again “Does local government need a local government digital service?”

YES of course it “needs” one.

It is how something like that could happen which is the more interesting question – the how is slightly more complicated and riddled with challenges and barriers.

But there is hope – GDS no doubt had many many barriers and challenges and most likely still does in key areas but yet manages to work through them, so i’m optimistic that collectively local government could do the same  - if it wanted to – yes we would “want” this to happen first.

But what would a LocalGDS actually look like, offer and provide that doesn’t already exist in many places?

I’ll provide a starting point on what i feel is needed – some may argue that this might exist in places, but the lack of co-ordination is impacting on the overall value to the sector.

Leadership and Vision
There is no strong visible leadership for the local government web estate and the value it creates for users. Many local government web folk provide leadership and certainly inspire me for what they are doing…but its sporadic and doesn’t have the level of influence require to affect a change on a wider scale.
There is a balance to be had between external people and “experts” and practitioner understanding that should be explored..It would be wrong in my opinion to create a completely separate organisation to provide this with no links into local government or central government.

Skills development (UI/UX/simplicity/agile)
There is clearly a huge skills gap in the local government web community that needs to be addressed…some councils may simply choose to “commission” the web from an external provider and rely on private sector skills.

Sarah’s post highlights the need for additional skills around UI/US and agile and without some body to push this forward – how is this going to become embedded?

Connecting
This is an obvious one and there are a range of options already in place here for example the recent UKGovCamp event in January.

Govcamp 2012

[ Photo by Paul Clarke http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/6738091789/ ]

But there is no continuation of the conversation through online networks other than twitter and on individual blogs. To have a bigger impact, something around co-ordinating this would need to be explored.
Whilst there are some groups facilitated by external organisations such as the Socitm Web Improvement community, which is in the Knowledge Hub, it simply doesn’t go far enough…a collective responsibility of course to contribute into these spaces…but it isn’t a local government space it is a socitm managed community.

Standards / toolkits / frameworks
I’ve recently read a blog post by Benjamin Welby about local government simply using the code base and technology that underpins the gov.uk platform…in theory this sounds like a very sensible thing to do and for some councils this might be a realistic option…but for me the real issue is not whether we share the same technology but what standards we set for technologies in order to facilitate a better web experience.

Forcing a technology approach and platform onto local government simply won’t work…it is the best practice standards that we need to share and any kind of local government digital services would have to have a sense of “ownership” by the sector. It is a shame that so many people have gone from Local Government Improvement and Development (LGID) as this would have made a logical co-ordination place.

Again a more community based approach to this would be beneficial, but i’m sure that there would be a number of heated debates in IT departments across the country as to which technology language should be adopted as the standard.

Central government needs to work with localgov directly on IT industry standards…most localgov have legacy systems which will simply never provide a fantastic user experience…we have our hands tied as single small orgs and we are not effectively represented when it comes to big IT players.

The transactional design processes and principles from gov.uk need to be shared and minimum standards need to be created based on achieving a fantastic user experience.

Extend the GDS global experience language into and across local government – this should provide a flexible framework to allow for “localised” branding whilst being clear about how content and services are presented and designed.

It really shouldn’t matter whether one council chooses wordpress to power their website and another chooses a large CMS platform, if the online experience and online services were consistent but also supported a localised feel.

Setting the bar high
I think GDS has already delivered on this, but hasn’t been explicit or forthcoming in broadening its influence into local government and maybe rightly so…
But we do need to maintain a high standard, why should we accept anything less than a really good online experience…the balance is in doing this in an affordable and sustainable way in small local authorities.

Greater engagement and collaboration between Local and Central.
Direct engagement with local government practitioners needs to go beyond the localdirectgov database and into skills, sharing and learning. Raising the profile within local government circles as to the value added and the efficiencies achieved of gov.uk – this might be an easy step to take and in some ways this already happens but is informal and sporadic at best…no fault of anyone here…just the way it is right now.

There is also a lot of learning and experience from us local government folk which can and should be shared back into GDS. After all, there are many levels of government and we all have a stake in making it a better place. Whilst GDS do have a strong mandate and have clearly attracted a huge amount of talent, there is in my humble opinion a huge amount of talent in local government which could do with some support , direction and engagement.

Things we should avoid doing.

  • measuring / monitoring from a central place
  • force it
  • focus on technology
  • create and acknowledge artificial barriers

I know there are more things we should stop doing but i’ll not focus too much on that now…

I hope this post sparks and triggers some interesting discussion about how local government and the GDS might have proactive conversations in moving forward.

I’ve disabled comments on this post only, as i’d like to keep all of the discussion in one place – If you wish to comment on this post please do so over at the Government Digital Service Blog

That #localgov #contentstrategy stuff is spreading

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You know when you start to see or read more about a topic as soon as you start focusing on it…well I’m getting that feeling with content strategy and in particular content strategy in local gov and the public sector.

I’ve come across 3 great posts today, one of which was highlighted via my content strategy partner in crime @sarahlay on twitter…

When I picked this tweet up I was actually already reading and digesting this post on Creating Content that serves a civic purpose… and what made this seem more than a coincidence was the related link at the bottom of the article that Sarah linked to (see image below) – was actually a link to the article I was already in the middle of reading.

Anyway, moving beyond the strangeness that happens in the social web and onto some of the interesting points that are highlighted in these posts.

One of the most basic levels which I think we often forget is this list provided in the Civic Purpose article

To make sure the content you create in the public interest fulfills its responsibilities, there are a few standard rules you should follow:

Use plain English and avoid jargon, as the diversity of the audience will likely span the socio-economic spectrum.

Focus on what the consumer needs to know, and how the particular services or information offered on the site can help. Limit information about why or how the government entity achieves its goals, as this extra information can confuse or frustrate people who visit the site looking for answers.

Format content in a clear, compelling way. Government websites must compete with consumer websites that offer similar information (and all the bells and whistles they offer such as compelling graphic design, widgets, social media icons, and content rich blogs).

Check — and double check — your facts. For many citizens, information shared by the government has an innate relevance and gravity, while others automatically doubt information from any level of government, and dismiss it as self-serving. To gain the trust of both audiences, it is critical that the content be factual, accurate, have transparent input, and be beyond reproach. It may also be appropriate to have your content reviewed by experts to ensure accuracy.

Information needs to be easily accessible and relevant, even though government services rarely compete with private sector services.

A .gov (or equivalent such as gov.au, gouv.fr) extension provides an air of authority, so be sure to reserve these URLs for your content, if possible.

The last point about the domain providing an air of authority rings true for me right now, as one of the key outputs of the content strategy that I am writing is that we aim to create a “Single Domain” and this in local gov terms may not be a single technology platform either. But the key point is that we should recognise that our content has a level of trust already and we should be able to build on this and ensure that wherever our content is pulled or pushed across the web the trust and authority remains, otherwise it may lose its purpose and meaning.

Moving onto the post that Sarah linked to written by Rahel Bailie - the examples of how engagement of content should be seen is a great way to explain how traditional local government webpages should evolve and reuse content from across the wider website as well as incorporate other relevant content. Rachel suggests:

….Encouraging engagement means presenting content that presents opportunities to get involved, at opportune places on the site. To do that, the architecture of the website needs to be well thought out, and the content should always appear in consistent ways and in consistent places. In the case of home owners recycling, a home owner interested in a greener community should be able to find information about how the recycling program fits into the larger sustainability initiative, and ways they could get involved, from participating in a neighborhood initiative to sitting on an advisory committee. The logical places to show these opportunities is not only on a community advisory page, but in the places where interested constituents might go for other information such as on a neighborhood page, on a page with other recycling-related information, in a Facebook post that links back to information on the site, or in a sidebar on a page about green communities….

….The decision of whether or not to engage with a government organization is a choice on the part of the constituent; providing that opportunity is the responsibility of the organization…

The last post which I found really interesting was primarily aimed at “how non-profits can profit from content strategy“.  It highlights some key areas when thinking about content strategy which are equally applicable to localgov in my view…I’ve not copied the whole post but have simply listed the headings below.

  • You’ve gotta start somewhere
  • Document what you have and what’s working.
  • spend time on workflow
  • Know your audiences
  • Pay attention to your business model
  • Use your money wisely.
  • Keep hope alive

The first and last points for me are probably (right now anyway) the most important to keep hold of, as it is very challenging for many people to unlearn what they know about local government web management.