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

In a Nutshell – Reflecting on Devon’s Social Media Journey

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Following on from Andrew Beeken’s post about Lincoln City Council’s Social Media Journey in response to SocITM’s Helen Williams.  I include the response that myself and Russell Taylor have provided for Devon County Council.

1. Why have you chosen to use the social media channels you have, and how did you go about building a successful presence?

We chose platforms that had a high volume of users and therefore an element of penetration with local citizens. In terms of building a successful presence, we initially reposted and fed content via the councils RSS feeds in order to learn how the tools worked and to allow time for staff to grow in confidence around using the tools appropriately. We try to ensure that content is relevant and timely as well as expanding our responses and conversation due to resource constraints.

Russell Taylor:

I think the biggest increases in our presence (followers, messages, referrals) have always been linked to the promotion of topical current events and information like elections, extreme weather, budget consultations, and campaigns etc. So we try to promote these events through our social media channels when ever it’s appropriate.

2. How are you using social media?  (e.g. corporate communications tool managed by comms / service specific news from individual services themselves / campaigns / engagement tool / customer service / promotion of the local area)

We are using social media in a variety of ways – corporately we have Facebook, twitter, vimeo, blogs, flickr and some services have also developed a presence – for example libraries have used flickr to show photos of library refurbishments. It is an evolving approach and we are constantly learning how to best take advantage of particular social media tools either through opportunities such as extreme weather or by learning from other councils or other organisations we also promote via website.

Russell Taylor:

As Carl mentioned we use social media for a number of things and learning as we go. Our earliest use was for corporate communications in Twitter and Facebook. Our press releases were published into these channels. This then expanded to include announcements/promotional messages requested from other departments/partner organisations (e.g. events, alerts and campaigns).

We also try to help other organisations spread their important messages. Our YouTube channel includes many other organisations (Emergency services, DirectGov, NHS) videos in our playlists to help increase their reach. We also retweet other organisations messages were appropriate to help spread the word on important announcements (e.g. District council updates on road closures)

3. How long have you been using social media and who is involved?

we set up twitter 2.5 years ago (not sure when Facebook was created) and is has been driven primarily by the webteam with increasing contributions from other parts of the council

Russell Taylor:

At the moment the Corporate Web Team publish most of our none automated content. However as we increase awareness of social media throughout the council more of our messages are requested by other departments. We are also in the process of training users from our Customer Service Centre so they can publish their own message and provide support.

4. Who’s in charge and do you have a strategy / policy? (eg, is it comms / web / services / corporate policy or chief execs)

We have a social media policy which is documented and approved, but do not have a formal strategy. However our unwritten strategy implicitly implied by the policy is to allow and encourage access and usage, linking to business outcomes and outputs, whilst managing and mitigating risks and reputation damage. We also encourage sharing any learning across the council and wider

No one is formally in charge although the chief executive is social media and social networking champion.

We do not currently have a web manager who would be seen as a key driver in progressing and co-ordinating this activity further

5. What benefits do you see from your efforts in this area (to your organisation or customers)?

Here are some of the benefits we have seen from using social media:

  • ability to rapidly communicate messages to a vast number of people either directly or via retweets and “likes”
  • access to low cost development tools to reduce the cost of web development in some areas (blogs etc)
  • 2 way engagement and communication with people from Devon and wider.
  • the potential to reach people who may not normally visit our main website for information.
  • ability to share richer content e.g. video, photos etc (YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr)
  • mobile access – social media isn’t a 9 to 5 channel so being able to update the feed from home or on the move can be extremely useful when there is a requirement to get messages out quickly (e.g. Extreme weather/events)

6. How do you manage your social media activity? (automation, monitoring tools / software?)

For our automated messages we use RSS feeds connected through Twitterfeed. We link our Twitter and Facebook accounts using Hootsuite which we also use to monitor our mentions and references to Devon County Council.

7. What tips would you pass on to others?

Don’t try and solve every problem, start with small projects and grow and scale them up. Engage with people inside and outside of the council. Learn from others and adapt quickly. Stay positive and promote the channels via your main website

Russell Taylor:

Think about who your audience is and what information they would be interested in. Is your audience different for each social network? If so consider altering the content/tone for each. It can take time to increase followers/awareness so don’t expect too much too soon.

A new view of Corporate Web Management or is it?

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I’ve been currently working on the Strategic Development Plan for the County Councils Web Channel over the last 6-8 weeks and I’m amazed by how much my own thinking has changed since I started thinking about how we move forward our web channel and web presence in the context of Big Society, Channel Migration (encouraging users to use lower cost channels such as the web over face to face), engagement, participation etc – plus the likely move towards a strategic commissioning model.

I do have a tendency to over-think things sometimes and I always value people challenging, correcting and sometimes punching me to see difference viewpoints or the missing pieces of the puzzle :o) – This is one of those areas.

Most web managers  and web professional should know that Socitm are working on a project to define a professional skills framework for people who work on public sector websites that includes:

  • programmers and coders
  • web developers (with technical skills)
  • web designers
  • content managers/editors
  • social networking experts
  • measurement/monitoring specialists
  • web marketers
  • web managers
  • customer service or IT heads with web responsibilities
  • e-communications professionals

My particular concern is around the Web Manager role as my previous post was exactly that (hence the task of writing the strategic development plan).

So if the scenario is that most public sector organisations are moving towards (some are already there of course) a Strategic Commissioning model, which also in theory will contribute to the Big Society agenda, then we actually need two types of Web Manager moving forward in my opinion:

1) A “Strategic” Web Commissioner – This would in effect be the person who wrote the strategy, understood and documented the organisational needs and specified at a high level the requirements by which a commissioning exercise could take place – they would also be responsible for monitoring the value and ensuring it delivered the outputs specified. This role would also need to set and outline the standards as part of the requirements

2) An “Operational” Web Delivery Manager – This would essentially be the person(s)  responsible for the delivery of the platform. In the scenario above this could be an external organisation or a partners ICT department.

The other roles within the skills framework above don’t seem to be impacted in the same way as all in my view with the exception of the Strategic Web Manager could be “commissioned” or more bluntly put “outsourced” – yes even content authors, although less likely!

The model is, in a simplistic way, very similar to how Web Managers operate now, they are usually outside of the delivery unit (ICT) and are often located in the business (Communications or Customer Services) and essentially commission internally developments and projects which meet a set of outcomes – well we hope they do?

However the main difference is that we will see a new relationship emerging and a logical development of the role into a more strategic context, one which in my view has to understand the commissioning process and inform and influence the direction of the channel.

To put it more simply, you are either specifying what it does, where it goes and what it looks like OR you are part of the delivery of it! Some of us will need to decide what side of that fence we want to sit, some of us of course won’t get a choice…

When it comes to Social Media, I think this adds a different dimension and will inject a much-needed strategic context for social outputs which currently  Web Managers are just grappling with. In my view this shift will provide an opportunity to get “social” into the wider organisation. This simply adds layers to collaboration, knowledge sharing, learning, communication, engagement, participation as we all already know.

To come back to the present day for a minute, I don’t see an immediate transition to this model, but I do suspect that over the next year we will start to see the Strategic Web Commissioner type role emerging and starting to inform and influence the commissioning of web services at a more senior level in councils than has previously happened.

Some people may say that this isn’t really a significant change, but something tells me that this is a big step change from how we work now and we need to work out what it means before someone else does.

As I said at the start, I’d value challenge, comments and an occasional virtual punch to either get me back on track or to make some observations that I simply haven’t considered or acknowledged here.

The Civil Sector and Public Sector

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On friday last week, I attended the Socitm South West Regional Meeting, where there were a number of presentations from various people from Orange (Event Sponsors) who are actually now part of a new organisation Everything Everywhere – A merger of Orange and T-Mobile. I personally didn’t really take note of this when this was announced back in May, but actually it is quite a big deal when you think about what this means to the mobile networks and coverage. They still need to sort our rural connectivity if they want to make a real difference. Maybe they should connect to Race Online 2012 and make a pledge…

One of the most interesting presentations on the day came from Julie Harris, CEO of Cosmic, a Social Enterprise based in East Devon. What was interesting for me was that Julie highlights some of the practical challenges facing the civil sector in progressing the Big Society – also a great observation that public sector and civil sector partnership working is the Big Society really…

Some really interesting insights in identifying local projects which Cosmic are involved in which could add real value to some high level strategies that the public sector has and are proactively progressing – such as “Channel Migration” – supporting these strategies through grass-roots support and mentoring  via the Digital Mentors programme.

Digital Mentors aim to provide technology training, support, workshops and advice to local sole traders and SME’s -  The support and guidance on offer will include use of standard ‘Office’ software, social media, simple website creation and promotion demonstrations, tips on online selling, computer maintenance and support.

Via Cosmic – Digital Mentors

Julie also make a very obvious point about aligning and working together more with regard to Analysis and Research around IT enabled change etc. An obvious link to Socitm naturally exists as Socitm have expanded into the 3rd Sector – perhaps a bit more to do on making local connections to add value to the widerSocitm membership.

Anyway Julie’s presentation is below, it is well worth checking out.

What are people doing to save costs in ICT

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I suspect many authorities are looking at how they can cut back on the costs of delivering ICT and i suspect that solutions like Google Apps, Open Office and Alfresco are likely to be quite high up on some peoples lists as viable alternatives.

The challenge however is to actually demonstrate that over the lifetime of the solution the costs are lower than your existing solution or upgrade path.

It isn’t as straight forward as simply saying we can reduce our costs by moving from Microsoft and MS Office to Google Apps, and others as we still have legacy systems that require a Microsoft environment or an element of the wider Microsoft suite to operate.

In local government we have some critical business applications that would fit into this bucket and we could only really start to make an impact on the suppliers if along with other local authorities we started to approach them collectively about developing an integration module for Open Office or Google Apps or whatever was required to allow a greater freedom and increased flexibility within our wider infrastructure. Over time of course we need to start buying software that truly adheres to open standards and are compliant with eGIF. (eGovernment Interoperability Framework). But that is a journey and will not happen over night.

We perhaps need organisations like Socitm to starting taking a more proactive lead in facilitating Public Sector Agencies to explore and help cost out the transition from one environment to another. I suspect this is a Consulting Service from Socitm, but it almost needs to be more widely available and in partnership across regions or types of council to start to offer value.

So what are you and your organisation doing to reduce costs in ICT?  I am keen to hear about stories and case studies from other organisations (public sector would be great) who have made radical changes in their infrastructure and realised cost savings and had positive feedback from within the business.