Building the “Local” website, not a council website

I have been thinking about council websites, specifically around the issues of – whether we need them, what management of them should look like, how we structure them, and which audiences we are really trying to serve. Some of this was prompted by an excellent post by Sarah Lay from Derbyshire on “Do Councils need websites” and some by various conversations that have been happening recently and building on from a previous post of mine about social media points the way for corporate website development.

I started to wonder what council websites would look like and how they would have evolved, if we didn’t have the drive from eGovernment, to make all of our services (including information) 100% e-enabled.  I’m sure some would have developed into real community based websites and portals with a good blend of transactional service and online community. My key point here is, without any external pressure, would councils have taken a more community based approach to their websites instead of being forced to deliver services online that offered no value initially.

The Better Connected Review by SocITM has helped drive forward the development of sites in a consistent way, identifying good practice and leading councils, but i’m wondering whether the focus has been too much on “Council Service” and not enough on “Community Service”.

I think it might be good if i try and explain what i perceive to be the simple differences between “Council” and “Community” in a website context. I’m sure this is pretty obvious but i think it needs saying.

Council: A politically driven site, with information about all of the councils services and access to online transactions.

Community: an issue led, community driven site, with information about the local area, to share issues and to build community relationships.

Ok, they are crude and i’m sure most will agree that some councils websites are attempting to do both. But should they? and if so does it work under a “.gov.uk” domain?

My view is that we seem to be operating from a perspective that says “council websites must have a strong presence online in our local area”. I think this view is fundamentally flawed.

I live in a community, and my local councils (City and County) are only a part of that community – it includes other public sector bodies (Police, Fire, Health etc), other residents, other professionals, trades people, shop owners and all the other wonderful people who make up communities.

In a community site, local participation and dialogue makes more sense then it does on a council site. To be honest, who goes to the council offices for a casual meeting with their friends and starts talking about “stuff” that bothers them in their community. I don’t and i don’t know anyone who does, but i do know many people who converse in places they feel comfortable, community places, cafe’s, pubs, outside schools, in the street, online in social networks – everywhere except the council offices.

So starting from that viewpoint, a “local website” would need to include all of those factors and considering the pressures on Public Sector Budgets, why are Public Sector Web Professionals battling to do all of it and in most cases failing to deliver any of it. I’m certainly not undermining my web professional peers as i was Web Manager for 6 years and it was a bloody hard job and i never got the site how i would have wanted to see it for the people of Devon. This was due to the conflicting pressures of what people wanted, or we found out they wanted through surveys and consultations and what the council wanted to do in terms of political PR, communications and reputation management. I can see both sides and both are legitimate and in fact, it is sometimes possible to balance both views, but not all of the time.

Shouldn’t we take the same approach as we do in the “real” world and position our information and services as part of the community and not expect people (and i include myself here) to have to visit a local council website to access information or perform a transaction. I include another reference to a previous post about mashing up council websites altogether “social media points the way for corporate website development“. After all aren’t councils and public sector bodies just as much part of the community as everyone else?

Maybe, and i can’t really believe i am saying this but it tends to make more sense to me (if you disagree please tell me as i feel i’ve gone to the dark side with this one) why don’t we develop and support more than one site. I’ll explain how i would see this working and why i think it will be where we have to go but i’m also happy to be challenged. So i’ll start with a straw man and share my thinking.

The following breakdown does not assume that these are all physically separated in terms of content. They could all be hosted centrally, to enable data reuse etc.  However with search engines supporting and moving toward more of a federated approach and a search integration platform, as in linking information across systems, it doesn’t assume they are all in the same system either.

  1. Public Sector site : this would acknowledge that people are citizens and therefore need opportunities to participate, feedback and be part of service design and development across all public sector organisations. This would essentially be a “total place” view and would probably link to most Local Strategic Partnerships etc and provide information on the priorities, performance, meetings, minutes, webcasts etc.
  2. Community Site: this would provide all of the community information right down to the hyper local context. It would also include the transactions of all the public sector bodies so that people could access information and services as part of their normal routine and conversations. This element would also provide the links and integration with either public social networks such as twitter and Facebook as well as hosted community networks.

The challenge with the above is “who starts it all off”? Well some areas already have very well-developed community sites, and we ought to engage with those sites much more, very much like the approach people talk about with Social Media, we need to reach out to already existing networks and contribute in those instead of building empty places where no one wants to come. That leaves the council site, this would mean radically reducing the “huge amounts of content” that exists within the “.gov.uk” domain and pushing most of it into community sites either through mash-ups, RSS or other means. That way we could work with communities to take over the ownership of local content and Public Sector Web Professionals could focus on just the content that needs to be their from a public sector point of view.

I appreciate this is all very much “a dream” but i’m convinced that over the coming years the pervasive nature of social media, alongside the need to reduce costs, will mean that we will inevitably need to refocus what councils websites offer and why they are there and how we can ensure that what we do provide online is used and embraced by the local community.

So what does this mean for website management? – well in my opinion, we have an opportunity to bring together the expertise within a local area and provide a “shared” service or a “combined” service for public sector organisations. It will mean that we need to think more about aligning across organisations, focusing more on the actual communities we serve. Some councils are starting to do this internally around shared internal services such as HR, Finance etc. So we are already in the arena of shared intranets across multiple organisations – this is simply the next logical step.

This also gives greater emphasis in my opinion on the need to create and support the development of Public Sector Web Professionals across the board –  development, learning, competencies, networking etc.

All of the above will require strong leadership from across the public sector as well as third sector partners, if we want to deliver excellent opportunities,  services and information locally.  Directgov has shown that consolidation across a sector is possible (albeit painful) but it does deliver a better interface into Central Government. So there is hope.

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7 Replies to “Building the “Local” website, not a council website”

  1. Hi Carl

    Skim read this more than detailed read, so might not have the best things to say – but from the perspective as a member of society, I agree with what you say.

    A information centre like a Council website, along with a community site with issue-driven content.

    Works in my head!

  2. As ever Carl, a perceptive and interesting blog posting. The devolved administrations are worth looking to in some respects. Northern Ireland, to a lesser extent Wales, and even lesser, Scotland are developing their websites differently to England where eGovernment monies have been freely available in recent years. Northern Irish local government differs substantially from the rest, and it really shows in their websites which are far less developed than in Great Britain. In Scotland I think .gov.uk websites do tend to have more of a community orientation though that is changing quite rapidly now that the Scottish Executive, through the Improvement Service (IDeA equivalent), has a local government modernisation agenda at its core.

  3. Hi Carl

    In prinicpal this is a great approach.

    Is this going further though? The key is for the council to concentrate on high quality, verifiable and transparent information, which can be shared and distributed widely. So what you need people to know can be pulled or posuhed to the parts of the web where it is most useful. That’s more a service than a website.

    Your core online presence will still be a site where people can do – pay for stuff, apply for things – but that will also be supported by a service which takes those opportunities out on the web. A widget on mumsnet which might offer someone the chance to look at the list of nurseries near them and book a place.

  4. It would be interesting to look at the experience of councils that have been running both council and community websites.

    Brent has done this for many years with its BRAIN community site at http://www.brentbrain.org.uk. This has a totally separate identity from the official council website and provides a forum for residents, community groups and local businesses.

    This has worked well in many respects and has allowed the official council website to concentrate on council information, services and transactions while BRAIN has a community focus with user generated content and addresses more local issues.

    The major problem has been that it is difficult to obtain the same level of funding for the community website as for the council one. Over the next few years, as local government concentrates its spending on core services and those facilities which can lead to efficiency savings, where will the money come from to support community websites?

    1. Thanks Dane,

      Interesting comment, but i would suspect that the community aspect should in theory be managed by the community for the community and therefore funding wouldn’t (in theory) be a problem.

      But as you say, we would need to learn from the councils who are proactively doing this already.

      Do you promote your online services via the community website and do you monitor the amount of referrals from the community site into the council site. I’d be keen to know whether or not they support each other in terms of web traffic?

      Carl

  5. Very interesting post Carl. At Cambridgeshire we have had a community focused site for a few years (www.cambridgeshire.net) alongside our corporate .gov.uk site. The community site was originally a portal designed as a ‘one stop shop’ of public service information, which searched and pulled together content from partner sites (District Councils, Police, Fire etc.). We radically changed the site about 18 months ago. It is now a self-service site supporting community and voluntary groups and adult education providers to promote their groups, events, activities and courses. The site also satisfies some statutory requirements for example listing positive activities for young people (relevant ‘youth’ content is fed to a Youth portal using a web service). We are developing RSS feeds and widgets so that the content can be made available on partner and community sites. We have found the site does plug an important information gap and traffic is growing steadily thanks to good search engine rankings. But as per Dane’s comment, funding and managing this type of site is not trivial. A big question for us is where online engagement should sit (i.e. on community and/or public service managed sites and/or social media) and how it should be managed and governed. I have blogged about this in relation to a project we are doing at the moment on my blog and http://socialbysocial.net/.

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