The “local government” website

I haven’t blogged for a while now and that isn’t because I don’t have anything to say, in fact the opposite. I have so many things in my head it’s about knowing what to get down first really. So apologies for the long post…I won’t take offence if you don’t read on… 🙂

My new role is very interesting and also very busy, which also contributes to the lack of posts, but this is something I want to resolve as I think it is an important part of my role to sharing thinking and seek feedback on how we can approach certain areas of our work.

An immediate priority for my team is the Corporate Website and Intranet, they are in pretty bad shape and need a good tidy up in terms of data, documents, content etc as well as a complete reboot from the bottom up in terms of technology and infrastructure. One example of how bad the public website has got is that we identified 44,000 pdf documents which make up around 80% of the total size of the website…personally I feel this can be traced back to when we worked on eGovernment and it was deemed acceptable to “bung” up pdf’s as an alternative to actually providing a meaningful and useful service…some even called it  an “acceptable cheat” to meeting the BV157 indicator…but that is history and we are where we are…so my team and some colleagues have started work on reducing that size, by understanding what each pdf is, whether it needs to be published at all (is it current) or whether it needs to be moved to our records management system.

The key principle we are applying is our content management system should not be the place for these documents, so as long as they aren’t in there we are making progress… The ideal scenario of course, as I’m sure some of you are thinking “no documents on the website, that is mad, how will you do that?” is that we use the appropriate technology for the job, so documents reside in a document management system and are presented to the website via an integration or web service in some way… This really is simple stuff, but it never happened when we first moved to a Content Management system about 10 years ago…

Anyway we are making progress, albeit slowly but we have had to overcome some very simple but significant issues around ownership and access which has resulted recently (last week in fact) in a very good and consistent understanding around the role of my team in and around the web.

The bigger challenge of course is working out and agreeing what we believe the purpose and business strategy should be for a local government website.

Now for some this may seem a pretty simple question and one which I really shouldn’t be spending much time on, but it really is the most fundamental thing a local council should do before developing, building or even investing in a new website and the technology that it runs on…

I believe this question isn’t as simple as it used to be since the consultation on Open Public Services White Paper. Now the interesting thing with this is  – and some of it I agree with in principle but in practice, I’m not sure how that would play out – is that it actually means that local government would essentially disappear…we would have no obligation or responsibility to deliver any service at all… Now when you think about that, for a moment….it is actually quite dramatic change and one which local councils have not yet articulated or perhaps understood… many are seeing the decentralisation as a positive thing which will reinforce their position but I’m not sure the paper actually has the same outcome in mind as current local government colleagues think.

So when you consider a local government website in that situation what is it? A yellow pages of local services really…not an all-encompassing site with service transactions and top tasks or whatever the latest fad is for the local government homepage…it is simply a searchable directory of services which clearly and I think this is the critical part in local accountability shows who is responsible and who to complain to when something goes wrong…

It is almost like Amazon, except we won’t have anything of our own in it to sell…

That is of course quite an extreme view and not a logical conclusion but it is certainly one potential outcome which fundamentally changes the purpose of a local government website…my questions is are we adaptable enough to change as quickly as we need to?… Currently we are nowhere near that level of agility and adaptability…but we are heading in that direction.

Coming back to Amazon model (the current model), I actually believe this is more likely the representation of how local government website will and should work. For example you go online, search the website for a product/service and you get a range of options (choice in Coalition Government terms) from a variety of suppliers (diversity in Coalition Government terms).  You as the consumer of that service get to choice which option or provider you wish to purchase from and it clearly states whether or not this will be fullfilled by Amazon or by someone in their marketplace (Accountability in Coalition Government terms).

So when it comes to writing a web strategy, we also need to consider the “marketplace” and how that impacts on the development of a website and its infrastructure and core technology…We would actually become an integration hub instead of a primary service provider… That changes the proposition of a council website and any investment plan considerably.

Another angle which has recently been floating in my mind is the role of a local authority website as an economic development tool…not entirely by itself but more the data and information being freely available for other to commercially benefit from.  I like the approach being built on beta gov, which allows a user to download the data used to make and create that page…

To go back a bit for context – when I first started in local government web around 8 years ago, my ambition was that the councils website was the best, had the best functionality, best little widgets, best information, the best of everything…just like all other web managers I’m sure…However now and I’m not sure if this is age related or simply #lazyweb taking over my thinking or the episode of The Simpson’s where Homer runs for Sanitation Commissioner offering the new slogan “Can’t Someone Else Do It?”.

But why should local councils develop their website alone…why can’t we open the whole thing up and allow local developers, businesses etc and develop on top of our platform as well as using the data to build things that are meaningful for people… Well we can, there isn’t really anything stopping us other than the infrastructure and technology as well as the data….so just a few minor things to resolve then…

I know that no matter how hard you try as a web manager in local government, you’ll never consistently develop anything that is really that good (no disrespect to fellow web managers/developers out there, who do build some great individual things). But the challenge is making all this stuff a priority in a council balanced against resources who are looking at maintain an Adult Social care system or developing a small widget to search bus timetables…i know which one the organisation would want done first…

AlphaGov are doing some great things but we can’t compete with that level of investment or resources, so I’m hoping what they build, learn and develop will be reusable to the whole public sector community…not as one big thing but in small modules/widgets etc that can add value locally.

So I come back to a web strategy and the purpose of a local authority website…it doesn’t really seem straight forward, but it certainly is an interesting area to work right now.







4 thoughts on “The “local government” website

  1. Great post Carl. Pleased to see concepts that I have been an advocate of being mentioned in a bigger context.

    You’re absolutely right though. Consistency in service delivery quality is crucial to overall public adoption of digital delivery. And this means establishing good web architecture (like we are doing) and using it to publish both the data and functionality as services for profit making enterprises and individuals to consume into their developments.

    The beta gov approach to open data looks very interesting. I wonder if they intend to publish the raw data only, or if the “view” which is the particular webpage you accessed puts a spin on it. Like some basic analysis or a perspective. For a large enterprise such as our own, in order to have a consistent approach and quality, this would require investment in information architecture with a robust and maintainable security model.

    I also especially like the beta gov approach to ensuring the APIs are maintained and are of high quality.

    1) “We’re not just building APIs, we’re building on those same APIs ourselves”
    2) “Separate pieces with clean APIs can be iterated rapidly, can be swapped out where requirements change, and ensure that each component can be focussed on its core responsibilities. It also means that the APIs the rest of the world uses will already have been put through their paces in a real production system, refined through implementation, stable and constantly monitored.”

    (sorry a bit of a length quote, but anything less would compromise its message I think)

    This is already part of the technical strategy we are currently exploring for the new web architecture, but maybe not getting a much emphasis / investment as it should…

    Exciting time ahead. Unless, like you suggest may be the case, local government has no role to play in the future service delivery model.

  2. Carl. What a fascinating web post. Well thought through and written. You raise some interesting views. I don’t work in local government but I do use their services and, from a users point of view, I want easy access to products and services. As a user I don’t care who provides the service (ie. businesses or local government) as long as I can find it and it does what I expect.

    I recently moved and wanted to tell my council of my new address details.
    I’ve moved within the same local government council and it should have been as easy using a search engine to take me to a page explaining what I needed to do. That page should then link me to an online self-service site where I change my own details and get an confirmation that my account has been changed. Instead I’m taken to a form which I have to print (why?) and fill out in pen and then post to the council who then write back to me several weeks later to say my details have been updated!!

    In the commercial world self-service is common and it should be no different in local government. This does not mean to say that everything must be done online. There will be many people who want to phone in or call in person to do the same thing but there should be choice for those of us who want an online service. This is where you and your team come in. If you are working with your colleagues across the council then your website could be the central source of content for both citizens and colleagues. You’d need more than a content management system to manage this and should investigate using a knowledge base to make content accessible to all parties. Pdf’s should be kept to an absolute minimum. Small, bite sized pieces of content make life easier for colleagues and citizens and make it easier to keep content current.

    I love the fact that you are open to change and are looking for letter options. Your council is lucky to have you. I don’t know if your council uses the #Lagan product set but it might be worth exploring.

    Thanks again for the little insight into local government online challenges

  3. Had this post open in a tab for days now, trying to get round to giving it justice in the way of a reply.

    Rather pathetically I can only summarise my response as being:

    CMS’s are not up to the task, never have been.

    PDF files are like external links to your other “local service providers”, they are “content”. Your Flickr feeds and YouTube channels are content too.

    If content is knowledge then your facebook pages, and twitter streams contain knowledge so they are content too, arguably?

    What is missing is a meta data management system which permits all these the various parts of confederated content to hang together – capable of referencing and cross referencing these diverse but identifiable resources – and then serving them up to the public in a variety of ways that suit:

    a) the device
    b) the location
    c) the time
    d) the query
    e) what we know about the user
    f) others … perhaps not yet invented

    Between initially reading this post and making this glib reply I read this:

    It is meta data that wires these disparate nodes of content together, and a CMS (yes, even open source ones) are too rigid a framework to permit this wiring to happen – because they are simply not built for purpose.

    In Local Government we have been gifted with all the meta data tools we need make this happen by the esd-toolkit.

    What is needed is to perhaps think the unthinkable, take a leaf from this cabinet office teams’ book and for us to boldly create the APIs and infrastructure for a “local government machine” – its not as if (collectively) we do not have the skills…

    1. I couldn’t agree more with what you say and yes I think we have to think the unthinkable.

      Too many people think local gov websites are easy to manage and provide but by there nature they are quite complex and you are right to highlight the metadata level.

      We are currently working towards an AlphaDevon where we hope to prove some concepts around data as well as the building API’s on API’s model like the Cabinet Office project.

      Thanks for your comments and reply…really appreciated

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