RSA South West Futures – 7th July – Are you going?

The goodly folk of The South West RSA Fellowship Team have been busy recently pulling together a series of important events for the south west.

Inspired by the recent Northern Futures initiative, the aim is to kick start a new style of conversation about the future of the South West’s economy by asking people to get involved in formulating radical new growth strategies for the region.

Lead partners include University of Exeter and Devon County Council, RSA SW and Knowledge Hub, supported by the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly and Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEPs. Other key partners include Made Open, Current Works Ltd, and COSMIC.

The invite is open to anyone from local authorities, businesses, social enterprises, academics and students in identifying key challenges for the region and collaborating to solve them, to drive open policy making, open innovation using creative problem solving tools and design thinking methods.

The South West Futures Open Ideas Day is a pilot project. There is an online call for ideas, seeking to generate topics to explore on July 7th, and develop solutions that can be shared at a follow-up event with key partners in September.

As a pilot prototype, if it is successful then it could lead to an even bigger project in 2016.

On July 7th, parallel events are being held in the following locations:

Exeter (University of Exeter Business School)

Honiton (East Devon Business Centre)

Penryn (Made Open, Jubilee Warehouse)

Places are very limited but FREE, there is space for around 20-30 people at each event.

The events will be good fun and challenging and they are particularly seeking participation from people who are passionate about making positive change and are willing to collaborate across sectors and boundaries.

 

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Does local government need a local government digital service?

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

#UKGC12 – Content Strategy WTF!

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A long overdue post…and I suspect it won’t add a great deal to this excellent summary by Sarah Lay, who co-hosted the session with me but I’ll share my perspective nonetheless.

The whole idea of the session came about because of Sarah and myself chatting and constructively challenging each other over what is and isn’t content strategy in local government.

We sort of agreed that it was an emerging area but most (we believed) was already happening in other councils. Some explicit in their approach (Liverpool) and other less so…so may not have even written any of this stuff down before…

So the Friday session was all about (from my point of view) asking and proposing what people thought Content Strategy was all about and why it was very different to traditional web strategies…

My thoughts on the session itself were that it felt like being the odd one out for a large part of the session…explaining that the previous 10 years of eGovernment had basically caused us to think in the wrong way about our websites and that in large parts Better Connected hasn’t really forced us to think differently either…I’m not going to get into a debate here about the merits or not of eGovernment or Better Connected…they served and still serve a purpose…

I captured some additional thoughts about content strategy on a previous post here, but include the specific comments about content strategy below:

Content strategy is a game changer – changing the thinking built up over the las 10 years since the start of the egovernment agenda – this triggered the anti-user approach in developing websites in my humble opinion…it essentially turned sites that were aimed at users into mediocre corporately assimilated content waste lands…lacking in any meaning as to how to build and manager a community and help move aspects of communications and service interaction into more efficient channels…but that is the past…we can learn from it, but we must first recognise the mistakes we made…not everyone made them but most did…this is all just my opinion of course but localgov as a community needs to think about how it develops its online and digital offering better – perhaps in a similar reboot approach taken by the GDS…it does not matter what you call it…but it does need to think about some key principles, for example one might be.. getting content to people and not people to websites…this then provides the drivers for your content in social spaces as opposed to having a specific focus on social media….this does not mean you shouldn’t develop specific channel standards, in fact this reinforces the need for standards within channels…but based on managing your content flow in it and how you might monitor or measure it.

Moving on….

The more we spoke the more I guess we sounded a bit like a local council version of the government digital service…and this was reinforced when hearing Mike Bracken and his presentation on the Government Digital Service which directly followed our session in the main auditorium…much of what he said was resonating with me and whether or not others thought the same but for me at least i actually felt like i shared the ambitions of central government when it comes to web…this is the first time since i started in local gov web back in 2003…so a major break through in my opinion.

The big challenge is accepting that we can’t all create the same content strategy, but we accepted that we could all contribute to some form of framework or an understanding as to what the core components are….An idea for a saturday “doing session”…

2012 01 20_ukgc12_0013
Taken by iamadonut at UKGC12

The saturday session for me was not exactly what I had hoped for…this was mainly down to the fact that I had naively assumed that the people who were engaged and committed to helping on friday were in fact not there on the saturday…But that didn’t mean the session didn’t prove valuable nonetheless.

Ok, so we didn’t create a framework, we didn’t get to a comprehensive list of components…but what we did get to was as Sarah refers to her summary was that we should create a “Content Strategy Community”.

So yes, we are planning on pulling together a space for a community to come together…we are currently looking at a set of tools and how these might fit together to best suit the needs of a community as well as more formal and sustainable place for it to be hosted.

If you are in local government and work in and around digital content (web managers very much included here) then please leave a comment below or on sarah’s blog or just DM your contact details via twitter to either of us and we’d love for you to get involved…

Further developing the Content Strategy

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It has been a fascinating process developing the councils first content strategy, the personal learning and development which I’ve had to do as well as helping others understand the benefits of what we are calling a content strategy has also been an interesting and rewarding challenge.

In an email conversation with Sarah Lay (my unofficial content strategy peer review person) we touched on the issue of whether the content strategy I am creating is actually what the content strategy community would recognise as one…we both agreed and concluded that it didn’t really matter, as long as it did the job!

We touched on the fact that in #localgov we are really getting to a point where a group of disciplines are coming together and depending on your organisation it is likely to approach it slightly differently.

The types of things the content strategy is informing, linking to and dependant on are (in no particular order):

  • Communications strategy
  • Engagement Strategy
  • ICT Strategy
  • Information Strategy
  • Access Strategy

It has replaced a traditional web strategy altogether in my mind as we recognise that the “web” as a platform is essentially how we will manage our ICT infrastructure.

So unpicking the old web strategy further, a new strategy which is the responsibility of my ICT colleagues is an Application Strategy – this is essentially the strategy that informs our delivery of online services.

In my informal consultation on the draft content strategy, it has become clear that:

a) everyone agreed with the spirit of the document but it relied on conversation and explanation to answer people’s questions as they weren’t found in the document < but this is what the process was intended to tease out.

b) I didn't clearly articulate the strategic direction and focused too much on the 2 year roadmap < people were actually more engaged in where we are going than I had anticipated.

c) people didn't understand some aspects of what it is being proposed and the full extent of how we would apply a global experience language < My view is that it will be a complete rule book covering our web domain and not just the visual design of it, it will also form a critical and core part of a future procurement and commissioning framework for web/digital stuff.

One of the benefits of developing a content strategy is that I don't feel we need a social media strategy now. If we get the content strategy correct then our use of social media platforms to increase the engagement and interaction with our content will naturally increase…this does not mean that our use of social media will simply go crazy…but more than we will focus on the needs of the content, where the audience is and how we connect our content with the audience…the logical conclusion is that it won't be on our website but in social spaces.

And it is this strategic direction which people are really supportive of and are really engaged with…I've got one more week of informal consultations then a period of refinement and amendments on my document (which I've already started) then the content strategy will be ready for formal sign off internally by our corporate leadership team (gulp).

The next few weeks are going to be interesting.

Internal Blogging

Last October my team worked with our Internal Communications colleagues to develop an internal blogging platform (WordPress) to allow our new 14 Heads of Service to share thinking and updates about the council’s direction as well as updates from within their services areas.

We have had experience of internal blogging before – the chief executive used to blog, but that essentially faded away and was replaced with an internal email newsletter from the chief executive.

I remember having conversation with people back then and many said that they did like and value the chief executives blog but many thought that a more localised view from their head of service would make more sense….so here we are a few years down the road and we are now in that position.

So in the 3 months that they been going, my personal view is that they are successful – ok, not all heads of service are actively blogging yet, but we didn’t create or set any expectations for any of them. BUT and this is the good bit a good number of them are actively blogging and in my view are doing a great job.

So I thought I’d share some interesting high level stats in the short time they have been going – The stats are from 13th October 2011 to 12th January 2012.

  • 4,482 – visits
  • 1,850 – unique visitors
  • 18,733 – page views
  • 4.18 – pages a visit
  • 3 mins 09 secs – average time on site
  • 61% – returning visitors
  • 26 – comments

In my view – this is fantastic, really good. The kind of stats we couldn’t have actually hoped for initially. My only concern is the number of comments, but this is a cultural thing really as well as the content in the blog posts…not all are written to encourage comments, some are purely information only…so we will be looking to add a “like this post” option so we can get a sense as to whether or not people are finding the posts valuable.

What we will be doing with our internal comms colleagues is providing some individual reports for those heads of service who blog to help them understand the details of their blogging pattern and style, for example which posts received most visits.

The most successful writing style is one which brings in elements of humour as well as the personality of the individual themselves…i guess a natural style…so our challenge is to encourage and support them to write more consistently like this when appropriate.

It is great to see and be part of a team (the wider communications team) who are making such great progress.