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 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?

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 ]

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 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 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 – 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 – beyond the bullet points


On Sunday i quickly posted some initial thoughts, albeit some very random about my experience at UKGC12…this post aims to go slightly deeper, beyond the bullet points.

– we have moved beyond an event just for geeks…I’m only a feel in relative terms…it doesn’t matter that policy folk, councillors or suits don’t attend…this is where the variety of localised events will offer and add value…another point to note is that govcamp was and should never be an event just for people on twitter…however if our not on twitter it is hard to get a ticket directly.

– i finally understand the underlying reason and motivation for the first ukgovcamp – having the opportunity to chat to Jeremy Gould was great, he was the behind the first govcamp event….the main reason was to simply connect people together…not people to decision makers…or central to local gov…this is where the constructive disruption came from…how does that sit with the new GDS, probably in my view no different to how govcamp has always been…whilst they focus on mainstreaming digital…govcamp will maintain its role on the edge providing valuable nudges and challenge…if I doesn’t we have all failed.

– Social change and supporting the development of social capital is still a primary motivator for me…technology is a distraction the majority of the time…a disproportionate amount of time is spent talking about technology first without stating the problems or outcomes people want to see. I read the some thought govcamp was about government and IT…my views has always been that govcamp is for people who simply want to push things forward and make progress.

– creating better democratic organisations which allow social capital to improve should be a focus and how internally we can empower people better to support those aims…we shouldn’t be talking about Facebook groups or social intranets in my opinion as these distract from the underlying problems and also provide too narrow a scope to think differently about how we approach these challenges…we need to start thinking and documenting the capabilities required to support more democratic and open organisations…we are assuming that simply creating a social intranet, an organisation will change…Social media inside an organisation is a facilitator…it is the presence of Injustice, inequality, repression and aspiration that stimulates progress – Social media or a social intranet does not magically force existing leadership to change or learn.

– 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.

– all the conversations and activity around the networked society, participation and democracy are actually what we should all be focusing on…without effective participation, transparency and accountability, the Facebook groups, blogs, twitter accounts are all just window dressing and papering over the cracks…this is why I personally value the open data and linked data work

– without communities like ukgc and generally the social networks I’ve built… I’d feel very isolated as often my ideas come across as “wacky”, “off the wall”, “a bit out there” and with the peer review and challenge those ideas are challenged in an environment where I’m not expected to know it all…in the council you are paid to know this stuff, but without the connections I’d know very little and be less effective and more likely I’d probably not have a job. I am honoured to be able to participate in those communities and have made some really good friends.

– Reputations are not just built up online – you actually need to do something…I’m tackling that as it was noticeably lacking from the last 2 years of my working life – I developed a lot of theories and thoughts and have been lucky to have a few decent outputs – social media policy being the most popular on my blog here…but I personally need to achieve more…tackle the bigger issues, get involved on a different level and on a different scale…

– I was surprised that I didn’t hear people talking about the impact of localism and the theme most councils are looking at which is commissioning on how we tackle some of the big issues…this is another reason why i think common standards and frameworks are important…maybe this is still too early for people but recent experience of govcamps made me assume (wrongly) that it would be discussed. I should have suggested a session on simply hearing from others how the think it will change or not change things…

– Finally – tomorrow never comes, do something today…

Proving concepts with Open and Linked Data (and wordpress)


I love finding excellent examples of stuff, more so when you find them in your own council and especially when they actually prove some concepts to other people.

So I was very excited to hear and actually see what a colleague here at the council Mark Painter has been doing with WordPress and linked data.

Mark has been doing lots of work on understanding open and linked data and recently put together a proof of concept site for area profiles, which brings together mosaic data (as an xml file), neighbourhood statistics and IMD data from CLG support by swirll.

I love this proof of concept because we need to do more of this here in Devon and it also supports and proves the concept around my content strategy…one other reason I love this is because this was all done through good old WordPress :)

I must reiterate this is a proof of concept and may break at any time as mark continues to explore how to make this better…he has already started to look at how he incorporates the Crime Data into this as well…


WordPress just got even more funky


I was so pleased to read that WordPress have announced that you can now embed google docs and calendars into WordPress

This is such a good feature that I actually believe we will start to see lots more use of “on the edge” WordPress sites as well as more mainstream sites within the public sector and in particular making use of the great features found in google docs. There are many opportunities here that I’m actually quite excited :)

To demonstrate this great new feature I have embedded a google spreadsheet which was collating data from a form about the use of WordPress within the UK Public Sector.

Update: If you know of any more WordPress powered sites then please submit them using the form below

Support the Bid – Connecting Devon and Somerset


To all who live in Devon and or Somerset

Devon and Somerset Councils are appealing to you for your support of their bid to the government for superfast broadband for Devon and Somerset. Just because Devon is a largely rural county it doesn’t mean that it should be left behind in a digital age.

Do you get frustrated when you are online and your browser just grinds to a halt? When you can’t multi-task because your broadband connection is stopping you? When pages take an age to load? When your online TV streaming cuts out or it takes a week to download a film? Some people are even still on dial-up connections or most of us know someone who is!

Well now is the chance to put all these problems behind us and get superfast broadband! Devon County Council is submitting a bid for broadband funding to government on the 18th April and part of the success of that bid relies on demonstrating considerable demand for superfast broadband in Devon from both residents and businesses. All we need to do is a fill out a really short survey to register our support, it only takes a couple of minutes and will be well worth it in the long run.