A Framework for the future of Digital Local Public Services

I’ve been thinking a lot recently and actually decided to draw a picture of what I thought a Framework for Digital Local Government might look like…so this post is about that.

The reality is that you can’t really create one just for Local Government as we aren’t designed that way. We are about people and places underpinned with effective democratic governance so any framework needs to be designed in such a way that in encompasses those things and that means it needs to involve everyone.

I’ve been lucky enough to have many conversations with people who have helped/challenged/reflected on which have all helped me refine my thinking and about 4 weeks ago I met Martin Howitt for our usual lunchtime coffee and chat and it was this conversation which sparked a few ideas and helped create a synergy in my head around the stuff I was thinking about and then later that day I draw a picture on my ipad which you can see below (i make no apologies for the quality of drawing 🙂 ).

Since then I shared the picture and explanation with colleagues on the LocalGov Digital Network Steering Group and I received positive feedback so I then decided to share it again and test it wider at last weeks Digital Summit in London and you can read the notes of the session on the public Khub group. On the whole a broad agreement, some people have even created very similar frameworks already which is reassuring but they are looking at it from a different perspective, but yet the underpinning framework is the same, there were some semantic language issues and some challenges about risk, financial landscape and actually making it happen…all great points but I don’t have any answers.  However in terms of risk, I didn’t want to see risk in the framework as it sits around it…your view on risk will influence your view on the framework itself.  The same issue goes for financial climate, if we target savings of 100 million we will only aim for 100 million and we may miss the opportunities which deliver a complete transformation and deliver 1 billion.

This post is about that picture and the explanation about it. The only thing that has actually changed about the picture since i first draw it is the title. I have started to add to it and extend certain bits but I’ve also started to draw more pictures which digs deeper into this picture…more on that in another post.

It is also worth sharing that since I’ve been using this framework I’ve actually discovered that it works just as well when you look internally…starting from the left these represent the key building blocks to ensure that your organisation and people can explore and discover new opportunities and create new services etc. Something that has been validated recently here in Devon with a report to our corporate leadership team around the barriers to digital innovation. The resulting actions have created a massive open door to make progress but we need to ensure that we see the wider picture and framework to help us move forward and not leave anyone behind.

So onto the picture and explanation…

A Digital Climate for Local Public Services – Open by Default, Digital by Design

The following drawing focuses on the underlying proposition that every citizen can and will meaningfully integrate the internet into their daily lives. This level of active and capable participation should allow for new opportunities to emerge which reduce and divert demand to alternative tools which are open by default and digital by design.

The environment will not simply develop, and the transformative opportunities will not unfold, unless people, businesses, service providers, government, community organisations and others fully understand and integrate digital into everything they do.
This requires pervasive digital awareness and education — a ubiquitous digital climate that animates and inspires creativity and transformation and enables growth and wellbeing.

We must acknowledge that a digital climate is different to a transformation programme. It is a shift in thinking in which people and institutions are routinely aware of and constantly incorporate digital technology and opportunity into whatever they do.

Here is a rough picture of how I see this, which I also tested out at the recent Digital Summit.

Digital Climate for Local Public Services Framework v2


Open by Default – Digital by Design

Open by default = Everything we do is open, our processes, our data, our decision-making etc

Digital by design = Digital by default is a channel decision and my personal opinion is that digital by design is a philosophy which we should adopt to ensure that others can build on our open platforms and processes. 

Capabilities

  1. Connectivity:  Access that is high-speed, reliable, affordable and available everywhere (wired, wireless, digital).
  2. Education: Provide access to training and technical support for users to become comfort-able and proficient. Enable a mind shift in citizens that value learning, connecting and communicating through technology, and that recognise the business and other opportunities of expanding Internet participation.
  3. Hardware : every citizen requires the capacity to connect to the Internet and tap into the full range of its resources and content.
  4. Software: that meets the needs of individuals, families, businesses and communities.
  5. Participation:  Access to and participation with local data and intelligence to help shape decisions in communities.

What I want to do with this section is to start to map what activities are happening in each of these areas (internally and externally) to help me understand where we can add value or realign things to increase value. It should also allow opportunities for us to rethink decisions we’ve made in the past which are no longer future proof.

One example here is how are we in the public sector looking to support a greater level of connectivity within communities over and above the broadband roll out…It feels to me that our public sector networks in local government, health and education are providing robust and significantly higher levels of connectivity into communities which we perhaps could unlock. You can have an example where a primary school in a rural area is served by a 10-20mb connection but the community around it is on dial-up or has no connectivity. I know there are challenges with this but we have to and must think differently about our assets.

Leadership/Decision Making
We require strong visible leadership to enable transformation and strong decisions that ensure that we all contribute to creating a climate for growth and wellbeing. The leadership can also come from anywhere not just local public service providers
Capacity Building / Networks and Networks of Networks
Stimulating local action and identifying and connecting with networks and networks of networks to generate and create new opportunities and markets.
These connections can and will come from anywhere, this is not solely down to the council or local authority – this is about people and places.

Principles

  • People and communities are unique
    • Design “with” not “for” people and communities
    • Design for Inclusion and accessibility
    • Enable independence
    • Foster health and wellbeing
  • Positive relationships and networks
    • Respect diversity of opinions
    • Connect people and connect networks
    • Co-operate and collaborate
    • Open by default
  • Enabling communities and environments
    • Evidence based research and decision-making
    • Support everyone to achieve
    • Think Local and Global
    • Digital infrastructure for smart communities/cities
  • Learning and development
    • Learn, discover and explore though experience
    • Create space for reflective practice
    • Foster creative and divergent thinking
    • Enable sustained learning

I’ve blogged previously on principles here, here and here and it is something that lead me to the wider framework. Within this section we also need to think about the various ways in which people can discover and explore things…This is where the climate comes into itself. We in Local Government have to accept that we will not be solving the problems we have created alone…this climate and environment is about creating new relationships, new networks, new business models, new value.

One of the biggest hurdles we must get over is we need to stop thinking we have to solve this by ourselves. We don’t and shouldn’t think like that…creating a digital climate allows others to be part of that discovery and exploration and we should focus on creating that above all else.

Value
Everything has a unique value, we should understand this value and look to grow or transform its value.

Basic Example:

A Public right of way (PROW) = value
Local Community Centre = value
Public Transport network = value

We can increase and transform the value of each by connecting them redefining the value and by doing so contributing to a climate of growth and wellbeing.

Outcomes (a possible future state scenario)

Outcomes will always be up for debate and some will argue that these are not good enough and that doesn’t matter…What does matter is that we agree what outcomes our communities want and allow them to achieve them. The outcome of the framework is to create a climate for growth and well-being underpinned through:

  • A digital climate that inspires transformation and creativity
  • Everyone having universal access to meaningful participation and democratic processes
  • Everyone having opportunity to seize new markets and generate new opportunities
  • Everything is inclusive and accessible

So where do I see this going…The LocalGovDigital Network will be using this framework to help guide our work programme in the coming year, I personally will be using this to guide my work in Devon and I’ll be working with others on developing this further so it is used and helps drive change.

I personally believe that people are either contributing to the delivery of this framework or they are not and if not why not?

More will follow in the coming weeks…

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That #localgov #contentstrategy stuff is spreading

You know when you start to see or read more about a topic as soon as you start focusing on it…well I’m getting that feeling with content strategy and in particular content strategy in local gov and the public sector.

I’ve come across 3 great posts today, one of which was highlighted via my content strategy partner in crime @sarahlay on twitter…

When I picked this tweet up I was actually already reading and digesting this post on Creating Content that serves a civic purpose… and what made this seem more than a coincidence was the related link at the bottom of the article that Sarah linked to (see image below) – was actually a link to the article I was already in the middle of reading.

Anyway, moving beyond the strangeness that happens in the social web and onto some of the interesting points that are highlighted in these posts.

One of the most basic levels which I think we often forget is this list provided in the Civic Purpose article

To make sure the content you create in the public interest fulfills its responsibilities, there are a few standard rules you should follow:

Use plain English and avoid jargon, as the diversity of the audience will likely span the socio-economic spectrum.

Focus on what the consumer needs to know, and how the particular services or information offered on the site can help. Limit information about why or how the government entity achieves its goals, as this extra information can confuse or frustrate people who visit the site looking for answers.

Format content in a clear, compelling way. Government websites must compete with consumer websites that offer similar information (and all the bells and whistles they offer such as compelling graphic design, widgets, social media icons, and content rich blogs).

Check — and double check — your facts. For many citizens, information shared by the government has an innate relevance and gravity, while others automatically doubt information from any level of government, and dismiss it as self-serving. To gain the trust of both audiences, it is critical that the content be factual, accurate, have transparent input, and be beyond reproach. It may also be appropriate to have your content reviewed by experts to ensure accuracy.

Information needs to be easily accessible and relevant, even though government services rarely compete with private sector services.

A .gov (or equivalent such as gov.au, gouv.fr) extension provides an air of authority, so be sure to reserve these URLs for your content, if possible.

The last point about the domain providing an air of authority rings true for me right now, as one of the key outputs of the content strategy that I am writing is that we aim to create a “Single Domain” and this in local gov terms may not be a single technology platform either. But the key point is that we should recognise that our content has a level of trust already and we should be able to build on this and ensure that wherever our content is pulled or pushed across the web the trust and authority remains, otherwise it may lose its purpose and meaning.

Moving onto the post that Sarah linked to written by Rahel Bailie – the examples of how engagement of content should be seen is a great way to explain how traditional local government webpages should evolve and reuse content from across the wider website as well as incorporate other relevant content. Rachel suggests:

….Encouraging engagement means presenting content that presents opportunities to get involved, at opportune places on the site. To do that, the architecture of the website needs to be well thought out, and the content should always appear in consistent ways and in consistent places. In the case of home owners recycling, a home owner interested in a greener community should be able to find information about how the recycling program fits into the larger sustainability initiative, and ways they could get involved, from participating in a neighborhood initiative to sitting on an advisory committee. The logical places to show these opportunities is not only on a community advisory page, but in the places where interested constituents might go for other information such as on a neighborhood page, on a page with other recycling-related information, in a Facebook post that links back to information on the site, or in a sidebar on a page about green communities….

….The decision of whether or not to engage with a government organization is a choice on the part of the constituent; providing that opportunity is the responsibility of the organization…

The last post which I found really interesting was primarily aimed at “how non-profits can profit from content strategy“.  It highlights some key areas when thinking about content strategy which are equally applicable to localgov in my view…I’ve not copied the whole post but have simply listed the headings below.

  • You’ve gotta start somewhere
  • Document what you have and what’s working.
  • spend time on workflow
  • Know your audiences
  • Pay attention to your business model
  • Use your money wisely.
  • Keep hope alive

The first and last points for me are probably (right now anyway) the most important to keep hold of, as it is very challenging for many people to unlearn what they know about local government web management.

 

News Centre – the content strategy in action (sort of)

The work we are doing on the content strategy is very much about actually doing a bunch of work whilst I write the strategy down.

One area where is has been the case is with the councils news and press stories – this week we launched a new News Centre (see below) which was built using wordpress but actually the technology isn’t the important development here.

It really represents the start of a process which will see the county councils website and web domain change over the coming months as the content strategy starts to have an impact. The next main change will see the homepage and only the homepage updated…This has been based on statistical data and also good practice set by other councils such as Liverpool and will evolve as we start to gather more intelligence and data about how people use and want to use our web.

The News Centre starts to introduce some common components (a global header menu, a global footer menu and a federated search facility) which will be applied to a number of our sites (new and old) over the coming months to help bring together our domain from a visual and design perspective…the challenge over time of course will then be to consolidate where appropriate technology but only where it demonstrates value for money and efficiency.

The federated search has been an interesting areas to think about as we could have and actually can easily demonstrate the idea of this through the use of google custom search and this may well be one of the solutions we consider for our public web presence…it is after all very effective, cheap and most of all it delivers results in ways that people are familiar with.

Another area which has been interesting is how we actually bring what are essentially external microsites into the domain without migrating content from one system to another…we have explored reverse proxy but this isn’t sustainable and pushed too much effort into ICT and this is obviously not a good use of there time…so we will continue to explore the options within our technical limitations.

We will be seeing this as an iterative process so the new homepage is essentially the start of a rolling process of changes which will be based on reviewing content, understanding user needs and improving the overall user journey, starting from google – the end result should see our content reaching our beyond our website and into social spaces where people are and that is where we believe the content should also be available where appropriate and practical.

We don’t have the resources and support of the Government Digital Service but we do share the same passion to create a better overall user experience for those accessing the councils content and services.

I did mention back in the summer of last year that my team would have a blog and that is still our intention but as is the case with most things our own priorities have gone to the back whilst we focus on making significant progress across the council…in the meantime progress and updates are likely to be made via my blog.

One of the benefits of the news centre, aside from simply managing council news in one place is that it is now the single platform for the whole of communications. We have an editorial team who manage it like a “publication” and ensure that stories, features, images and video are all available to ensure we get the messages out. So it has been more than just a website, it has been a huge culture change and continues to be – for the better of course.  We will be continually developing the site in an agile type way and we will be looking closely and opening up comments and discussion on the site very shortly. This is where the content strategy provides some influence – one of the objectives is to increase the engagement on content – one easy way of doing that, is opening up comments and discussion.  We just need to work through some internal processes in terms of how we respond, moderation etc.  It is after all a learning curve for a lot of people.

The Head of Communications (my boss) Tony Parker has been instrumental in driving this through, obviously supported from a technical point of view by my team and in particular Russell Taylor (Project Lead) and Tim Barrett (wordpress wizard), but in fact the whole team have played a huge part in making this happen (Sam Freeman, Matt Down and Patrick Jones)…I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’ve got a great team and they are really pushing things forward.

#UKGC12 – Content Strategy WTF!

20120130-114621.jpg

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…

Moving away from web strategies and it’s about time

In my role one of the outputs that I was expected to create was a revised Web Strategy, which at first I was more than happy to do, I wrote the previous one so it wasn’t really an issue to simply refresh it in line with current priorities and national drivers.

However once I got going I started to notice a difference in the conversations I was having with people and more importantly the conversations with people about “the web”.

The big shifts were primarily about what people think “the web” actually is?

Some people naturally thought it was a single website and in particular the councils website, others were clearly thinking more about “the web” as a platform for service delivery and transformation and others were thinking it was an online repository for information about the council and a few other definitions as well which in their own way were right.  It is in fact all of those things and of course more…but this was certainly not the view when I wrote the last strategy.

I’m fortunate that a number of the areas above have their own strategies and are embedding “the web” directly into those strategies, so it makes it easier to simply work out what aspects we actually haven’t got a plan or strategy for. For example we have an ICT Strategy, Access Strategy, Information Strategy and we are currently producing a new Communications Strategy.

In my previous role I lead on a piece of work which was essentially an ICT focused Web Strategy, the main objectives of it are to refresh the web architecture to make it fit for purpose and also reduce costs through the provision of common solutions. This is (in my humble opinion) a web strategy as it focuses on the web as a platform from which other things can be developed and provided, after all that is what the web is – a platform.

With the other strategies all pretty much extending the remit and scope of the previous web strategy – either a spark of genius on my part to lay foundations, or it failed to meet anyone’s objectives ! – I along with a few others asked ourselves what are we trying to produce and should we produce anything at all.

This was when I remembered a conversation with Sarah Lay from Derbyshire County Council who produced a Content Strategy as part of her studies – so I contacted Sarah and whilst she was unable to share her work at this point in time she was able to provide some pointers and her justification for producing a content strategy.

This conversation and an afternoon searching the web reading articles, blog posts, research and anything related to content strategy I decided that we were missing the most important strategy  – a Content Strategy < obvious now but we simply hadn’t considered it.

The realisation hit me like a flashback as I went through the approach, expected outputs and benefits at a high level and sure enough, the reason for our current failures in our web technology and platform, our content, online services and even our online democracy offering all came down to the lack of a content strategy.

We haven’t been asking what we want our content to do, we have been asking what we want our website to do and this is the reason we haven’t fully embraced Social Media as well as why some people don’t see the value…when you come at it from a content perspective you can see a variety of benefits and added value with content.

Now I’m still working on the details but broadly a Content Strategy will help the council in the following ways:

  • Specifying the key themes and messages in line with the Communications Strategy.
  • Providing a clear purpose for all content.
  • Conducting a content gap analysis and specifying the structure of content.
  • Ensuring the councils content is accessible, reusable, shared, open* and linked*.
  • Ensuring that appropriate metadata frameworks, retention, review and content life cycles and related content attributes are in place and content is properly managed.
  • Measuring and evaluating the success of our content.
But I guess one of the key objectives and outcomes is that we hope to have increased engagement with our content regardless of where someone interacts or consumes it.
It also helps focus our thinking on what we require of technology as we need to ensure that the technology supports the objectives of the content and not a website.
This is a fundamental shift in thinking as a previous key objective was to grow the number of visitors of the council website from, for example 3.5 million visitors a year to 6 million visitors over 3 years. But what is the point in that measure if your population is only 700,000 and no one is actually engaging with content?  So it is about asking the right questions and we will continue to measure visitors but it won’t be a key part of evaluation.
Anyway getting to the point where we actually have a strategy isn’t going to be straight forward as in conversation with Sarah she reinforced the need to adopt an evidence and research based approach, which I entirely support and was surprised that as a sector we haven’t pushed this harder…in fact “we” tend to use external reports such as Better Connected as our only research base…I have my views on Better Connected and whilst I think bits of it add value, unfortunately it is not greater than the sum of its parts when you read the whole thing!
So….
We need to do some work before we can get a comprehensive Content strategy, but we are certainly in a better place now as we know the direction of travel and we know the stages we need to go through.
The first stage being an Audit and Analysis of our content, some of this is already underway but we now have a greater focus and because we are framing this within a content strategy we are now asking ourselves whether the existing methods of measuring success of a website apply across to measuring the success of content….the issue is that the majority of measures don’t exactly match so we need to rethink our approach to evaluation.
It is a journey and one we should have taken years ago, but I’m just pleased we are actually now taking it. I’ll share more over the coming weeks as things start to take shape and my thinking clears…