A bit more on Content Strategy…

In a previous post I mentioned that we’re moving away from creating a traditional web strategy and are moving to a content strategy.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at analytics and understanding our content and in some ways it can be quite depressing to think that we haven’t been measuring the right things in the past and we have been driven by false statistics relating to a website overall instead of more appropriate measures around the value of content itself.

At the same time I’ve been testing the draft objectives against the future direction of the council and our complimentary strategies, such as communications, engagement, information management and localism as well as our revised Strategic Plan.

In that context I’d thought I’d share the draft objectives I’ve pulled together, I’m not convinced these are 100% right, but they are a starting point…

Objectives:

  1. Improve the quality of engagement with all council content across the web.
  2. Effectively manage content and increase the ability for all content to be shared and reused by default.
  3. Reduce duplication and improve the search and access of council content
  4. Reduce the dependency on a single council website (www.devon.gov.uk) to communicate, engage and provide information. 
  5. Improve the quality of content through evidence and the involvement of stakeholders.
  6. Ensure content is concise, structured and has a clear purpose.
  7. Ensure content is relevant and appropriate for the audience and channel.

On the whole I don’t think that these are controversial with the exception of objective 4…this would not have been even considered within a web strategy as essentially that would have been about the “survival” of the website itself.  Also this might not sit that well with some people because what that suggests is, don’t focus on our website alone but focus on the power of the web itself and how our content can reach those people who need it…

.So this allows us to focus on the content and acknowledges that people shouldn’t have to visit a council website to access meaningful content about particular services. This also supports the broad approach proposed around digital engagement, in that we should take our conversations to where people are and not expect them to come to us…so our content strategy is about enabling our content to get to the people who want it without expecting them to come to us to get it…simple when you say it, but harder to achieve.

To help me understand how this influences and impacts on our web infrastructure I drew a basic picture of how this would look (see below). 

I started to realise that broadly council sites have 4 primary purposes, I maybe wrong so would welcome comments:

1) providing news and narrative about council services and council business.

2) provide public information about our services and how to feedback, complain access information (FOI style).

3) provide access to services, either directly or through signposting.

4) provide democratic accountability and transparency.

So our content was/is supposed to be meeting and supporting these broad areas…on the whole I think we sort of do, but we are not actually able to demonstrate this through metrics or even allow this content to extend beyond our current domain. Also we don’t actually make it easy for people to access the content related to each area easily….

Content Strategy - Conceptual Model

Another thing this made me realise and thanks again to Sarah Lay here, each type of content should/would have different engagement levels, and in order to improve engagement levels on our content we’d need to better understand what an appropriate level of engagement was in each area.

For example; if someone was looking at a piece of content which was a policy document (and didn’t download it)  and was only on that page for say 1 minute 30, I think it would be safe to assume that unless we had managed to create the most perfectly written, accessible, plain english version, it is unlikely that someone had actually engaged with it, plus if we don’t allow comments or any kind of interaction we lose the opportunity for people to directly engage with the topic.  Obvious but again taking a content approach makes you think more explicitly about this as opposed to building a website which allows for interaction! 

So I’m starting to work with our Information management colleagues on better understanding content types and formats as well as starting to look at the stats we have now and what gaps we have around analytics, the next step is to understand engagement levels now and think about what would be appropriate and how we might actually enable and support that.

This is actually quite exciting and is refreshing to step back and think about the value of our content and not the value of our website.

I’m not entirely convinced whether this is actually a formal content strategy approach, but whatever this is, the approach is certainly having a wide range of benefits.

How big is your web presence

I’ve been doing a bit of research linked to my previous role as corporate web manager, on how many websites and separate domains the council uses to present and display information.

However this got me thinking to what a good number should really be for local government. I know Martha Lane Fox has suggested that central government should have one site, whilst I agree in principle I’m not convinced that this is actually practical for local government. I’m not referring to one for the whole sector I’m specifically referring to a single council’s web presence and this is not including social media domains.

So far I have found just over 65 separate websites which are either directly presenting council information or are presenting information in partnership with one of more partners.

It is this last scenario, more than one partner of course which is gradually increasing across the council as we move forward with a commissioning agenda, so how do others councils approach this aspect of web provision…do your partnership sites sit on your platform but have their own branding, do they sit within your branding?  I’m keen to find out what others are doing in this area.

I have actually looked at all of the sites and apart from a few sites they all pretty much offer a good level of interaction which can not be found in our current website.  The majority again pretty much contain the appropriate branding for the site and where applicable include the councils branding.

The big problem though is that they are all disconnected from the main council site. You can not currently search this sites and for some you can’t access via the AtoZ either.  This is a major fail and as previous web manager, well I won’t say how I feel about it.

So why do I think this is not practical. Well firstly we are not very good when it comes to partnerships to specify that all content be presented via the councils site. Most if not all partners wish to have their branding used equally and therefore the councils website often presents a barrier. To review this will take time and of course development resource to bring this sites internally.

But why would we, what is the value in creating a single site. Surely a framework of web delivery is more appropriate, a site which displays core council information and either embeds content and functionality from other sites or use a federated search solution across all domains to allow users to find and access all of the content and services.

There is a cost saving to reviewing the sites, but there is also a cost in moving and migrating the sites, so this would need to be considered on the basis of delivering value and not just for the sake of a “pure” website.

Now I’m not suggesting that this is the right or the wrong approach, I merely believe it isn’t practical for all councils.

I think local government web managers have a tricky job to balance the customer journey and pure single website vision with the increasing move toward commissioned services with a mixed economy of service delivery and service providers.

So how many sites does your council have and how are you managing the wider web presence.

The ‘hidden’ value of Local Government websites

An excellent post by Peter Barton, Head of Lincolnshire’s Web and Information Services Team (WAIST) over at the Waistline Blog on the value of Corporate Web Sites.

Now i’m not directly involved in our website anymore (only from a strategy perspective) but the issues and the points that Peter highlights are hitting the nail so perfectly on the head that i just hope that this kind of approach could be adopted in the next Socitm Better Connected Survey.

I suspect and i can’t talk for Peter but it may well have been triggered by webthrift site which is trying to surface the true cost of council websites – Peter writes:

It’s not just about cost per user. It’s about value to the user and savings to the council.

What i think is great about the post is that it demonstrates to me how the council website has become such a business critical tool over the last few years that i don’t think we have really appreciated the value it delivers into the organisation or even delivers for the customers.  BUT if it no longer existed then we would certainly see huge increases in contact in the other channels and that would naturally increase the pressure on front line and back office staff to meet those requests.

I say ‘hidden’ value only because the stats that Peter quotes are exactly the same kind of stats that we and i suspect most councils identified back in 2004/2005 when eGovernment was at its peak. This is exactly what we were aiming for – so did we ever celebrate our success – NOPE!!

So what happened? Why have we got in a position where we are questioning the value of council websites. Well i suspect it is because the web has moved on considerably and even more so our customers/residents.

The way information is created and shared and validated has changed. BUT the information is still so perfectly valid. If councils are getting the same or proportionately the same costs then we can happily say YES council websites do offer huge value. BUT we have a different path to take now, the services that were once on our sites accessed by a specific type of person can now be accessed by anyone anywhere because we have a new approach –  an open data and web services approach.

I quote some of the information from Peter’s post as an example of the simplicity of presenting the information in this way:

NB: The following information is quoted directly from the Waistline blog and the statistics relate to Lincolnshire County Council only.

  • No booking library books on line. – Around 4844 a month books are booked on line ( May 2009 figures) This figure is about a third of the volume of all bookings.
    If this service were not available we would incur an extra cost of around £15,000 to £30,000 per month and a reduction in service quality due to increased phone or face to face activity.
  • We would not be able to provide access to pdf downloads currently running at some 44,000 per month (May 2009 figures).
    Imagine if we had to send only a small part (say around 10%) of that number by post at around £3.00 – £5.00 each in postage and staff time. We would incur £12,000 to £15,000 per month extra cost. And a reduction in service quality.
  • No applying on line for jobs ( this is the largest single used area of most local government sites).
    In June 2009 473 job applications were made on line. At an average cost of applying by paper and post, which must be running at approximately £10.00 per application. This would mean an extra cost of around £5,000 per month and a reduction in service quality if this service were to be removed.

I would recommend to any web manager who reads this to do the same as Peter has and create a “what if” scenario and try and cost it? This will provide excellent evidence for a web strategy and development plan as well as surface the importance of the channel as a key service delivery tool and as a foundation or a platform for wider web service deployment.

This does mean that we need to rethink our approach to council web service delivery. But we can also acknowledge that we can do that in the context of huge cost saving and benefit to the organisation and our residents.

What is the purpose of a local authority website then….

I have been reading with much interest a number of posts on Public Sector Forums and a particular post on Paul Canning’s Blog relating to the role and purpose of council websites.   It appears that we seem to have lost our way, perhaps trying to please everyone, other than our main audience – The council tax paying public.

Paul suggests:

The 10 point plan’

1. Findability
2. Disengagement from the wider web and those damned walled gardens
3. Engaging the industry
4. Marketing
5. Widgetising services
6. Engaging the local
7. Cheaper usability methods
8. Content
9. Fixations on ‘engagement’
10. Utilising reputation

I think this is the most interesting question raised for sometime, as it have been an underlying theme in the debate with Socitm about its “Better Connected” report which for the last 10 years as passed judgement and “rated” local authority websites. Now i’m NOT saying this has been a waste of time because it hasn’t, but i think we need to refocus and decide what the benchmark actually is, and be consistent with it.  Having a year on year “subjective” evaluation about what makes a perfect council website and what is good and bad about particular sites is losing value in my humble opinion.

We need to agree perhaps using the Socitm, Public Sector Forums and Public Sector Web Management Group, what a model council website looks and feels like to a citizen.  This is not an easy task and it maybe an impossible question to answer, but could be worthwhile on a year by year basis, setting a benchmark. This would be even better if this was based on what real people thought of council websites and not what the government thinks we should do with council websites.

What i believe this would give myself as a web manager is where people have differed and what they have done differently and more importantly how?  It would also highlight who has pushed the boundaries and who has tried new and exciting things. This would be a report which i feel would have value to me as a web manager and to my organisation in terms of how we compare?

But one last thing, a report of this type can never and should never substitute what actual and real people say about our site via formal feedback methods.