Do you accept my cookie

privacy
Privacy by Alan Cleaver (flickr)

My family uses in the internet a lot, we use it to shop online, book holidays, search for stuff and we all conduct research in various forms, as I suspect most people do.

So when speaking to some of my family the other day, I asked them about the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 and to my shock horror they knew very little, in fact nothing about it whatsoever. It was understandable from my kids who are only 7 and 5, but my wife, who shops online more than I do, didn’t know anything about it.

I wasn’t actually shocked, whilst privacy is important (and it really is) most people don’t really know what the legislation is even trying to do or guard them against…I suspect most people will in fact get frustrated with simply clicking on a “accept or deny” cookie button on every website they visit.

I’m not going to get into a debate here about whether or not the legislation is actually the right thing to do, but i’ll just remind myself of one of the main intentions – this is a quote from the the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) website.

It should be remembered that the intention behind this Regulation is also to reflect concerns about the use of covert surveillance mechanisms online.  Here, we are not referring to the collection of data in the context of conducting legitimate business online but the fact that so-called spyware can enter a terminal without the knowledge of the subscriber or user to gain access to information, store information or trace the activities of the user and that such activities often have a criminal purpose behind them.”

So how does a web manager / website owner start to tackle this problem.

Well i’d certainly recommend following the steps suggested in the Government Digital Services (GDS) “Implementer Guide to Privacy & Electronic Communications Regulations (PECRs) for public sector websites” [ pdf warning ] – it suggests starting with an audit…which is the best starting point in my opinion. One other thing i’d suggest doing is revisiting your existing privacy statement on your website.

There is an interesting and pragmatic stance being taken by the GDS as outlined in this post by Dafydd Vaughan. You can read a variety of views on the comments of this post  which all contribute to a confused space…the one thing you can be sure on, is that we all have to do something pretty quickly.

But i’d thought i’d expand slightly otherwise this would be a pretty pointless post 🙂

One of the most obvious places to start is in fact the organisation’s website who have provided the guidance on this legislation in the UK – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

They have provided a method which asks you consent to the use of cookies and provides a link to their privacy notice page. [ I consented to cookies if anyone is interested 🙂 ]

I’m ok with this approach in general, although it sort of feels like an advert at the top of the page with one of those “click here to sign-up” options, but it sort of works. Other methods are being used which you can read about here. I’m not sure which is best to be honest, i think after a while a consistent approach will emerge, but it is too soon to really work that out.

When reading the ICO’s recent guidance it actually refers to the approach the ICO is taking itself and states:

Can I copy the Information Commissioner’s solution?

The Information Commissioner’s website www.ico.gov.uk uses a banner that informs users about cookies and gives them the chance to consent. Whilst we have no objection to organisations seeing if this option would work for them any solution has to be appropriate to an organisation’s own needs. We will review the use of the banner in future and may consider other options ourselves.

On the ICO’s privacy notice page – I was intrigued as to what level of in formation they provided in here – I was surprised to see that the google analytics cookie referred to – not because I don’t like google analytics, in fact i personally really like google analytics and use it myself, it’s free and provides good data on visits, visitors, devices, platforms, browsers and a range of other useful features – the reason I was surprised is that many people have been suggesting that google analytics is a target, so i was actually pleasantly surprised.

You can of course use non cookie based analytics, but some people suggest these are actually worse in some cases. I’m not going to get into detail about that here, you can read about that by searching the web.

When clicking through to the google privacy page, which the ICO websites directly links to. It is worth sharing this important piece of information, which in reading a variety of articles and blog posts on this topic i hadn’t noticed anyone picking up on.

This is a quote from the google privacy page

Google’s Use of Analytics Data

Website owners who use Google Analytics have control over what data they allow Google to use. They can decide if they want Google to use this data or not by using the Google Analytics Data Sharing Options. When these options permit it, the data is used to improve Google products and services. Website owners can change these options at any time.

So I checked in my admin settings for one of the sites I have analytics on you can specify in your analytics admin settings not to share the data with anyone, not even google – it was set by default to “do not share”.

Data Sharing Settings - google analytics

So it would be important to know whether if you consent to cookies, how that information is being used…so in the case of the ICO website, it actually fails to tell me –  the user – whether or not the information they are collecting is shared with google or simply kept private and used only for service improvement purposes – i’m assuming (not always the right thing to do) that they keep it private.

The one bit of irony in all of this is that whatever someone does, they need a cookie to save the fact that someone has either said no, or they constantly present the same message to the same user over and over again. Depending on your approach, it could be a bit like refusing site pop ups over and over again….

What we can be certain of is the next few months are going to be really interesting. i’d welcome hearing from people as to how you are planning and approaching the legislation.

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

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.