Learning from Devon School Closure Information

During the extreme weather in early 2010 The county council’s website struggled to keep up with the demands and high volume traffic and essentially deliver timely up to date information relating to school and route closures.

This consequently led to a review of a number of things including the performance of our website, the supporting processes and the wider business continuity plans.

A few meetings occurred which I was fortunate to be involved in and we considered a range of options about how we could respond and deal with this scenario in the future.

An example of the options we considered included:

  • SMS Solution Providers
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Google Docs (spreadsheets and forms)
  • WordPress

The Approach:

The approach we settled for was to focus on improving and automating the information collection and ensuring that this was in a consistent and reusable format. Once collected the information could then be republished automatically either to the DCC site, a local school site or even to the local media

The web team in our Children and Young People’s Service (CYPS) currently host and maintain approx 50% of school websites in Devon and would be able to implement a solution without too many issues.

On review it was considered that the most suitable and low-cost option would be to use Google – Total cost of development came to £240.

By using google it was possible to deliver an embedded form (which fed into a google spreadsheet) into a static HTML page with an iframe which could collate all the responses – this form would be password protected. Google also allows the content once collected to be emailed, published as a webpage or even reused via an RSS feed.

By implementing a simple PHP script the CYPS web team we were able to publish the appropriate content onto the DCC website and also to the school website without the need for a member of staff to re-enter any content.

The site is live and available at www.devonschoolclosures.info.

The process now essentially allows a Head Teacher or School Admin officer to access the form via their own website and to submit the details relating to the schools status. Once submitted the information is republished to the councils website and relevant DCC officers notified via email, all without any further manual intervention.


It was essential to ensure that the focus was always on the business issues and problems and not on the technologies themselves. To allow the techno logy to drive the solution could lead to greater risks and unforeseen issues further down the line.

By ensuring we focused on data collection and automating the process we were able to understand where new technologies could add value to the process and how they were able to facilitate a greater reuse of the data.


Increasing my lessons learned

This is actually my first post of 2009 and this is partly due to being on leave up to the 12th January which was great and enabled me to get some additional rest.

I went through my blog whilst i was on leave as part of my first 6 month review and looked at how it had evolved and how i have developed my learning and understanding.

Personal learning and reflection was one of my initial motivations for this blog. So with that in mind i am intending on posting more experiences on what i have learnt and how i will use the learning in the following 4 areas:

  1. Customers
  2. Colleagues
  3. Organisation
  4. Personal development

So for my first post on this i offer a simple experience , i recently applied for a job (closing date was last Friday) and as you usually do, i wrote a supporting statement, which as a line manager who recruited staff i was keen to ensure that my statement actually demonstrated that i met the essential and desirable criteria.  This i found was something people didn’t do well and it often frustrated me as a manager because you were looking too hard for evidence that someone actually had that skills or competence.

My final supporting statement was 12 pages (The job description and person spec was 24 pages, so i was happy with the 12). What i learnt from the experience as i haven’t actually applied for a job in over 5 years now was that we should always keep our CV’s up to date and the process of going through a supporting statement is something we should do at least once a year.

In fact i think the appraisal process should focus on the original person specification and job description and at once a year you should go through and build up a list of examples where you have demonstrated delivering your job. This can also lead to the identification of personal development opportunities which you may not have thought of during a normal appraisal process.

I have already identified a number of personal development opportunities and behaviour changes that i am now going to start working on because of that process.

Changing the subject now….

I am in the process of arranging the 2nd internal social media forum session, and this time it is going to be more practical as the first one was introductions, purpose and networking. I’d thought i would share the agenda for information purposes

The agenda

  • Twitter demonstration and discussion around business applications
  • What is RSS and how can it help you (Listening)
  • Good practice for setting up any online account (pictures, username, links to other sites etc)
  • IDEA’s Communities of Practice – how it can help collaboration

The group has a private facebook group to collaborate and discuss issues and post interesting links etc, which is useful and for most is popular, some are still struggling with facebook i think…

We are also in the process of finalising the outcomes and approach for a pilot implementaion of blue kiwi social software. I am very excited about this and will blog more on the over the next few weeks and months.

Am i missing something

Late last night i was thinking about twitter (why as i am on leave this week, well that is what the wife said when at midnight i sent an email to colleagues with some ideas) and how that could be used effectively in the workplace. It was easy enough to come up with a bunch of possible areas for use, all subject to further thought and investigation.

  • school closures
  • school communications to parents
  • emergency information
  • road closures
  • extreme weather
  • breaking news
  • ICT outages affecting the CSC
  • web application availability
  • election results as they happen
  • reminders for new legislation/regs coming into effect (eg parking)
  • consultation activities
  • local leisure activities
  • bulky waste collections
  • planning applications notifications

However what started to occur to me is that it does require a critical mass to be really effective in terms of the public signing up to receive what i think is the best aspect (sms messages). Also it is very similar to RSS feeds when talking to people who don’t use twitter? so do we really need both, i think for now yes plus many more but i’m not talking about them today.

I came to the conclusion that twitter can be an effective business tool and for some already is. It provides opportunities for 2 way communication for people and best of all you don’t have to use the web to benefit from it, providing you sign up once (with the 30 minutes free you get in all local libraries in the county – some cross service marketing :). You can use the sms aspect to send and receive messages, especially if you were a parent who had kids at a school, they could use twitter to inform you of any issues or if the was closed due to extreme weather.

All great stuff i was thinking, but again perhaps a critical mass required to benefit the school, as they would still need traditional methods as well. I guess what is wrong with that?

The challenge here is that as councils we need to create an information and web architecture that enables us to push and receive information via all channels of delivery. So it could be twitter today or facebook tomorrow or the main council website after that. For this reason we are changing our website along the lines of the BBC and Redbridge to provide a modular based website which seperates the front end presentation from teh back end systems and databases. So the website is in effect one very big web service. We are due to launch are new site in september with a number of follow on phases building up the widgets/gadgets or whatever your preferred term is for them.

The important point though surely is to ensure that the right information/service is available to the right person in the way in which they want to get it. Or am i missing something? Grand vision of Varney flows through me when i think of that!!

All the web 2.0 stuff reminds me of a kid in a sweetshop, all wonderful, nice colourful things, all different flavours, all different tastes, some last longer some are quick and delicious but we all have our own preferences as to what our favourite sweet is. Some people just don’t care to move from one thing to another, so how can we integrate the functionaility into teh mainstream delivery of our website and online citizen registration/authentication?

It all started drving me crazy and around in circles when i spotted this post via twitter from Dave Briggs

What is the role of government websites

The post highlights the following 5 areas that Gerry McGovern suggests are the 5 things we should be addressing

  1. Get away from a technology obsession
  2. Manage customer top tasks, not government websites
  3. Get politicians off government websites
  4. Stop government vanity publishing
  5. Develop a government archive

Now what is interesting about this is that it is so simple, why someone didn’t come up with this sooner is amazing….

However i would like to take this one step further if i may.

Instead of websites, why don’t we focus on Government Communications and Customer Service, perhaps too much too ask and perhpas way above my thinking at present.

But it seems a simple concept also and much aligned to what Gerry and Dave raise….

  1. Don’t focus on technology
  2. Deliver services out to the public (not just via our traditional channels)
    This is where we can adopt a council 2.0 approach and mash-up our services to give to others to deliver with and for us
  3. Focus on customer needs and profiles
  4. Communicate and deliver services around identified communities (geographic, by interest, offline, online)

As i said it is only emerging as a thought, perhaps it will end with this post, but i doubt it, for me it seems to be key to developing a future web strategy for my council. Feel free to comment and point out my misunderstandings in this area……

It is also very similar to an idea i had about 18 months ago for our countywide portal. I have spoken to people about it, it sounds a grand vision but actually on face value, it makes perfect sense.

I will share more on this idea over the coming weeks and i woudl like your input into that.

feel free to tell me i am mad and i should stop and or start medication…

But as i said, i could just be missing something….