#LocalGov #Content Strategy Group now live on Knowledge Hub

Back in January at UKGC12 Sarah Lay and I said we would create an online community space for those interested in Content Strategy for people in and around government.

It has taken some time, for which we make no excuses other than we have been reflecting on which platform to use to best suit the immediate and future needs of the group. We considered a range of options but have settled for the Knowledge Hub.

Please join and sign up if you are interested…Sarah and I will be facilitating the group, but if others wish to help out then let us know in the group itself.

Digital Content Strategy Group

The ‘digital content strategy’ group has been created as a community space to discuss issues around delivering digital in local government and specific practice around web and digital content creation, curation, delivery and governance. This may include issues around web content, user experience design, content across different platforms, search, social media and methods of delivery and governance such as Agile working and devolved authoring.

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

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.

 

#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…