Are Local Authority Intranets lacking external benchmarking?

A short post really, but it had occurred to me that one of the biggest opportunities for cost savings within organisations is the intranet.

However in the local government world – perhaps even the wider public sector, i would guess that nearly all of them lack any real interaction, functionality, transaction etc. Compared to the level of external benchmarking and rating that our public sites go through it is no wonder that intranets are probably still in 1996.

Maybe what we need is and i’m not sure how we would facilitate this at the moment but if we could at least be subjected to a similar style benchmarking exercise to Better Connected (Socitm). If this could happen then i believe that councils might be more inclined to drive forward the intranet to offer the kind of business value it promises.

I will post again in the new year as i think we also need to understand what we all mean by Intranet. In my experience the Intranet can be anything from just an internal website with information to pretty much the whole of the desktop aswell.

To me the intranet is now just part of what many people are referring to as Enterprise 2.0 – however i think this needs some explanation as well.

In the meantime, If you know of any really dynamic intranet sites in the public sector i’d be keen to hear the story.

Building the “Local” website, not a council website

I have been thinking about council websites, specifically around the issues of – whether we need them, what management of them should look like, how we structure them, and which audiences we are really trying to serve. Some of this was prompted by an excellent post by Sarah Lay from Derbyshire on “Do Councils need websites” and some by various conversations that have been happening recently and building on from a previous post of mine about social media points the way for corporate website development.

I started to wonder what council websites would look like and how they would have evolved, if we didn’t have the drive from eGovernment, to make all of our services (including information) 100% e-enabled.  I’m sure some would have developed into real community based websites and portals with a good blend of transactional service and online community. My key point here is, without any external pressure, would councils have taken a more community based approach to their websites instead of being forced to deliver services online that offered no value initially.

The Better Connected Review by SocITM has helped drive forward the development of sites in a consistent way, identifying good practice and leading councils, but i’m wondering whether the focus has been too much on “Council Service” and not enough on “Community Service”.

I think it might be good if i try and explain what i perceive to be the simple differences between “Council” and “Community” in a website context. I’m sure this is pretty obvious but i think it needs saying.

Council: A politically driven site, with information about all of the councils services and access to online transactions.

Community: an issue led, community driven site, with information about the local area, to share issues and to build community relationships.

Ok, they are crude and i’m sure most will agree that some councils websites are attempting to do both. But should they? and if so does it work under a “.gov.uk” domain?

My view is that we seem to be operating from a perspective that says “council websites must have a strong presence online in our local area”. I think this view is fundamentally flawed.

I live in a community, and my local councils (City and County) are only a part of that community – it includes other public sector bodies (Police, Fire, Health etc), other residents, other professionals, trades people, shop owners and all the other wonderful people who make up communities.

In a community site, local participation and dialogue makes more sense then it does on a council site. To be honest, who goes to the council offices for a casual meeting with their friends and starts talking about “stuff” that bothers them in their community. I don’t and i don’t know anyone who does, but i do know many people who converse in places they feel comfortable, community places, cafe’s, pubs, outside schools, in the street, online in social networks – everywhere except the council offices.

So starting from that viewpoint, a “local website” would need to include all of those factors and considering the pressures on Public Sector Budgets, why are Public Sector Web Professionals battling to do all of it and in most cases failing to deliver any of it. I’m certainly not undermining my web professional peers as i was Web Manager for 6 years and it was a bloody hard job and i never got the site how i would have wanted to see it for the people of Devon. This was due to the conflicting pressures of what people wanted, or we found out they wanted through surveys and consultations and what the council wanted to do in terms of political PR, communications and reputation management. I can see both sides and both are legitimate and in fact, it is sometimes possible to balance both views, but not all of the time.

Shouldn’t we take the same approach as we do in the “real” world and position our information and services as part of the community and not expect people (and i include myself here) to have to visit a local council website to access information or perform a transaction. I include another reference to a previous post about mashing up council websites altogether “social media points the way for corporate website development“. After all aren’t councils and public sector bodies just as much part of the community as everyone else?

Maybe, and i can’t really believe i am saying this but it tends to make more sense to me (if you disagree please tell me as i feel i’ve gone to the dark side with this one) why don’t we develop and support more than one site. I’ll explain how i would see this working and why i think it will be where we have to go but i’m also happy to be challenged. So i’ll start with a straw man and share my thinking.

The following breakdown does not assume that these are all physically separated in terms of content. They could all be hosted centrally, to enable data reuse etc.  However with search engines supporting and moving toward more of a federated approach and a search integration platform, as in linking information across systems, it doesn’t assume they are all in the same system either.

  1. Public Sector site : this would acknowledge that people are citizens and therefore need opportunities to participate, feedback and be part of service design and development across all public sector organisations. This would essentially be a “total place” view and would probably link to most Local Strategic Partnerships etc and provide information on the priorities, performance, meetings, minutes, webcasts etc.
  2. Community Site: this would provide all of the community information right down to the hyper local context. It would also include the transactions of all the public sector bodies so that people could access information and services as part of their normal routine and conversations. This element would also provide the links and integration with either public social networks such as twitter and Facebook as well as hosted community networks.

The challenge with the above is “who starts it all off”? Well some areas already have very well-developed community sites, and we ought to engage with those sites much more, very much like the approach people talk about with Social Media, we need to reach out to already existing networks and contribute in those instead of building empty places where no one wants to come. That leaves the council site, this would mean radically reducing the “huge amounts of content” that exists within the “.gov.uk” domain and pushing most of it into community sites either through mash-ups, RSS or other means. That way we could work with communities to take over the ownership of local content and Public Sector Web Professionals could focus on just the content that needs to be their from a public sector point of view.

I appreciate this is all very much “a dream” but i’m convinced that over the coming years the pervasive nature of social media, alongside the need to reduce costs, will mean that we will inevitably need to refocus what councils websites offer and why they are there and how we can ensure that what we do provide online is used and embraced by the local community.

So what does this mean for website management? – well in my opinion, we have an opportunity to bring together the expertise within a local area and provide a “shared” service or a “combined” service for public sector organisations. It will mean that we need to think more about aligning across organisations, focusing more on the actual communities we serve. Some councils are starting to do this internally around shared internal services such as HR, Finance etc. So we are already in the arena of shared intranets across multiple organisations – this is simply the next logical step.

This also gives greater emphasis in my opinion on the need to create and support the development of Public Sector Web Professionals across the board –  development, learning, competencies, networking etc.

All of the above will require strong leadership from across the public sector as well as third sector partners, if we want to deliver excellent opportunities,  services and information locally.  Directgov has shown that consolidation across a sector is possible (albeit painful) but it does deliver a better interface into Central Government. So there is hope.

The Three Business Opportunities of Social Media/Software

I’ve been attending the Gartner Symposium Event in Cannes this week and my brain has been bombarded with so much information on so many topics and I won’t be using this post to share all I learnt but instead i’ll share some snippets around social media and in particular the Business Use of Social Media/Software.

It wasn’t a surprise to me to hear so much about the benefits of social media at a technology event, but what did surprise me was that there wasn’t many people there who actually used it.  There was a symposium tweet-up arranged via twitter for the Wednesday and only 6 people attended  –  yes i was one of them, so a lot of work to do in terms of awareness and understanding if anyone thinks this stuff will impact the business model. You can follow or catch up on the tweets from the Gartner Symposium events on twitter.

So on that note i thought it would be a good idea to start to bring the issue of business use into some context for people based on a number of Gartner sessions i attended and one in particular facilitated by a very good analyst Ed Thompson, who as it happened gave another excellent presentation on Customer Experience (more to follow on this one in a separate post).

Gartner highlight three separate and logical areas to guide thinking and implementation approaches to these tools and technologies within organisations.

I’m going to share my perspective on these areas:

1) Internal –  “your people, your place”
Essentially this area is about looking at the internal opportunities that are there for you. This is an area which I personally feel will deliver great benefits not just around the learning but in supporting a wide range of internal business issues.

It is important to remember that unless your organisation has articulated business issues you will struggle to get buy in or support.
Some potential business issues you might hear which you could link to these tools are as follows: NB this list is an example and is not comprehensive. It also doesn’t imply any particular approach.

– people finder or skills finder (internal staff directory)
– project spaces and business collaboration
– real-time or near real-time internal communications (yes email is an option but that isn’t always collaborative)
– learning communities and peer support groups

2) External – “your people, other people, your place”

The second area that Gartner referred to was external but a platform that was managed by the organisation. An example of this would be where you host a community function for people to discuss and or support each other like a helpdesk community support function. In local government terms this is a challenge as we need to be careful about trying to create communities that we intend to be organic. So the difference here is that we are clear and open about what we would expect such a community to do or what broad outcomes we would expect.
Again some potential business issues you might here to link to would be as follows:

–  service improvement function
– service user support community
– shared communities of practice
– project spaces and collaboration with partners and other organisations

3) Public – “your people, other people, their place”

This aspect is the area that to be honest most people focus on, it includes facebook environments, twitter, youtube etc. This is where stuff (for most social media people) get interesting. However this is also where most fear resides and organisations are low in awareness around the possibilities, case studies, return on investment figures. BUT this is where the MOST VALUE will be gained to all.

Again some possible business issues (not comprehensive) you might come across which could be linked into these solutions or approaches – however i stress and i say this all the time now. Don’t focus on a single technology, do your homework, work out what will actually deliver the value in any given circumstance.

– connecting and engaging with communities
– civic debate and discussion
– trend spotting, listening to the social web community or as Gartner refer to it “the collective” can provide insights into what might be the next big opportunity or next big issue developing.
– people to people connections
– building relationships

All of the above requires a different viewpoint on the traditional way of looking at things. The social space is ALL about the relationships between people and the benefits that spin-off from those interactions. We are now moving into a more focused look at people to people relationships (P2P) – In these difficult times, the potential to interact with people becomes even more important, for all of the issues i have given as examples.

What is interesting about this is that it has always been about P2P but dressed up and disguised as business to business or business to consumer – what drives those agenda = People.

The challenge for anyone wanting to explore the world of social media and social software is to learn more about how people interact and the connections and networks people have. I for one am very excited by this prospect and look forward to learning more over the coming months and years.

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.

Should Web and ICT be the same

Paul Canning has posted an excellent and interesting post on whether the web and ICT should be the same, or at least be managed within the ICT function.  Dave Briggs also posted on the subject and supports Paul’s View.

I have a slightly different view and one which perhaps works in larger organisations (after all i work in a large county council)

  • Paul says:
    Web skills are very specific, you need to be across a lot of terrain. You need to understand SEO, usability, web content, have good people skills, be across various and ever changing IT, visual design, accessibility, marketing, PR … Even the very best IT managers don’t have this skill range so they can’t make informed decisions or informed choices across the range of issues which constitute good and most importantly successful web.
  • Dave comments:
    Indeed, I would add a couple of bits to Paul’s list about webbies needing to be excellent communicators, and maybe a real interest in policy is important too.

I would like to add the following view to this discussion.

Whilst i support some aspects of what Paul suggests which is i don’t think that ICT should manage and run the web as a whole, the skills required are far beyond traditional ICT departments.

However i believe that the web should be mainstreamed into the whole organisation and ICT are a key enabler in that process.  I also believe that corporate web managers will no longer be required in the format they are currently employed becuase of the same reasons ICT are not the best people to manage it.  I don’t think one single person can be responsible for all the areas that are now required to manage and maintain and effective web channel within local government.

I believe that it is essential and the only sustainable way to mainstream the web if that the right areas of the business manage there expertise area.  It is also worth including that sitting above this you need strong governance process and systems to ensure that this actually functions strategically and operationally.

My previous post “do we really need web managers” highlights some of the main areas that web managers would be expected to be responsible for, i have included them below with some additional context

  • Technology and Innovation – we are perhaps fortunate that our corporate ICT function has a team of Enterprise Architects who are there to look at the strategic business architecture which would include the web, but also looks at the latest innovations and how they can support and deliver business benefits, web 2.0 is one area that this team will look at. This woudl also include policy at a strategic level, but each area would include policy aspects which would need interlinking
    In terms of operational web development, this is provided by our in-house development team who do the actual programming etc.
  • Content (text, image, video, audio etc) – for me this the bread and butter of websites and is mostly driven by communications and marketing people across the council, but also involves web editors and publishers. what we need here though is a content strategy which highlights all content amd which channel it needs to be delivered to. This is wider than just websites
  • Information Management (SEO, metadata and taxonomy) – we are again fortunate perhaps to ahve a strategic intelligence unit who are the experst in this filed and in effect act as information architects. We also have a tool which helps us tag our pages with correct metadata and contributes to the taxonomy management
  • Services (what people come to do – the tasks!) – this has been the drive of eGovernment for the last few years and continues to be the main focus of websites now, but it driven by customer services and service managers looking to provide alternative channel of access for services. But we need to put the right service in the right channel if they are to be used.
  • Design/usability – a visual framework by which people navigate, search and perform information and search requests. This is a design function and in terms of framework is easy to manage but overall design needs to compliment the organisational brand, a communications and marketing role.
  • Marketing/Communications – a critical aspect of local government websites but not really exploited to the degree it should be. you need users to enage online to achieve the claimed efficiences that are bounded about by many people.

One last thought is that the original post by Paul cited Richard Steele, SOCITM’s President as stating ICT should run the lot, well to be honest i think this is a narrow and flawed view and that the only way to move forward is as an organisation, which collectively uses the web as any other channel.