Going under the hood of a revised web architecture – federated search

I have on many occasion referred to a number of approaches in developing a web strategy for Devon, these can be found via the following links:

However, it isn’t often we get to hear or read about what or even how some of these grand visions actually get played out in terms of technology approaches , so I thought i’d share a few thoughts from a colleague of mine (Stian Sigvartsen) who works as an application analyst and is currently looking into a revised web architecture.

Stian’s post Achieving a federated single view of the customer (Caution – the post does contain some detailed technology descriptions. ) shares his learning from a pilot project using Liferay portal technology. Stian focuses on a particular challenge we have here which is search and has seen the portal approach as a way to deliver a federated search strategy, whilst maintaining information security.



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.

Social Media points the way for Corporate Website Development

I have had a draft web strategy written for some time now as i need to finish off a few extra bits which will hopefully complete the picture. One of these areas is the technical architecture required to deliver the desired outcomes.

In looking into this and speaking to several of my more knowledgeable ICT colleagues on this topic it occurred to me that what we really want to do is to follow the social media approach. I’ll try to explain what i mean and include some pictures to help me.

Firstly, it is worth trying to explain what i believe the future is for local government websites and online service delivery. I must stress this is my view and does not reflect the views of my employer.

Social media is allowing us to see how people prefer to use the Internet and what features, functions and opportunities they prefer to have available to them, as well as the seamless use across multiple platforms and browsers for example, PC, notebook, PDA, Mobile, iPhone etc and this will in my view increase.

What is also interesting when seeing what social media offers is that most if not all of what it does is allow people to select and dictate the relevance of the content and services delivered to a given browser.  It is also coupled with the fact that people are also at the same time connecting with other people and allowing information to flow through their networks.

So social media is providing choice, relevance and connections, if you throw in the trend of local and hyper local and in a local government sense the drive toward Total Place. I see a model where corporate websites are essentially delivering packages of “information and services” into the wider Internet community or even social networks. This would essentially allow people to participate in particular topics, based on their preferred community.

So a “package” could be a specific service on its own or a collection of other services based on a geographic or specific community (see end of post for community types).

For example I live in Exeter, so there could be a “Exeter” package which would contain a set of services (Not just local government services) but a set of relevant location focused services. Part of the personalisation of that package could be my specific postcode and therefore a more local neighbourhood context (hyper-local). Or i may just be interested in service such as transport, which would allow me to access the travel to work information based on my preferences (think of the google maps (from here to there scenario) and the information would be displayed based on those parameters.

As a user i would simply select the services within that package which were relevant to me at any given time. For example i would select the following and then have the opportunity to display a combination of or all of the sub services within the package:

Service based packages

  • Schools (location, for admissions, term times, governor info, school news and access to my child’s school performance data etc)
  • Transport (location, for public transport info, roadworks, travel information, car tax,)
  • Environment (location, planning, waste collection, recycling, graffiti, fly tipping etc)
  • Health (location, local dentist, GP’s, pharmacies,  NHS direct etc)

Alternatively you could deliver geographic based packages

  • Exeter
  • Newton Abbot
  • Barnstaple

These might be presented in the style of widgets or gadgets, an example of how this might work on a website or even within a social network application is on the BBC website – The key thing is to allow and facilitate a deeper level of customisation within that widget itself – the only thing the BBC widget doesn’t facilitate which would be essential is mapping function which would allow you specify your geography (travel to work, school run etc)

BBC News Widget
BBC News Widget

This essentially combines local and national information within a single package. This would require everyone to develop in such a way that allowed mashups and web services with information related to the following community types.

The types of communities that we need to understand in terms of matching services and information to are in my opinion the following:

  • Community of place are people who are bound together because of where they reside, work, visit or otherwise spend a continuous portion of their time.
  • Community of interest are people who share a common interest, pastime or passion.
  • Community of circumstance – is driven by position, circumstance or life experiences rather than a shared interest. An example could be a Cancer sufferers support group.
  • Community of position – is distinguished from a community of practice community in that it tends to be more personally focused. This community is built around life stages (such as teenage years, university/college student years, marriage, or parenthood) provide individuals with the opportunity to build relationships with others during that particular phase of their lives.
  • Community of practice – refers to the process of social learning that occurs and shared sociocultural practices that emerge and evolve when people who have common goals interact as they strive towards those goals.
  • Community of purpose – people who are going through the same process or are trying to achieve a similar objective. Such communities serve a functional purpose, smoothing the path of the member for a limited period surrounding a given activity. For example community’s purpose revolves around allowing people to accomplish something they want or need to do whether it’s buying something, selling something, fixing something, dating, or the like.

What i believe is that the increasing complexity of people’s lives is being amplified with social media in such as way that the most important things we as information and service providers need to think about is how we manage and classify our content in such as way that whatever the situation, whatever the search, the right content appears and is delivered to a user. If that means it is joined together with another organisations to give context or to give it additional purpose then we need to facilitate that.

This will no doubt require a change in architecture for some councils towards a more flexible Internet service delivery framework.  This type of framework essentially provides the opportunity to allow a councils content and its services to be delivered to a presentation layer (combination of html, mobile and ditv) as well as to other platforms such as facebook, twitter, iphone app store.

This isn’t rocket science and it certainly isn’t new but in the context of social media it allows us to provide relevant content and services not through pages and groups or friends but through applications which allow a greater deal of interaction directly with us as a service provider.

Internet Service Delivery Framework
Internet Service Delivery Framework

The future looks very exciting from a user perspective and very scary from a local government web team perspective, however it certainly looks like it going to be a lot of fun getting there.

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.

Social Networks…what are the strengths?

A recent comment on my blog got me thinking about what the strengths of social networks are. WOW, what a question and one which i don’t feel that i could give justice to however i have been thinking a lot about how they can fit into local government thinking and use.

A number of obvious things do come to mind and some of which we are already trying in my council.  These ideas are based not only on existing SNS but bespoke ones for specific purposes as well

  • participation and engagement with young people and wider groups of interest
  • extended communications to staff without formal connection to corporate network
  • Internal knowledge base and reduction in use of internal email
  • providing services as widgets so we don’t have to expect people to come to council sites

I’m sure there are lots more, but the reality for me is that these sites will provide greater opportunities to communicate and provide services directly to and for people.

Gerry McGovern highlighted at the “perfect council website” conference earlier this year, that people generally use the internet quickly and in between their favourite programmes so if we make our sites difficult to navigate and services hard to use why would they bother?

However people are prepared to spend time of SNS to co-ordinate social events or exchange information with their friends, so why can’t we offer the services they need within their window of opportunity.

After all even as a council worker i don’t find myself navigating around my own website let alone other local authority websites because i am a busy person, like we all are and time is something i am not prepared to sacrifice to, for example report a pothole.

This issue for me is one of the drivers behind trying to reposition our thinking on web and how we approach the web. I believe that a web strategy needs to focus on the channel and not the corporate website alone. This is why i am now in the process of preparing a re-write of the councils web strategy that i wrote about 18 months ago.

It will incorporate a wide range of opportunities online and will represent a sort of “online activity” and “digital access” strategy.

Regarding the strengths of SNS, well i believe that they now represent a fundamental shift in the way people use the web, it truly is a social web and and that means websites that offer and increase this kind of activity will become more and more popular.   Where does that leave traditional council websites, i’m not entirely sure yet, but they will and can not look like anything they are now…

For me the greatest strengths of SNS are the people in them, the technology is only a facilitator, they wouldn’t work unless people wanted to communicate in that way. So we really need to focus on people and and where people are if we are to engage with them.

Some people will still prefer to meet in the context of a group down the local village hall and would like a council representative to discuss issues with, others will be part of online communities of interest and we must respond to them as well.

SNS and social media in general do exactly what Clay Shirky talks about in his book, they provide opportunities for people to organise themselves without formal structures and organisations to support them. I found this video on you tube of Clay Shirky talking about the book

I also found this interesting presentation on the future of social networks