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.


Internal Blogging

Last October my team worked with our Internal Communications colleagues to develop an internal blogging platform (WordPress) to allow our new 14 Heads of Service to share thinking and updates about the council’s direction as well as updates from within their services areas.

We have had experience of internal blogging before – the chief executive used to blog, but that essentially faded away and was replaced with an internal email newsletter from the chief executive.

I remember having conversation with people back then and many said that they did like and value the chief executives blog but many thought that a more localised view from their head of service would make more sense….so here we are a few years down the road and we are now in that position.

So in the 3 months that they been going, my personal view is that they are successful – ok, not all heads of service are actively blogging yet, but we didn’t create or set any expectations for any of them. BUT and this is the good bit a good number of them are actively blogging and in my view are doing a great job.

So I thought I’d share some interesting high level stats in the short time they have been going – The stats are from 13th October 2011 to 12th January 2012.

  • 4,482 – visits
  • 1,850 – unique visitors
  • 18,733 – page views
  • 4.18 – pages a visit
  • 3 mins 09 secs – average time on site
  • 61% – returning visitors
  • 26 – comments

In my view – this is fantastic, really good. The kind of stats we couldn’t have actually hoped for initially. My only concern is the number of comments, but this is a cultural thing really as well as the content in the blog posts…not all are written to encourage comments, some are purely information only…so we will be looking to add a “like this post” option so we can get a sense as to whether or not people are finding the posts valuable.

What we will be doing with our internal comms colleagues is providing some individual reports for those heads of service who blog to help them understand the details of their blogging pattern and style, for example which posts received most visits.

The most successful writing style is one which brings in elements of humour as well as the personality of the individual themselves…i guess a natural style…so our challenge is to encourage and support them to write more consistently like this when appropriate.

It is great to see and be part of a team (the wider communications team) who are making such great progress.

Proving concepts with Open and Linked Data (and wordpress)

I love finding excellent examples of stuff, more so when you find them in your own council and especially when they actually prove some concepts to other people.

So I was very excited to hear and actually see what a colleague here at the council Mark Painter has been doing with WordPress and linked data.

Mark has been doing lots of work on understanding open and linked data and recently put together a proof of concept site for area profiles, which brings together mosaic data (as an xml file), neighbourhood statistics and IMD data from CLG support by swirll.

I love this proof of concept because we need to do more of this here in Devon and it also supports and proves the concept around my content strategy…one other reason I love this is because this was all done through good old WordPress 🙂

I must reiterate this is a proof of concept and may break at any time as mark continues to explore how to make this better…he has already started to look at how he incorporates the Crime Data into this as well…


The question about WordPress as a Corporate CMS

It has been a couple of weeks since I attended #localgovcamp and it has taken that long for my brain to process all of the ideas and challenges that inevitably come up after spending such intensive time with so many passionate people.

One of the sessions I went to was on WordPress and whether or not it is capable of replacing existing content management systems (CMS) with regard to the council websites.

It is interesting to note that a few central government sites are using WordPress, for example Defra, Dept for Transport (DfT) and Number 10.

Whilst looking at these sites I noticed on the DfT site that it stated the following:

The website was redeveloped to address user feedback and stakeholder research, reduce costs and to move to an open source CMS solution (WordPress) in a more flexible hosting environment. We want to ensure that people can find the information they are looking for quickly and easily; and that publications, reports and policy documents can be browsed and searched more easily without having to know the subject area in detail or know what part of the Department or Agency is responsible. We also need to direct people to the correct source for more detailed information, such as Directgov and BusinessLink.


Whilst reading this it occurred to me why there is such an issue about talking about WordPress as a corporate website and it is obvious really…In fact I have even had the conversation with colleagues in ICT, but I don’t think I really connected the dots properly for my brain to make sense of it all.

This is why I believe it is easy for central government and some areas of local government to use WordPress for either core websites or even microsites but no one yet in my opinion has yet to provide a fully functioning corporate website using WordPress – By fully functioning I mean that it delivers a fully transactional platform with ePayments, GIS, business application integration, single sign on etc…

Now I’m not sure if WordPress that can do all of this, but I wonder whether this is actually the type of website we require. I’ve been involved in the website strategy here and one of the key aspects of moving toward a new web infrastructure is to decouple the existing layers so that we can make sensible decisions about which technologies are appropriate at each stage…This should in theory avoid the negative move (in my personal opinion) to get a big supplier and essentially supplier lock in…I don’t believe that in this climate we should consider big systems anymore, we are a shrinking sector and therefore we should consider more agile technologies where appropriate….this is based on the assumption that any new technology delivers on performance and business requirements.

When you consider the list of existing WordPress sites (not comprehensive)  in use across the local government arena, they are focusing on sites without any service transaction integration (no epayments, no library catalogue, no benefits system). In fact they are all focusing on information provision (most project based), which is of course a key function of a website as well.  The same also goes for the central government examples, as the transactional part of central government is provided by DirectGov.

Whilst there is a clear strategy and direction for central government transactional services to be provided through a single domain, there is not the same drive or strategy for this within local government. This is where the problem starts really – if there was a clear strategy which stated that all local government online services will be available through a single domain then we could clearly separate out the transactional service requirements from the information service requirements. This in my opinion would provide a clear opportunity for CMS platforms such as WordPress to gain a greater presence within the local government web arena as they are perfectly placed to support this at very low-cost as is proved by central government examples.

BUT – I don’t see this kind of strategy appearing to be honest, in the spirit of localism this kind of central control and mandate would not be welcomed, although it would drive a huge amount of cost saving….and it would in my opinion save a large number of councils the trouble of developing and duplicating, what is essentially the same online services across the country, thus wasting public money over and over again through the duplication of processes and transactions…But there is something about this approach which also makes my back shiver as it sort of assumes that this would reply on some “big” single site which would need a large number of people maintaining it and we would have to develop a suite of integration points into the vast number of different systems performing the same function across councils…isn’t this just asking for a huge supplier to manage the lot…I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that really but that could get into a political argument for which this blog was not intended..

If this kind of strategy was presented it would clearly represent an opportunity to local government to deliver the kind of consistent user experience across all local government services and because the high volumes of transactions we would be delivering huge cost savings locally…something about this seems very right but see point above about single supplier!

This is basically suggesting a shared service platform for local government online transactions….I naively thought years ago that this was what local direct gov would do….but i was obviously wrong.

Now I don’t know what the answer is here, it certainly isn’t wordpress…but it does have a role to play, but then again other open source platforms do as well.

The problem is we aren’t all having the conversations with our IT colleagues about what the issues are around corporate websites from their perspectives (we will be starting those conversations here very soon) to fully understand how all this stuff fits together in order to help everyone work out how we create a web architecture which is fit for purpose, flexible, agile and scalable….regardless of whether WordPress is used or not – for me the key is in understanding the requirements from all angles first before jumping to a conclusion.

What I do think WordPress can provide for councils now though is a perfect platform which business folk can use to deliver microsites within a consistent framework and in a very usable platform. Whilst this doesn’t replace a corporate website it does giver greater flexibility to webteam for example who often struggle to make changes or create microsites in “enterprise” class CMS systems…it simply isn’t sustainable to wait over 3-4 weeks for a small-scale microsite when you can create a site in less than an hour in WordPress.

We should all be focusing on what we want to achieve FIRST and not what products we want to see.

However in saying that I think it is certainly worth someones time creating a replica corporate website in WordPress even as a proof of concept and finding out either way whether or not it can work….that is certainly something I think we can do here as a team over the coming months in our own time…it would save others time so you have to say it is worthwhile.

So I think that this whole conversation is a misunderstanding really…the question shouldn’t be “can WordPress provide the technology for a corporate CMS?” the question should be “what do we really want the corporate website to do?”

Once we start asking the right questions, I’m sure WordPress and other open source products will start to enter into the conversation as possible solutions.


WordPress just got even more funky

I was so pleased to read that WordPress have announced that you can now embed google docs and calendars into WordPress

This is such a good feature that I actually believe we will start to see lots more use of “on the edge” WordPress sites as well as more mainstream sites within the public sector and in particular making use of the great features found in google docs. There are many opportunities here that I’m actually quite excited 🙂

To demonstrate this great new feature I have embedded a google spreadsheet which was collating data from a form about the use of WordPress within the UK Public Sector.

Update: If you know of any more WordPress powered sites then please submit them using the form below