“YOUR” web site! It makes you think doesn’t it?

Now that I’m no longer actively involved in managing a website for a Local Council I’m freed of the bonds of the daily arguments and angst.

Being outside allows me a  certain clarity of view, but in some ways that’s false too. It’s really easy from this position to throw brickbats. You only have to read the Better Connected Review to see how those with no responsibility, no pressures – political or otherwise can take  a view on what is outside of their purview. Better still listen to Jonathan Davies commentating on 6 nations rugby. Why didn’t he play like he talks? The answer is simple. It just isn’t that easy when you’re inside; in amongst it as it were.

The point of this piece is to attempt to throw some light onto ‘why the differences’ in what is being delivered. You’d think all councils would be same wouldn’t you? As you know that isn’t so.

Here goes. A stab at a very simplistic approach:

Is your council open, transparent and essentially honest? I mean really open and honest. Not just full of spin. If so then you’re in with a chance of providing a site which is truly ( and I hate the term) ‘Engaging’.

If, on the other hand, spin, gloss and obfuscation are endemic in your organisation then you stand little chance of getting data out to your clients. Probably, because it would be politically damaging to do so, you will be blocked or at best ‘slowed down’  when wishing to publish flat unambiguous, clear data.
Just as a test; were you forced to publish the ‘over £500’ spend by the impending governments deadline or did you publish well before you were obliged to?If you were forced by the deadline or you haven’t published them yet… sort of answers itself.

So councils web sites can, and I would argue do, provide some evidence of the innards of the council; the ‘type of council you are’ sort of thing. Publish everything = open, honest and transparent. And of course the reverse is true.

Is it just the politics of the situation though? Probably not. Large Councils are multi departmental, multi disciplinary and comprise a heady mix of service delivery, back office and of course, the politicos. That makes for teams and even tribes and that means it’s difficult for any web team to get at data embedded within those groups/tribes/departments.

Seamless delivery assumes all managers are equally up to speed with the processes and benefits of electronically delivered data. I’d like to bet that any of you reading this will know somebody who is still firmly paper-based. I can certainly name a few, so wresting information from them and making it electronic will be hard, if not impossible until they get their heads out of the filing cabinets and drawers or after they have fell, or have been pushed, off the twig.

We see therefore, a functioning, seamless and ( here’s that word again) engaging council web site is subject to many forces and pressures, usually from outside  the control of those who are supposed to manage, or even be responsible for, the process. Paradoxical isn’t it? But how do you resolve such a situation?

  • The political will has to be there to be open, transparent and honest.
  • Tribal barriers need to be removed or overcome in some other way.
  • Staff responsible for holding data have to be aware and switched on to the idea of doing so electronically.

A difficult nut to crack?  Difficult but not impossible. Ways of resolving the issues flow from the Chief Executive and the Leader, certainly the first point can’t be overcome without their conscious and conspicuous buy in and action. And the underlined term is crucial.

Additionally, their conspicuous involvement – applying large amount of pressure if needs be – to remove the second and third obstruction will put web produced information front and centre. Which is where it should be because it’s more cost effective to do so. It’s the first place you should put the information. It should not be an afterthought or a bolt on.

This is so obvious I’m surprised it’s not taken up everywhere. I know from experience it isn’t. As an example a head of service said to me one day “I’ll see if I can get you some information for your web site”.

“YOUR” web site! It makes you think doesn’t it?

What price ‘Better Connected’ when the money has gone.

Budget cuts howl through the previously warm and snug corridors of local government like the arctic blast the country  succumbed to during the latter part of 2010. Minus 12 degC outside and chilling decisions being made inside.

Despite being the major means of dealing with councils, cuts are being made to web budgets. Lincolnshire, for example, cut budgets for web services before I left in early December and there’s probably more to come.

In my opinion it’s a short sighted view taken by some who are digitally and customer service illiterate. The web has proven to be the most cost effective method of dealing with the public. Moreover it’s the way that an increasing number of customers want to deal with councils.  Is it foolish then to curtail web provision’s ability to continue to grow as the main focus of customer service provision? Yes, especially as currently calls made to call centres are falling and web interaction with councils steadily rises .

I don’t suppose Lincolnshire will be the only council slashing web budgets, be that in development or in publishing power. Others will similarly make those chicken-licken style decisions and will leave the public all the poorer for it. That’s sad.

Having said that, just like any other service there must be things the web provides – or that are provided on the web – that are a luxury. Each web manager should take a long look at what is provided on their sites and make cost/value judgements on whether those fripperies  should stay.

British LG web sites are thought of as being amongst the best, if not the best, LG web sites in the world. And in some part ”Better Connected”, the yearly review by SOCITM, has been responsible for raising standards. There does come a point though when you’re near the top of the game, where raising the standard ever so marginally  – to meet some imagined need of SOCITM’s and thereby fulfill their requirement for Better Connected to exist and to make money – is just too expensive, and cannot, surely, be cost justified.

I would argue, especially in these trying times, enough is enough. Care not what SOCITM, in their desire to make a profit, say about you. It’s just too expensive a price to pay.

  • If you are providing good quality, up to date information via a readily navigable and/or easily searchable web site;
  • if your ethos is to be open and transparent and your web site demonstrates this;
  • if you let your site be driven by your clients by asking them to complain about a bad service or even lack of service  (remember you learn nothing from those who compliment you. It’s only the complainers who really drive you forward – read ‘What would Google do’ by Jeff Jarvis);
  • if your council, particularly officers,  think of  the web as the first method of dealing with the customer and provide the services and information accordingly,
  • generally if you think first about what the clients want, as opposed to what the council- members and officers – want, and deliver that via your web site, then you will have the basis of an excellent site – no matter what SOCITM may say to the contrary.

SOCITM would argue they have been the ones who have driven up standards. As I’ve said I lean towards agreement. However, having got us up to the top of the tree lets see how they can lead us down to more cost effective branches. If indeed you really need any leading. I would argue you don’t.

Peter Barton