Birmingham DIY web site was free wasn’t it?

Iron man statue

Gormley's Iron Man, Victoria Square, Birmingham

I declare an interest here. I’m a Brummie and proud of it. Imagine then my feelings about the furore over the cost of the web site and the setting up of the FREE! DIY site by a bunch of web coves eager to prove a point.

I was disappointed of course; the largest authority in Europe spent the largest amount of cash on it’s web site and some said it wasn’t very good either. As a Brummie my shoulders sagged.

Having ran a large local government web site for the past – too many years – I am fully aware of the problems besetting every web architect / manager/ content editor etc from out of date data to “I’m just too busy darling to bother with YOUR web site” (your web site?) type attitudes of the care-less folks across the organisations. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. They have their jobs to do too.  Nevertheless content is a pain and the churn rate is so high that… well it fair makes your head spin.

I’m guessing what Birmingham achieved is a good scaffold on which to build further services and data repositories and that costs money. But I’m not here to defend the eye watering figures mentioned.

What I am here to argue is that it’s really easy to pick. Pick, pick, pick, “Oh I wouldn’t have done this or that” or the ” I could do that for nothing” – as appears the case with the DIY site for Birmingham.

Also these DIY or cheap and cheerful sites don’t have the imposed standards hanging around their metaphoric necks. They can simply ignore them. Up-time being just one of those and from what I have heard here the DIY site for Brum wasn’t exactly stable, to say the least.

In a nutshell it’s pretty easy to to talk of the impossible but doing it is another thing altogether. And it’s even easier to whine from the sidelines without having any responsibilities for the finished product whatsoever.

Certainly my experience has shown that internal critics of a site, when sat down and asked what they would do to resolve the set of problems facing web managers, suddenly find the current ( though criticised) solution amazingly competent.

I have similar views about the so called “Free” open source software. What’s free about software that requires an unspecified amount of “techies” – and they are not free – within the council to build it so it works? It’s not free at all. I heard recently of one council that used  open source CMS software and then had 4 techies developing, running and managing it + those who actually ran the site and chased the content.

So all this “free” glistery stuff is not savings gold is it?

Flack jacket and helmet on at the ready. I sense incoming.


We’re all useless. The Guardian says so. It’s the silly season.

Guardian piece

Local Government spends far too much on web site design when it could all be done for £15,000. That’s the gist of a couple of conjoined reports from the Telegraph and the Guardian this week here and here.

The Guardian drew these conclusions and figures from a piece of work by a journalist, a “datajournalist” no less, who, after sending an FOI request to all councils, ‘discovered’ councils spend money on talking to their clients via a cheaper  more cost effective channel.

Birmingham, it seems, spent over £2m on their new web site design. By analysing data the Guardian’s researchers deduced it could be done for £15k on average. So why the excessive spend?

I’m not here to defend Birmingham’s spend ( though as a rabid Brummie I have a view) but the set of questions sent out in the FOI was flawed as it allowed folks to provide answers – or not, as the case may be – which made it impossible to compare like with like.

The Guardians conclusions  seemed to depend on how much we each spent on external suppliers. If you didn’t use one then it showed your costs as nil. And if you did… well the slewed results are obvious.
No mention was made, because the question wasn’t asked, of how much was spent internally on staff to design, construct and manage the site (not the content). I heard recently of a council who has 5 full time members of staff working on their site and developing it to meet changing needs. That has to be £125,000 a year in anybody’s money.

Telegraph piece

Telegraph piece

This shows  it’s simply not possible to compare Apples with Apples from the data collected. Comparisons can be made but will be flawed.

It got worse as  inaccuracies in the way the data was used became evident. For Example the data provide by my own council showed a cost of new web site design (one of the questions asked) as being about 18p per head of population. The guardian declared it as being £1.11 per head using  a population of over 1million. We don’t have a population of over a million, let alone that sort of budget. I thought journalists, especially data ones, checked their facts. To get the facts wrong and then to compound that with arithmetical errors is simply sloppy. All they had to do was divide the amount of spend by the population.

Our comm’s department complained to the Guardian so they corrected the offending figure. To £18.20. What!

Our comm’s department complained again and this time the Guardian, after much red faced appologies, got it right. I wonder how much of the manipulation of others data was similarly mishandled?

I’m not against FOI requests per se. They do lend a transparency to the processes in Local Government which should be welcomed but when they are used in such a confusing, dogmatic, and yet, inept manner I find it difficult to defend their use; and indeed defend the masses of time spent on making the replies.

Looking at the gaps in the Guardian’s listings; surely the real story is how many Local Authorities didn’t answer the FOI at all. That would be 96%.  No.09%. Argh… I give up. I’ll leave you to work it out for yourself in true Guardian style.

One comment on the Guardian page seems to grasp the issues we face



17 Aug 2010, 12:58PM
This information is not only wrong, it is very missleading – the results of FOI questions that were not specific and the answers to which have been adapted and false representation has resulted in wrong details being printed.

Local authorities have to follow very strict rules on use and access to all, accessability guidelines are among the toughest in the world in the UK for authorities.

To display the hoem made site for Birmingham council as being cheaper and better value is wrong, a simple look at the site shows errors all over, a poor amaturish look and not developer skill anywhere. There is no usability, accessability or user experience considerations at all…
The site has 3 errors making this site at present illegal under DDA laws and would be served a 90 day penalty notice to close. Newspapers seem to liek to glamorise facts and figures, but the wrong ones.

As a designer/developer I am fully aware of these laws and considerations that MUST be taken daily by LA web staff.

Local Authority websitea have the widest target audience anywhere – everyone!
The laws in place make it a requirement to develop and redesign sites on average every 3 years -this is never mentioned!

Why not print the truth and the reallity of this?


I have only a miniscule amount of knowledge of publisher  websites but from the little I know perhaps I could suggest these journalists discover how much their own sites cost to design construct and manage before taking a shot at a sector which probably ‘talks’ meaningfully  to more people on a daily basis than the whole of the sites in the newspaper sector. If they were to do that they may begin to put local government spending on web sites into perspective, but of course that wouldn’t sell newspapers.

Lets turn off the web

p.s for a considered look at how spending on Local Government web sites benefits councils and their clients  take a look here.