I said I wouldn’t but, oh dear.

Socitm  are talking about the next Better Connected being ”top tasks” related.

I suppose telling us what is going to be measured next year is a step forward from past years. They usually spring their  surprise of ‘something new’ on  unsuspecting local government web teams after the BC review and then tell us what we should have done and question why we didn’t. Doh!

Is this ‘helpful’ shift just that, or is it a cynical ruse to get more LG cash into what are allegedly ever shrinking coffers over there in Socitm land.

Rumours, and that’s all they are, abound about diminishing membership at Socitm. I suppose given the shrinking Local Government pound it’s inevitable. Discovering whether these rumours are true is difficult at best. It was nigh on impossible to get information out of Socitm when they camouflaged themselves with a .gov.uk extension to their name (despite submitting FOI’s)  so there is no chance now that they are fully fledged and overtly, commercial. That aside the potential to top up the turnover, by offering paid for seminars on the up coming Better Connected top task agenda, is a chance too good to miss.

In a recent blog by Simon Wakeman  headed “Shabby PR from Socitm’ a comment was made by an anonymous respondent.

Blog by Simon WakemanWhoever is behind that eponymous and anonymous David Jones comment on the Simon Wakeman blog here… hits the nail on the head and goes beyond the topic of Simon’s blog, which was related to Cookies. David Jones says:-

  • “Who appointed Socitm as having the last word in what a council website should or shouldn’t look like, do, have as its content, or even where in the council structure the webteam should sit?”
  • ….what they write in their reviews are all just personal opinions, not objective facts about how the site should be.”
  • “And different reviewers come up with different opinions – one reviewer fails a website because of the location of the A-Z index, whilst another reviewer passes a different website on its A-Z index in exactly the same location!”
  • “Are the council webteams which all diligently obey their Socitm overlords going to get four stars, whilst the councils which are implementing their website according to their own needs going to struggle to even get two?”
  • And he finishes with…“Will this madness ever end?”

Bravo! Well observed and elegantly put.

My experience of taking issues with Socitm and one of their suppliers whilst at Lincolnshire County Council showed  that comment was futile and to no avail. Those blue rinse ladies are not for turning, particularly the cloth eared Mr Greenwood who sees himself as the grand panjandrum on local government web sites. A comment given to me by a less guarded BC reviewer showed the sway Mr Greenwood has on the review.

Are Socitm simply critics or can they cut the mustard when it comes to web sites?
Lets not talk about the Socitm web site as it is now, or even as it was just a couple of years ago. That’s not what we should judge them on. Suffice to say they have never been good at leading by example.

So what should we judge them on? Consistency in measurment is what they should be judged on. David Jones highlights Socitms inadequacies at getting any consistency in what they do…

“And different reviewers come up with different opinions – one reviewer fails a website because of the location of the A-Z index, whilst another reviewer passes a different website on its A-Z index in exactly the same location!”

And that has certainly been my experience.

Better than nothing. Now there’s an accolade.
And yet…yes, I’ll give it to Socitm, Better Connected is better than nothing – after all there is little else.  But to pay so much attention to what is an inconsistent hodgepodge of disparate and subjective opinions from a group of individuals, some of whom actually run web sites for Councils is akin to believing in  the curative properties of snake oil .

Continuing on that theme; if reviewers also run council web sites they cannot be unbiased. Of course if they are web managers, and some are, and they are expert at judging web sites –and if not why are they Socitm reviewers – why aren’t  their own web sites marvelous?  None of it stacks up.
Better Connected is not a measuring process. It’s a finger in the air stab at something solid and meaningful. Not to mention the two fingers in the air to Socitm’s clients.

Some would say you only have yourselves to blame. People do not gather together to make their dislike of the Better Connected review known and they should. There is no community outcry. Why? Perhaps for the very reason the person behind David Jones mentions in his piece…

“I am, of course, posting pseudonymously because I work on a local authority webteam, and do not wish our rating for Better Connected 2012 to be harmed by anything which the Socitm spies might have read here.”

The sad thing is I believe Socitm will be heartened by a comment like that.

Is there life outside of Better Connected?
I am aware there are many who think as I do. They don’t like  the inconsistencies in  Better Connected or even what it stands for let alone the rank commercialism hidden behind the faux objectivity. Each time I spoke at or attended conferences or meetings many voiced this opinion and asked why we slavishly followed Socitm’s view.

Many particularly dislike the practice of sending reports to Directors who may be ill informed, or worse still, Councillors, many of whom have little or no understanding of the technical slant to the report nor of Socitm’s commercial push behind it. And less still of what is achievable within a large knowledge based organisation. And of course many people dislike the contemptuous use of tabloid spun headlines put out by the Socitm comms people. It’s all a bit tacky don’t you think?.
Some years ago I decided in Lincolnshire to ignore what Better Connected said. We chose to ask what our external clients want from us and concern ourselves with how we could achieve that with the information we could get from our internal clients. We didn’t value the opinions of a team of self appointed ‘experts’ with whom we disagreed. I was prepared to argue the point internally and take the flack for it. I made that opinion clear to all. Unsurprisingly we slid in Better Connected rankings. Much as we did in the Sitemorse rankings when we stopped paying them.

Web site of the year awardAnd yet despite this Lincolnshire County Council’s web site was voted Best  Government web site of the year 2011. See here…
So despite not playing Socitm’s game it seems LCC did OK. Complaints from customers reduced with there being practically none about the navigation and the ability to get to information. That in itself was a minor miracle.

And finally.
During a conversation about contradictory comments from the reviewers of our A-Z in consecutive BC reports; when asked why we had been marked down in the second for doing what was suggested in the first, Martin Greenwood said Better Connected was not a document to be followed slavishly. My reply was “then why make the comments in the first place if they are not there to be taken heed of”?
Remind me. What’s the purpose of Better Connected? Barmy, just barmy.

And remember, if Socitm and Better Connected was the all seeing oracle then their report, should you follow it, would ensure your site would be perfect. Wouldn’t that be, commercially speaking, like sawing off the branch they are sitting on? Of course it would which is why it is neither the oracle nor is it necessarily correct in its assertions. And if that’s the case…

Why don’t you see what you can achieve by talking to your clients, if you don’t already, and providing what they want – even if the results don’t agree with Socitm.

After all, who are you building your site for; a set of biased and opinionated Better Connected reviewers or somebody who really uses your site and wants information?

Listen to your clients. Listen to your real critics.

It really is your choice.

To see more on these issues search this site using the phrase ‘Socitm’

And Finally, finally.

After this little trot on my pet hobby horse I’ll put it back in the stable and return to a more sanguine level of comment with upcoming articles on Google analytics, e-mail marketing for local government and the use of Facebook in local government – though not necessarily in that order.

About the author.

Peter Barton was the Head of Service for “Web and Information Governance” at Lincolnshire County Council until December 2010.

Peter introduced many innovative elements into Local Government Web sites many of which have since become commonplace. Advertising for instance.

Peter’s background, prior to Local Government web site production  was in commerce where he started and ran a successful design business for many years. Peter has been involved in web site production since 1992 building the first sites in hand written code.

Peter’s business is a commercial venture  in on-line retail. Quite a departure form local government but a departure which has involved learning about the otherwise hidden intricacies of the web again. This time with a commercial eye. What he now has is a commercially augmented experience of local government web production.  And that’s refreshing and useful.

Peter also provides consultancy to Local Government on all things web.

Contact details:

T:  +44 (0) 1522-878135

M: +44 (0) 7712-578596

E: peterdbarton@gmail.com

Skype: V70PDB

Twitter: @lgwebman – Tweets about local government web stuff

Socitm on the cookie issue

After a couple of calls this week it seems like my recent piece here on cookie-gate wrong footed some folks a tad.

For example, when asked today what Socitm’s view is about cookies on web sites, Martin Greenwood said he was “not sure we (Socitm) have one right now” and that he had “known about it before and I’ve asked one or two people for their opinions, but I don’t’ have an a opinion yet”.

I suppose with ‘Better Connected 2011’ due for imminent publication ( March 1st) he has been busy.  A reasonable excuse for inactivity you may think. The issue is pressing however, as the legislation has the potential to bite chunks out of the business Socitm get from selling their ‘Web site take up service’ which Greenwood agreed uses cookies. Assuming of course they believe they should comply.

One thing is clear though, if Socitm pedal a service to Councils which uses cookies then they aren’t going to be in a rush to criticise you for using cookies on your own sites – until of course they sort the issue out for themselves. And given the level of activity that doesn’t look like any time soon.

In the meanwhile commercial companies who rely on cookies to deliver their business are moving, with commendable alacrity, towards compliance once the interpretation of the law becomes more clear.

A flurry in the bird coop. Crumbs!

There’s a flurry in the bird coop today. Those sly foxes at Sitemorse set the residents a flapping.

And the reason for them being discombobulated so? The impending placement of EU regulations on cookies, and their use, by web publishers.

A law passed in 2009 is due to become enforceable in May of this year. Wrapped up in a confection of seemingly disconnected legislation is a piece of ‘nut-case’ brittle just for us to crack our teeth on.

At first reading it seems we shall have to ask everybody ( everybody new to  our sites that is – and how would we know that without the use of cookies!) if they would accept the use of cookies in their visit. And of course if they don’t then they will be asked again next time, and again, and again. Barking mad.

You can read the law here… Tedious in the extreme. Best look here… and here… for a clearer view of what this really means.

It seems that even Struan Robertson web law guru ( then of Pinsent Masons – now of Google I believe) thought the legislation was at best badly drafted.

Robertson is quoted here… as saying:

“However, the problem here is the law itself. It is a shambles. It’s ambiguous and potentially contradictory and unhelpful not just to businesses but also to consumers. The lawmakers should have found a way to safeguard consumers that didn’t burden them with making decisions on complex relationships and technologies, and that didn’t set up a user barrier at the front door of every website.”

Our understanding is the ‘ambiguity’ mentioned by Robertson does not seem to have stopped the UK lawmakers from cutting and pasting the EU legislation into UK law ( still to be verified at time of writing). In France the legislators are considering the option that browsers ask the user every 3 months if they wish to accept cookies. If each country decides to make a different interpretation of this EU law then the resultant cookie soup will surely make the whole process inoperable, resulting in no meaningful change to the way cookies operate now.

DON’T PANIC 1
There is wriggle room, as you would expect from something described as a shambles.In the recital to the 2009 law it says…

“Exceptions to the obligation to provide information and offer the right to refuse should be limited to those situations where the technical storage or access is strictly necessary for the legitimate purpose of enabling the use of a specific service explicitly requested by the subscriber or user.”

That’s OK then. Isn’t it? The recital goes further, saying…

“Where it is technically possible and effective, in accordance with the relevant provisions of Directive 95/46/EC, the user’s consent to processing may be expressed by using the appropriate settings of a browser or other application.”

That’s even better. No?

(Recitals are meant to explain the lawmakers’ rationale and sometimes they’re used to resolve ambiguities. They are not meant to contradict the business end of the Directive – and this recital sounds like a contradiction. Wriggle room indeed.)

Needless to say the Advertising folks have taken this to be as instructive as a green-light. I’m not sure the ICO, if that is the authority tasked to pursue us for the £5000 fines for breaking the rules, will see it that way. Here is what the IAB (Interactive Advertising Board) has stated…

“the law now clarifies that websites can rely on browser controls and similar applications to define the acceptance of cookies. Publishers and online marketers support this approach because greater transparency, user-friendly information and easy cookies-management will increase consumer trust and confidence.”

However, PANIC, because “Cookie consent can’t be implied from Browser settings say privacy watchdog.”

Read the article here…

DON’T PANIC 2

Have you noticed how most of this appears to be about advertising and the resultant cookies? I can see why those in commerce would be troubled by this legislation but, and it’s an uninformed attempt at sanity type of but, wouldn’t most, if not all Local government web sites, be  covered by this…

Exceptions to the obligation to provide information and offer the right to refuse should be limited to those situations where the technical storage or access is strictly necessary for the legitimate purpose of enabling the use of a specific service explicitly requested by the subscriber or user”? You decide.

Clearly we are going to have to provide a more robust and clearly stated cookie policy – probably making that more visible on our site too.

As with all legislation, and particularly when this is so apparently badly drafted  ( described here… as  being  a “monumental regulatory failure”) strict compliance is difficult, if not impossible, so a strong attempt at complying with the spirit may be sufficient, at least until the legislators sort themselves out. And when will that be? (Gallic shrug) It’s Europe!

First published 12.00 Thursday 20th January.