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

“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?

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.

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

Is all net traffic considered equal?

At the moment that would a ‘Yes” but Internet Neutrality is under threat!
So what I hear you say. Well consider this. How would you like your lovely and important  web site content deliberately slowed down at the receiving end unless you pay  to ensure it remains fast?  That is the threat the abolition of net neutrality poses . Sort of knocks a hole in the importance of the vaunted “ fast download speed’ requirement advocated by SOCITM and their suppliers of on-line tests.

At the moment it just relates to the wireless end but…

Greater and more informed minds than mine have written about this here,  here and here.

Would GOOGLE sell us down the river? Apparently a river only the wealthy will be able to cross?  Seems so. Google’s view is  here. And their explanation of their stance here.

Go take a look. Join the debate and have your say.
Which side of the fence are you? Will your council pay do you think?

The age of the “Git Citizen”

I was at the “building perfect council web sites” event  at Olympia today.

Interesting opening talk by Jos Creese who is Head of IT at Hampshire CC and President of Socitm for the year.

Lots of stuff I didn’t agree with but more that I did, so on balance a good talk. I bumped into another head of web service at another council who ”thought it was the best speech by a Socitm president she had heard.”  “He was saying all the things we have known for years”  she said. I’m not certain about that but he certainly pressed some of the buttons.

He talked about re-shaping council offerings for the digital age and how sites should be developed in line with customer demand. He encouraged a degree of personalisation of the sites but that personalisation should be under users control.

One aspect of his talk I agreed with was his view that  Partnership web site construction is a good thing. He said that Hampshire shared with over  1000 sites of different sorts.

When asked a question about costs of all this he said “We are not able to do it on our own” whilst talking of shared services.

He made it clear we were set for radical change which we should welcome.   And perhaps some of those changes , with sharing more information and answering social media sites,  may  increase the number of FOI requests. This, he argued, was the inevitable bow-wave resulting from such huge changes and we should be ready for it.

He said we should take a leap of faith with what we are doing, much as we did I suppose at the birth of use of the web and e-mail. There may be political issues but we should press ahead removing the silo mentality in our sites; the public is blind to those silo’s.

Another aspect that chimed with me was his suggestion that we remove the bureaucracy surrounding much of what we do – that is getting rid of  rigid policies and procedures. Perhaps, he suggested, we should allow the managers to be more in control. Hmmm. I cant somehow see UK Local Government releasing the reigns with the alacrity, or for that matter the ease, he is suggesting. Ours is a controlled society, some of that control is political, and I cant see that changing very quickly, can you?

Next there were three talks by people involved in social networking.

First came a talk by  Dr. James Munro from Patient Opinion which seemed to be part of the NHS (Not so. See comments below. PDB. I’ll be elevating James to the peerage next) with a very specific, and in my opinion excellent, intent to make it easy for patients to comment on their NHS.

The service looked good. It allowed people to post up their opinions about NHS service,  good or bad, and he in my experience, unsurprisingly, they get a lot of positive comments. The NHS departments concerned can see these comments and can reply and if they change the service they can tell the complainant what they have changed, Excellent. Really good. Why don’t we have that on our web sites? Anyway go and take a look for yourself and use it if you have good or bad service at the hands of the NHS.

Next came a talk by Jane Postlethwaite  from Brighton and Hove. She is their Social media Officer. Much of what she said, though I didn’t hear a great deal being at the back and her being a tad quiet, seemed obvious but… she did say they are coming up with a social media policy. Despite Jos Creese asking us to be less bureaucratic I would like to have a look at that.

Lastly a piece by Nick Booth from PodNosh and founder of Helpmeinvestigate.com. Now this may be the bane of our local government lives but it was an excellent talk.

Nick suggested this was the age of the “Git Citizen” who would ask the  why, how, where and how much etc. because the web has made it possible for them to do so.

The part I liked was the video showing Nick harassing parking attendants (or maybe policemen) for parking illegally. Ace. Loved it and yes it does help that it was in Birmingham and yes I am a Brummie.

Nick entreated us to:

  • Link to everything with permanent links with RSS feeds to just about everything.
  • Tag it all with place names
  • Produce consumable content on our pages
  • Ensure our content is embed-able ( videos etc)
  • And to share data openly..

Doing this would ensure the volunteers who do all this “stuff”can get at our data and do something with it.

An interesting day and as ever a little like the curates egg… good in parts. Nice little earner for Socitm though so that’s alright then.

Peter Barton