Can’t we all try and work together?

Its easy to take a dig at the efforts others in the public sector web world. Direct Gov is a good example. Its a pretty prominent shadow hanging over the rest of us in central and local government for all sorts of reasons. But its also an easy target because of its size, and the importance it has been given as the result of transformational government and the website ‘rationalisation’ cull.

I sometimes wonder if they don’t help themselves enough by not being more open about their work or answering critics. However they are quite a small team considering the importance of Direct Gov, with limited resources, and they can’t do everything.

Case in point is Public Sector Forums (PSF). Direct Gov is a particular target of theirs and I always enjoy their take on things. PSF is primarily for webbies working in local government. I know very little about their world, my perception is that they are way more sophisticated than central government in delivering e-government because they have faced very stretching targets over the last few years to deliver services online. Webbies in Whitehall have a lot to learn from them.

Equally I can only guess their sense of frustration and what might be perceived as Whitehall-imposed initatives. Sometimes it can be frustrating enough for us in government departments and we’re a lot closer to the centre geographically and psychologically.

PSF ran a piece while I was away on holiday taking a dig at Direct Gov and COI after discovering their respective del.icio.us accounts (The article is only available to subscribers so you’ll have to join if you want to view it). As holiday reading (I know, I really should have left the laptop at home..) it made perfect amusing reading. A few samples:

“We don’t want to ‘analyse’ the list of reading material in too much detail. We’ll leave that to one web ‘expert’ who we trust to have a good grip on these things, and who is perhaps best left anonymous, whose verdict on the reading lists was: “It’s not cutting edge, more catch up” “

“All the news on Google over the past months and there’s only one link, which is negative. Also practically nothing on usability and accessibility.”

But on reflection I thought, isn’t it a shame that we spend so much time criticising each other and taking little pot shots? Aren’t we all striving for the same thing, improving online government provision for the citizen? Personally I’m glad that COI and Direct Gov are using tools like del.icio.us to share knowledge with their teams. Goodness knows that there is so much to learn about out there, I applaud their adoption of tools like this. They could have kept the accounts private but they chose to share them instead. Wouldn’t it be great if all public sector webbies followed their lead and used a common tag such as ‘govweb’  to mark out information of interest for all of us?

I’m not knocking PSF, as I said I enjoy their coverage and take on things. In fact I applaud the recent initative they are promoting to establish a public sector web management group (PWSMG). Initatives such as this can only help to share the knowledge and experience of the community of webbies to improve our work. I’m involved in a few different forums but without the backing and momentum of an organisation or energised individual it is very hard to gain traction.

I’m really glad that PSF are helping PSWMG to get going. I’m hoping to attend their inaugural event in October. Wouldn’t it be great if someone from Direct Gov was their too to be part of the community of public sector webbies?

back to work…

back-to-work.jpg

… from a few weeks holiday to find a mountain (okay a small hill) of email despite judicious use of autodelete filters, and a pile of (mainly junk) mail. Still it all takes time to wade through.

Normal (erratic) service will be resumed shortly. Thoughts in my head:

- why can’t public sector webbies all be friends instead of carping?
- reducing the digital clutter
- how do you explain to customers that their website might not be the most appropriate online channel to use?

More on these, and others, soon.

future government web landscape starts to look (a bit) clearer

Its recess, quiet(er) in the offices of Whitehall than usual, and a great time to catch up on all the niggly jobs that have been sitting around in the inbox for a while. Not a great bunch of subjects to write about I’m afraid.

I’m off on holiday myself next week and one of the things I’ve been trying to finish up before I go away is to make sense of the ream of paperwork I’ve got knocking around relating to website rationalisation (or web rat as its ‘affectionately’ known around these parts).

The project has virtually become (another) full time job for me over the last eight months or so and for most of that time its all been about ‘closing websites‘ as my regular reader, and other webbies around Whitehall, will recognise with a groan.

I’ve previously bemoaned the lack of a coherent picture of government web/digital strategy. Its not that we don’t between us know what the constituent parts of it are, its just that perceptions are skewed by the headline grabbers.

But as the work moves towards identification of what information and applications should migrate into Directgov or Businesslink (known as website convergence in Whitehall, or webc.. oh, you get it..) we have to work out what to do with what will be left.

Simon D has already pointed out the problem of losing permalinks, especially where content is cited in the official record of parliament. There is a real danger that this will be excaberated in the short term as sites are rationalised – though in the long term it should be easier to manage.

I’ve been involved in some discussions about how to resolve this. I’d love to tell you about it. Its not that I can’t (though maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea) its just that I don’t understand how to explain it. I’m convinced it will work, but not being a techie I got lost when being told the difference between a URL and a URI. Needless to say, the scale of the task is large. But the approach seems robust.

Other recent developments have been a raft of draft guidance looking at what role departmental corporate sites will have in the future, improving accessibility, channel strategies, updating the government website guidelines etc etc

This is all good, and starts to clarify what we are about for the future. Still can’t help thinking we’re missing a trick though. It feels like a classic civil service problem solving scenario: issue identified, official(s) commissioned to draft guidance, draft circulated, a few comments received, then its policy.

While I don’t have a problem with that in principle (and the people doing the legwork know what they are doing) it just feels like it goes against the grain of what we are about – webbies, online experts, social media savvy. Shouldn’t we be using the very tools we evangelise about on a daily basis to harness the collective knowledge of the community and build this vision together? By ‘we’ I don’t just mean webbies. There are plenty of other interested parties in and around government who have knowledge, expertise, experience and views about the best way to do all this stuff. We should be harnessing that, not imposing solutions – however good they appear.

I’m rambling know and losing focus so I’ll stop for the moment. Suffice to say I think its moving in the right direction but it needs something else, a commitment to change and invest in improving how we do all this. Not sure what the answer is but I have some ideas. They can wait for another day.

links for 2007-07-29

links for 2007-07-25

Almost recess, but already silly season for webbies

All over whitehall, officials are getting ready to breathe a sigh of relief. Recess starts at the end of this week and that means MPs and ministers will go off on their holidays, things will get a bit quieter, and everyone can get some well earned R&R.

Unfortunately, the week or so before recess is a nightmare for people running government websites. Policy officials all over the department suddenly remember that they were supposed to have something published online months ago and they’re going on holiday for three weeks at half four.

‘It simply must be published’ , ‘It’s one of the department’s priorities’, ‘The minister has insisted that it goes on the website today’, are all commonly heard phrases from anxious harassed officials on the phone during weeks like this.

To be fair to them, sometimes policy decisions are made late in the day as ministers clear their boxes before they go off on hols. The problem is the officials conveniently forget to tell us that something might be coming our way until they’ve got that magic signature on the submission. Then insist that something must be done that instant. If we calmly explain that, ‘we are already dealing with twenty similar requests, we’ll try to fit them in but it might not be until tomorrow’, you can bet your bottom dollar that their manager will call back in five minutes insisting that their pronouncement is more important than anyone elses.

They often forget to tell us that they are also going on holiday tonight. But we always know the underlying reason.  Case in point. Last summer one of my staff took an ‘urgent’ call early on Friday morning. Usual story, the world will end if this is not published by the end of today, the minister had read the runes blah blah blah.

(us) ‘Alright, we’ll do our best, can you send us the documents in question together with the form we send out for all publication jobs’ (this covers things like metadata, where on the site it should go etc etc).

Nothing heard back by lunchtime. We called them – out to lunch. Left messages, still nothing.

Finally made contact at around 3pm. (them) ‘Why haven’t you published it yet?’ – (us) ‘You haven’t sent the documents to us’.

Wait a bit longer, call back – (us) ‘Is this still happening, we assume its not as you haven’t sent anything’ – (them) ‘I’ll send it in five minutes’.

Forty five minutes later, the email arrives. No documents attached. Try calling back, no reply. Send an urgent email ‘we tried calling you, need the documents urgently’. Twenty seconds later, we get an out of office message, on holiday for three weeks. Urgently tried calling, eventually somebody else picks up the phone, ‘Sorry he’s gone, don’t know anything about the documents’.

Three weeks later, (them) ‘why didn’t you do that thing I asked you?’ (us) ‘you didn’t send it’.

Its the same every time… Still next week it will be a little quieter.

NAO report – a missed opportunity

I’m a bit behind the curve on this one, because I could never get the time over the last week or so to actually finish it. But now I’ve got to the end of the NAO report on government websites, I can’t help feeling that it was a real missed opportunity.

Most of the coverage it received was pretty negative and although the report is quite well balanced, its inference is that government is nowhere as good as it could be in its online activity. I’m no apologist and recognise that government web provision could be a lot better. But the media was bound to look for good (read: bad) headlines and they found them quite easily.

Statements like ‘the overall quality has improved little since 2002′, ‘search engines remain ineffective’, and ‘stringent accessibility standards are not always being met’ don’t help and paint a rather pessimistic picture of how it is.

Contrast this with ‘ there are indications that government web provision became more comparable with the best private sector websites in the period 2003 – 04′, ‘they (websites) are rated reasonably well by respondents’, and ‘the majority of government sites have quite similar and effective levels of functionality and design’.

All these seemingly contradictory comments are made in the space of just one page.

My personal experience is that government web teams have worked hard to improve the technical, presentational and content side of their websites over the last few years. Certainly the vast majority of sites are a great deal better than they were five years ago. Yet the impression that the report gives is one of poor quality with little regard for standards or costs. I’m not the only one to think that government is at least trying to do the things its accused of not.

The report’s methodology in estimating the cost of government web services also worried me. Around 15% of organisations responding to the reports authors didn’t give usage figures or costs for the sites. The report claims that this means they don’t have them. But there might be many reasons why they weren’t supplied. The questionnaire could have gone to the wrong place for a start and some departments are big enough for requests like that to fall into a hole. In any case, the statistics for central departmental sites are pretty much public domain as there are regular parliamentary questions answered about the very subject.

But this all gets translated into ’15% don’t know how much their sites cost’ and so the NAO uses a very broad estimate to reach its £208 million. As a hard number it doesn’t look great. The NAO does at least attempt to contextualise it in relation to the total cost of government IT. But the damage is already done and the headline is found.

As I said at the top of this post, the report is pretty balanced and its a shame that the negative statements have been picked on. But then it wouldn’t be really newsworthy then would it?

Its worth a read, and I encourage any whitehall webbies to find the time to trawl through it. Somewhere in there lurks a government web strategy crying to be let out.

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