Archive for July, 2007

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.

links for 2007-07-18

links for 2007-07-17

Government websites ‘too complex’ says the NAO

The BBC reports on a new National Audit Office review of government websites commenting;

‘many government websites are still too complicated and difficult to use’.

Haven’t seen the report itself yet, its not available on the NAO website at the time of writing. But it will be interesting to see them expanding on the following reported points:

  • Nearly 25% of departments do not know who is using their sites, or how much they cost.
  • Most people only knew a few key sites and tended to use “transactional services” once or twice a year.
  • Some sites are difficult to use, too “text-heavy” and filled with policy material that irrelevant to the visitor.
  • The average central government site has 17,000 pages yet most of their search engines “often fail to work satisfactorily”.
  • The Directgov and Business Link “super-sites” were popular with the NAO’s focus groups, who found they were “laid out clearly”. However few knew about them beforehand, and some felt the name Directgov was difficult to remember.
  • Up to a third of government websites may not meet standards for disabled or visually impaired people while, of the 3,400 forms available to download, only one in eight could be filled in and returned online.
  • Government websites have “improved slightly” between 2001 and 2006 in terms of quality, and about a tenth of all government sites had made “major improvements,” but one in six sites had got “significantly worse”.

That sounds like a damning indictment. I’m surprised by the findings, and would be surprised if its as bad as painted – though of course its better not to draw conclusions until you’ve actually read the report.

The importance of conversing and knowing when to let go

Its been a busy last week or so, away from my day job and participating in what is effectively a peer review of others’ work.

During that time I have made a couple of observations that I thought would be worth sharing.

First, I was spent a good few hours at Policy Unplugged‘s excellent summer party last week (thanks for the invite Steve!) where I was able to hook up with a few bloggers whose postings I regularly read, some of whom I hadn’t actually met before. The opportunity to speak together rather than correspond via comments or emails was instructive: these are people whose thoughts I follow avidly but, they are individuals who just happen to have built up a following by virtue of the medium they share their thoughts through.

It brought home to me the importance of dialogue. As government begins to come to terms with social media its important we webbies remember, and promote to our superiors, the real benefits – creating and sustaining conversations with real people rather than broadcasting via corporate websites. Whilst there is a place for the latter, it is the former that can create real opportunities.

Second, the programme I was helping to review is creating a new organisation (as the result of legislative change) that will launch at the beginning of October. Both groups of people making it all happen, the team administering the programme and the team managing the new organisation, are excellent, high calibre people who have done a great job.

But as handover approaches it is clear that is difficult for those who have been involved in running the programme over the last few years to let go of ‘their’ baby. Equally, the team running the new organisation resent the interference of their ‘parents’ as they chomp at the bit to get one with making their plans reality.

Its a natural and understandable situation they find themselves in. I’m equally sure it will all work out fine once the handover is complete.

But there are also parallels to my work. It is easy to mistrust others to produce the goods in the way you think they should be done. But that is missing the value that individuals bring to solving problems. Whilst its important to create a framework and set expectations in online communications, control in a user generated environment is pretty much impossible. You have to trust users to produce in the way that they think is best.

Striking the balance between organisational, corporate messaging and meaningful conversational engagement is a tall order for any organisation, not just government. But that is the real challenge.

away gateway reviewing

Been a bit quiet in the last week while I was preparing for, and now participating in for the next few days, a gateway review. Nothing anything like as exciting or as high profile as this kind of thing I’m afraid to say. Nor anything to do with webby work but a run of the mill organisational change programme.

Its a good opportunity to spend a few days out of the office observing how others conduct their work, learn from them and hopefully give suggestions about how they can do their work better.

Normal service will hopefully be resumed towards the end of the week.

Number 10’s Jimmy gets web recognition

Congratulations to Jimmy Leach, Number 10‘s head of digital communications, for snagging New Media Age‘s annual effectiveness award for the ‘greatest individual contribution to the UK new media industry in the past 12 months’.

This is due recognition for the innovation that Jimmy has introduced since arriving at Downing Street last autumn. Under his leadership the likes of podcasts, webchats, YouTube videos and – yes – online petitions have become regular fixtures on the prime minister’s website.

The awards special isn’t online yet, but just look at the rollcall of other nominees in this article back in May: beating Andy Duncan of Channel 4 and James Murdoch from BSkyB isn’t too shabby in anyone’s book!

Well done for raising the profile of government online communications within the industry.

Update: the citation is here