Archive for the ‘ digital strategy ’ Category

Putting ‘increasingly irrelevant websites’ in context

Valuable comment from a local government webby following my post about visiting the public sector web manager’s group conference a few weeks back.

James from East Devon raises issue with me about Lincolnshire council’s plan to turn off their intranet in three years time. I said that it was ‘an obvious extension of the ‘corporate website is increasingly irrelevant‘ mantra’.

James responds that the Lincolnshire ‘intranet’ isn’t really that at all, its a knowledge management tool with no integration to online systems or directories.

“All of that, of course, is an internal issue for Peter and his council but I wouldn’t want anyone reading your blog to think that it was an endorsement of “corporate websites being increasingly irrelevant”. I believe they’re more relevant than ever and can be used in increasingly creative ways to improve delivery of information, systems and communication.”

I agree with James that corporate websites and intranets are valuable and relevant tools. They’re not going to disappear in a hurry. I think there’s a difference between ‘increasingly irrelevant’ and ‘dead as a dodo’ so perhaps I should explain what I think it is.

For many organisations up to now, including in the public sector, ‘web’ has meant their internet and intranet sites. Companies have recognised the need to be online and responded by resourcing teams or outsourcing requirements for a corporate presence online. Those sites have typically expanded over the years; some strategically and user-focused, others sprawling with legacy content and design.

The point that Jeremiah Owyang makes is that, for most organisations, owned and controlled domains – and the desire that they rank high in search results – has been their only requirement for online activity up to now. That has to change as new methods of online marketing, outreach and engagement develop and mature.

Corporate domains will continue to be important (and for government there are specific issues around being a trusted source for information) but they will increasingly exist as part of a wider mix of digital channels that organisations will need to appropriately utilise. This is nothing new, its fairly classic marketing and communications theory – audiences, needs, messages and appropriate delivery channels.

The ‘irrelevance’ stems from them potentially becoming less important if your audience is elsewhere online. Why put all your resources into your corporate domain if engagement would be more effective elsewhere? We use this line of thought at MoJ to support our use of Direct Gov:

The corporate domain is primarily for stakeholders. We get between 300,000 and 500,000 unique visitors a month. Direct Gov is primarily for citizens. They get between 10 and 15 times our monthly traffic. Why create online content and services for citizens and locate it on our domain when the chances of reaching the very people that want them are massively increased elsewhere?

Similarly, if your staff have internet access why spend large sums of money procuring collaborative tools for your intranet when similar (and often better) tools exist online and cost very little to use? (assuming there are no data security issues of course…)

Of course, many public sector organisations are only resourced to manage their corporate web presences and intranets at present. That’s what makes the challenge interesting and more difficult – how to respond to the opportunities with limited resources and build a case for doing it.

Does that make sense?

The government web strategy – back of a fag packet version

Those who actually read this blog regularly (or get cornered and bored by me in the real world…) know that I have been banging on about the need for a simply defined and well communicated government web strategy for a very long time.

Why? – because there is an awful lot going on in improving the government’s online offerings but it doesn’t seem to ‘hang together’ at the moment, it needs an overarching framework so that its easy to explain as a whole, rather than its constituent parts.

What got me thinking about this was the endless round of meetings that started about 18 months ago on the back of the transformational government agenda. Almost without exception, colleagues would confidently tell me that the government web strategy was all about ‘closing websites down’. Far from it. But because that initiative was so high profile with momentum and buy-in, thats exactly what it looked like.

Now, as other transformational government initiatives kick in – updating guidelines on managing sites, improving search across government sites, archiving digital information etc etc its becoming easier to see how the strategy fits together.

Government web isn’t unique in this regard. I’ve previously referenced Jeremiah Owyang’s work on why the corporate domain is increasingly irrelevant. Corporate domains in government are still important, but its just as essential to understand how to integrate other online channels into the mix.

At the recent heads of ecommunications meeting, there was a discussion about developing departmental web strategies and a call for those who have already developed them to share them with the network. That got me thinking that it would be an awful lot easier if there was a clear statement – call it what you will: strategy, framework, statement of intent – setting out government-wide priorities, channels, audience segmentation etc. This would then allow organisations across government to align themselves with it and take their lead from it.

So what follows here is an attempt to capture how I usually respond when people ask me, ‘ what is the government’s web strategy’? Call it a bar-stool or Mickey Mouse version if you like. Its not perfect (in any case, it changes every time I recite it), probably missing bits or not expressed quite right. But its a start. Grateful for any thoughts on how to improve it. Who knows, we might actually create a credible statement about what all this stuff we do is actually about:

GOVERNMENT WEB STRATEGY (rough guide)

The aim of the government web strategy is to improve the delivery of government information, services and engagement (ISE) online.

This will be achieved by:

  • Clearly defining online channels by audience and need
  • Ensuring online channels meet required government standards for accessibility, usability and other technical aspects
  • Ensuring ISE is easily findable and searchable by improving it visibility to search engines
  • Providing opportunities for interaction and engagement with government online.

PRIMARY DELIVERY CHANNELS and who they are for (this is not definitive but a rule of thumb)

Services and information for the citizen, other than healthcare. are delivered through DirectGov.

Healthcare information is delivered through NHS Direct/NHS Choices.

Services and information for business sectors are delivered through Businesslink.

Policy news, publications (reports, consultations etc) and corporate stakeholder engagement is delivered through departmental corporate domains.

Stakeholder/workforce specific ISE (guidance, resources etc) could be delivered through the corporate domain or via a standalone site dependent on the size/scale of the defined audience (e.g. armed forces specific domains but smaller groups of practitioners by the parent department).

CHANNELS FOR DRIVING TRAFFIC / INFORMING USERS

Info4local delivers tailored, opt-in messages to the wider public sector

Bespoke email marketing can be used for other tailored audiences

Syndication tools (e.g. RSS) can be used to inform and/or push information to users.

ENGAGEMENT CHANNELS

Social media tools can be used for a variety of purposes to generate engagement opportunities (e.g. in support of consultation, elicit feedback, collaborate etc)

Social networks can allow government to engage and interact with pre-existing communities.

ENABLING CHANNELS

search – improved standards for site/content optimisation allow users to find what they are looking for more easily.

Site user statistics – better standards of evaluating metrics allow us to tailor and improve online channels by user experience and usage.

Archiving content – improved standards on ensuring hyperlinks persist allows users to find older content and support the government record.

So thats about it. Not perfect – I’ll probably want to rewrite it in the morning but finally committed to paper(?).

What’s good/bad/missing/needs refining?

Going to the public sector web management forum?

I mentioned a while back that a public sector web management group is being set up to try and promote good practice and share experience.

Its an offshoot, though independent of, Public Sector Forums, the community primarily aimed at local government webbies and scourge of Direct Gov amongst others.

They’re holding their inaugural event in Birmingham on October 10th. Details are on the Public Sector Forums site (You have to be registered to see the details, though not a problem if you have a .gov.uk email address (not much of a problem if you don’t as I understand it, as long as you can prove you work in the sector)).

There’s a lot local and central government webbies can share and work together on to make our lives (and our digital communications) better. But because of Public Sector Forum’s core membership, the proposed agenda at the moment is a bit skewed towards local government. webbies. I know of a few other central government webbies planning to go. If there’s enough of us, perhaps we could have a breakout session at some point in the day to reflect on issues more pertinant to working in central government environments.

I think its important that we (central government webbies) support this event, and try to work together with our local government counterparts to drive up standards and best practice guidelines. If you’re thinking about going, its only £165 + vat to attend (or 3 for £330). If you can make it, please leave a comment here to let me know; that you’re coming, if there are any central govt specific issues that you think are worth discussing, whether you are planning to stay up the night before – it would be good if we could arrange a drink or two beforehand.

Struggling to do ‘sexy’ stuff with protected IT systems

A common bugbear of mine, how to deploy interesting applications and tools (blogs, wikis etc) on our platform. That’s a tough one. Part of my role is to try to improve our online offerings to staff and the world, sometimes it feels like the IT department’s role is to stop me.

That’s not really fair is it? What they are actually doing is protecting a stable, business critical environment. And they do it well. The consequence is that takes ages and ages of negotiations, documentations, feasibility studies ad infinitum to do anything new and interesting. That of course can make simple things expensive, never mind the actual time accrued.

Increasingly people are looking outside the corporate environment to deploy new stuff quickly. That’s totally understandable and good of course. Its an opportunity to test concepts, stability and security of applications and prove their value. All these things help to prove the business case for corporate adoption (eventually).

I guess its not just government webbies who have this problem, it certainly cut across me several times in the corporate world and that’s not surprising. They share similar cultures to large government departments.

Then I came across this post the other day by Chris Anderson, editor-in chief of Wired magazine (and author of The Long Tail amongst other things).

It made me think, if that is the circumvention that he has to make to do interesting things, we should actively seek to circumvent our IT departments. To promote innovation and to protect the corporate environment. Its a win-win situation when you think about it like that!

Trying to balance real and online life

Apologies for the radio silence, family illness has made it difficult to post over the last few days. But this event fits quite neatly into something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and tried to do something about while I was away on holiday.

Over the last year or so I’ve found myself increasingly drowning in links, requests to connect, RSS feeds etc etc. The more I did online, the more the addiction grabbed me.

So I took my laptop away with me (doesn’t that in itself suggest some kind of problem?!) and determined to reduce the digital clutter in my life, and make some more time for me and my family. Every time I checked my feed reader I cross-referenced stories against similar feeds and discovered that one or two in each subject area were authoritative enough to cover the others. So I started deleting, and deleting. Until I’d dropped from over 260 feeds down to just below 90 (and around 25 of those are ‘watching feeds – software updates, feeds that reference my employer but are often about government departments abroad so get immediately deleted etc). As I read through the feeds, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one thinking the same thing.

About halfway through I realised that I hadn’t saved the URLs to the deleted blogs. Far from panicking, I sensed relief so plunged on to finish the job. Then I cut down my facebook groups by over half. Then I organised my bookmarks and kicked out over 150 links that have followed me around over the last decade.

Has it made life easier? Too soon to say. I don’t miss any feeds and am more diligent about adding new ones, rule of thumb is one in one out. I’m not sure if it saves me a great deal of time, but the time I spend online feels more productive. If I leave my reader for a day, rather than returning to over 500 unread posts (and getting RSI by pressing ‘delete’ too many times) I’m faced with less than 100 on average. This might sound like a lot, but compared to before its managable. I’m hoping to reduce it further, to less than 50, but find myself now with a rump of legacy sites that I have read for years. Some are nowhere near as good as they used to, but I keep hoping they’ll regain their mojo. They’ll have to go at some point…

Why is all this important for government webbies? As we go around evangelizing about the benefits of social media tools and social networks, is important we are realistic about the amount of time all this stuff could consume. Everybody in government is increasingly busy (contrary to popular opinion) with little time or appetite to take on additional tasks, so we need to be clear about the time implication as well as the benefits.

A colleague recently asked me how long it takes to write a (really, this) blog. I replied that two posts a week (optimistic I know, but thats the new plan – one shorter, one longer) take about an hour each from sitting down to completion (already having had an embryonic idea). This didn’t sound too bad to my colleague.

But later I realised that the writing bit is only the output from all the surfing, reading, networking that I do. With the amount of feeds, memberships and links that I have accumulated I estimate I have spend between 3-5 hours a day on average over the last nine months online. Some of this has been at work, much of it at home. In fact, that’s a very conservative estimate. How can one possibly hope to see the daylight, play with children and generally enjoy life glued to a screen? My spring cleaning of feeds has lifted a great burden without reducing my access to the important stories. Social media is very seductive at the moment, especially in government, its important to respect it and use it, but not be sucked in too far.

So I’m now writing this at a much more sensible 11.15pm, rather than half one in the morning. But its still too late in the evening to be writing…

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.

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.

Time for government 2.0

Changing of the guard at Downing Street today. A day of high emotion or long-awaited good riddance depending on your persuasion – but certainly momentous whichever way you look at it.

There is much expectation in the media about how things might change – faces at the top table, machinery of government (please God, not us this time…), presentational style, priorities etc etc.

No doubt there will be a flurry of activity for those working on government websites over the next few days if departments change their names and sites need to be rebranded (or worse still, new ones created at short notice).

But I hope this might be an opportunity to take stock of the enormous amount of effort that is going on in the digital space in government and an attempt to make sense of it all.

There are plenty of examples of departments using social media tools for engagement, Mr Brown’s campaign team attempted to make use of them too – pity they ran out of steam so soon into their campaign…, the team at Number Ten have been keen innovators of new methods of digital engagement as well.

Website rationalisation is beginning to clarify the future role of websites (Directgov = citizens, Businesslink = ahem, businesses, departmental sites = corporate / media). Better search engine optimisation will hopefully be an outcome of this and make it easier for the citizen to find what they after.

Online marketing campaigns have a pretty clear role in the mix.

More recently, better use of public and citizen generated information has come under spotlight too.

As I have said previously, at the moment website rationalisation (read: closing loads of websites) looms large in most peoples’ minds. But its not about that. Its about improving channels to customers, creating opportunities to engage in conversations – find out what people really think and attempt to demystify the business of government (with a ‘g’ not a ‘G’). It’s just that it doesn’t really read like that at the moment.

What’s needed is a clear understanding about how this all fits together. Not necessarily a ‘strategy’, but a simply expressed framework that clarifies the roles, audiences, channels and tools available to civil servants to help them in their online engagement activities.

Mr Brown’s advisors showed that they saw the potential of using social media tools for engagement rather than simply publishing online in the political arena. Hopefully this realisation will translate itself into a clearer push to explain how government should use digital communications channels in a more cohesive manner.

What should web management in whitehall look like?

At the government heads of ecommunications meeting on Tuesday – a regular get together of leaders of web teams across the government departments and some of the major agencies. Always a good chance to catch up, hear from guest speakers, and share experiences.

The main business yesterday was a lively workshop session about how we manage all our digital publication work (one department is assessing its resources and skills sets and wanted to pick the brains about everyone else’s set up).

Website rationalisation is preying heavily on everybody’s minds at the moment (this is the programme of work to close down the majority of ‘.gov.uk’ websites and migrate the existing content and online services into Direct Gov, Businesslink or sponsoring department’s corporate websites depending on the intended audience) and its making us all reassess how we conduct our business, what skills we are going to need in our teams, and how we will manage digital publishing in future. Continue reading

Jeremiah Owyang: Why corporate websites are irrelevant

Jeremiah writes a great blog called Web Strategy, its an excellent read and relevant for anyone working in digital media – though the slant is of course around the commercial world rather than egovernment.

Today Jeremiah has written a great piece about why organisations need to think much wider than their own corporate websites. This is something that I have been banging on about in conversations with colleagues for some time – in the context of the government website rationalisation initiative, and my work on how government could use social media to interact better with its customers – this article is straight on the money.

A couple of quick extracts: Continue reading