What Localism might mean for local gov web managers

I’ve been sifting through a few papers on localism including the Communities and Local Government (CLG) guide to Decentralisation and the Localism Bill, the LG Group briefing and some internal papers which interpret the much awaited Localism Bill. Broadly speaking, Localism proposes a shift in power from central government, to local communities through the ‘de-centralisation’ of services. By way of some background, it is helpful to read the Conservatives green paper on Localism.

I’m currently working on a web strategy and I’ve  been tracking Localism and the Big Society agenda for a few months, as it will have some significant implications for local government web managers. Now that the Localism Bill  has had its first reading in Parliament, things are becoming slightly more tangible. But it’s still hard to grasp exactly what impact this is going to have on local government websites and web strategies.

This post brings together some of my initial thoughts on the potential implications for local government web managers. I’ve broken down these thoughts in relation to the actions in the Localism Bill. I’ve used the CLG guide as my main reference point. By way of a disclaimer, my thoughts don’t necessarily represent the policy or plans of the organisation I work for, or the area I live in. This is just my way of trying to make sense of what seems like a fairly significant change for local government.

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UX takes centre stage in Martha Lane Fox review

Martha-Lane-Fox, author of the DirectGov and Beyond report

I’ve been a bit slow off the mark to read Martha Lane Fox’s review of Directgov and recommendations for government digital services. The review is centred around the principle that the UK Government needs to adopt a service led culture to delivering public services online.

Whilst this report is not a policy or an implementation plan it does represent an important milestone for Government webbies, in particular those who champion user experience. I know DirectGov take user experience design (UX) very seriously and have already committed to making UX a central part of their processes. So whilst it didn’t come as a surprise to me, I was pleased to see Martha Lane Fox’s robust recommendations and multiple references to UX principles and practises in the document. In particular the suggestion that DirectGov should have more powers to enforce quality UX, becoming the:

“citizens’ champion with sharp teeth” for transactional service delivery.

The report also highlights some very sensible approaches to web service delivery, such as the syndication of content and standardisation and development of open APIs to enable government services to be delivered by 3rd party organisations. However, I am not going to cover those recommendations in this post, as they have been well covered elsewhere, by Steph Gray and Neil Williams. Another good read is Simon Dickinson, who questions if the recommendations will be taken on board by Government, citing the rather non-committal response by Francis Maud.

I have picked out and categorised the key points in the review document that demonstrate the strong recommendations regarding UX:

1. Consistency of user experience

A new central commissioning team should take responsibility for the overall user experience on the government web estate, and should commission content from departmental experts. This content should then be published to a single Government website with a consistently excellent user experience.

A new central commissioning team should take responsibility for the overall user experience on the government web estate, and should commission content from departmental experts. This content should then be published to a single Government website with a consistently excellent user experience.

2. Development of a unified brand and focus on users’ mental models, rather than Government department structures:

Ultimately it makes sense to the user for all Government digital services to reside under a single brand. The user should not have to navigate the departmental structure of Government before finding the service or content what they need.

3. Use of evaluation techniques like user testing:

any potential change must be tested first with users

4. A focus on users’ information seeking behaviour:

we should be ensuring that citizens find the information they want as quickly as  possible wherever they are on the web.

5. Centralised governance of user experience:

a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels

6. Implementation of standards that promote content strategy, usability, accessibility and user research (italics added for emphasis):

  • Content standards:  including format, taxonomy, meta-tagging and  rules for syndication partners;
  • Design standards: including usability, accessibility and  look and  feel
  • Process standards: including content creation, content review processes, SLA and partner processes;
  • Customer standards: including feedback, consultation,  insight, analyticssegmentation and  registration.

Overall I think the report is very positive, clear and to the point. I have limited knowledge of how central Government web delivery is governed and managed. But reading other posts (mentioned above) throws some light on the political implications of this review. But we will need to watch and wait to see what happens next.

In sharp contrast, local government are being asked to deliver or commission services with an increasingly local focus. The forthcoming Localism Bill will throw more light on what Localism means for Councils next week. But at this stage it is not clear what impact Government’s Localism agenda will have on the user experience of digital, local, public services. Is it likely LocalDirectGov will have a more significant role in improving the user experience of local services?


Budget consultation approaches

Following the Spending Review, significant spending cuts are becoming a reality for many public services. The issue of how to engage citizens in budget consultations to define local priorities is becoming all the more important.

Redbridge have re-launched their YouChoose application for 2010, which allows residents to balance a complex budget using an interactive tool. The tool reveals consequences of your budget choices as you change the sliders to reduce the budget in different areas. There are four main areas to manage the budget within, which drill down to more detail. For example the consequences of reducing funding for Culture, Sport and Leisure results in libraries being closed. Using the tool requires quite a bit of time and may not appeal to people who have limited time on their hands to contribute their views.

Redbridge budget consultation tool

This week Cambridgeshire Constabulary launched a budget balancing tool. It is similar to the Redbridge concept, but with a far simpler interface.

Cambridgeshire Constabulary budget balancing tool

As a resident I gave it a go and had a few thoughts about the approach.

Personally I find these budget calculators a useful educational tool. They help demonstrate how complex budgets are allocated across different areas and how the spending cuts will dramatically affects budgets and therefore the challenges faced by the public sector. They won’t be for everyone though.

Judging by the comments on the Cambridgeshire Constabulary budget tool, some people find the exercise trivial, whilst others find it useful and insightful. Other people worry about the impact of their decisions and whether they are sufficiently well informed to prioritise budgets. The comments also reveal some interesting political perspectives and, occasionally, what I found to be less than palatable opinions. But that’s what a democracy is all about I guess!

However, as a resident what I would really like to do is enter into an active discussion with other residents, politicians and the organisation whose budget I am making choices about. For me these tools are the start of a consultation and conversation. I know that this approach would require resources for facilitation and moderation, but in my mind the type of decisions that need to be made to address the budget deficit require that depth of engagement. I would like to see these tools linked into hyperlocal websites, or a platform that is designed for deliberation, rather than leaving me wondering how residents’ choices are being reviewed and considered by those setting the budgets.


Apps for good

I had a quick look at the Apps for Good blog this evening and found myself getting totally absorbed. I was blown away by the quality of presentations and design concepts which are emerging from this excellent programme. Great stuff!

In particular I was interested in how they have been using Google’s App Inventor, a visual programming tool which enables people to easily create smart phone apps. At the moment Google are only providing access to a limited audience and are promoting the app for educational use, similar to the way Apps for Good are using it. Here’s Google’s quick into video:

I can’t wait to take a closer look at App Inventor. There is so much potential to harness community skills (particularly young peoples’) to develop useful apps. But I do wonder how much flexibility app designers have with the interface design and how much of that Google have locked down. Otherwise the apps could be a bit clunky and not following tried and tested design patterns.


UX Zeitgest


Ever wondered what’s topics are hot in the UX community? What design problems are those clever UX types spending all their time on?

The UX Zeitgeist from leading UX publishers Rosenfeld Media pulls together UX topics, books and people and ranks them based on the number of times they are mentioned in blogs, reviews and other places across the web as well, as well as in UX books. The UX Zeitgeist also allows users from the UX community to participate, by nominating, to boost rankings.

I really like the ‘mindshare’ view, which shows you who are the biggest contributors to UX knowledge within the community. I don’t know how accurate it is, but it’s a great idea seeing as many people are easily persuaded by social influence.

Here’s a screencast from Louis Rosenfeld, explaining the concept:

I’d love to see a similar Gov2.0 Zeitgeist!


Learning about content strategy

Content Strategy Week

Although I’ve been involved in the design, development and evaluation of websites for many years, one area that is relatively new to me is content strategy and management. A few months ago I took over a team that supports a fairly large team of content authors (up to 300, with around 80 or so regular authors) who publish content on our corporate website and intranet.

I’ve spent a little while finding out more about our existing governance models and the support, training and guidance we provide to our content authors. It’s becoming clear to me that content is a really important asset in the organisation, that takes up quite a bit of resource. Using a guesstimated timescale of 20 minutes to create and publish an average web page (probably a woefully inadequate estimate) I did a quick calculation based on the average number of pages that are published per week by our CMS authors. E.g.

[No. pages published per week] x 20 minutes = a shocking amount of time

My noddy calculation indicated that, as an organisation, we may well spend a considerable number of hours a month writing and publishing web content. And when I converted it into a monetary figure it was even more startling.

Needless to say I was delighted to stumble across Content Strategy Week on the Johnny Holland blog. A series of excellent posts with lots of juicy tips and practical ideas.

Johnny Holland Content Strategy Week

Within the organisation I work for we have a comprehensive set of content guidelines for content authors on the intranet. But pages of guidelines can be daunting to authors who are newly trained in writing for the web and using the CMS. As the web team have more and more demands placed on us, we need to find way to reduce the amount of support calls we deal with daily.

We recently made various improvements to our CMS, which is based on a Microsoft product but has been customised in-house. We’ve also discussed ideas like using Cantasia to create small ‘how to’ videos and the possibility of setting up a content author community online to supplement existing offline groups. These are ideas we’ve toyed with but not turned into a reality yet.

So it was reassuring to see Sally Bagshaw’s post about producing quality content with multiple authors, recommending pretty much everything we’ve thought of, but laying it out very clearly into three main concepts:

  • Create a usable style guide
  • Encourage learning and collaboration
  • Use an author-friendly CMS

“With a little planning, it is possible to have great content on a site with many contributors. Dust off your style guide, keep everyone connected, and make sure your CMS is working for you and not against you.”

Read Sally’s post on creating quality content with multiple authors in full.

I also found Rahel Bailie’s post on the content lifecycle really useful for thinking about how the development of content works in the context of a web project and in relation to other UX processes.

“The notion of a content lifecycle is comforting to anyone involved in content. It creates order from chaos, predictability for content production and maintenance, and a mental model to explain content to others.

Not only is it comforting, it’s exciting for design, development, and business stakeholders. Business runs on predictable, repeatable processes, and content lifecycle adds content to the roster of replicable models. For designers and developers, content lifecycle is a tool and an extension of the user-centered design process. For businesses, a content lifecycle is a model in which content can be quantified and ROI measured—exciting stuff, indeed.

Most exciting of all, the content lifecycle helps users get the content they need, when and how they need it—the holy grail of their content search.”

Read Rahel’s post on closing the loop in content strategy in full.

I am also starting to read Kristina Halvorson’s book on Content Strategy. So hopefully after all that I’ll be much more clued up!


Engaging the hard-to-engage – Local by social online conference

On Tuesday 9 November at 10:00 am I’m speaking at the Local by Social online conference. If you haven’t already come across it the conference is a brilliantly organised online event run by Ingrid Koehler and colleagues at Local Government Improvement & Development. The aim of the conference is to discuss:

  • Using social media to improve engagement between councils and citizens
  • Practitioners: creating and sharing knowledge online
  • Exploring Open data for improvement and innovation

I’ve been enjoying some excellent threads facilitated by familiar names including:

My talk is about a project I’ve been involved in for Cambridgeshire County Council in the Wisbech area of Fenland, exploring the use of social media by local public services to engage with communities. Here are some extracts from my session forum post.

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Using WordPress for engagement

Paul Henderson has written an insightful post about the use of one of my fave bits of social media technology (aka WordPress) in our Fenland Social Media project. Paul runs through the reasons why we chose WordPress for the project, what plugins were used and how they were implemented.

Early on in the project, it was identified that in order to keep barriers to access as low as possible, we did not want residents to have log in (with user names and passwords etc) to post issues or ideas. Other alternative systems likeDrupal or Joomla are particularly strong on user management, but without having to worry about this, the simplicity of WordPress and the fact that we could use plugins for residents to post without registering pushed the decision in its favour.  The ease of theme development and re-usable skills that could be taught to community champions when it came to blog post authoring (in a familiar interface to those used to WordPress.com free blogs, often used for hyperlocal sites) all contributed to using WordPress.

Read Paul’s post titled ‘Behind the scenes at ShapeYourPlace.org’ in full. All credit to Paul and Dunk from RuralNet Futures for their great work on the site.



Customer Insight in Public Services 2010

Just a quick post about the Customer Insight in Public Services conference that I attended today. I was speaking about a partnership social media project in Wisbech, which was funded by Communities and Local Government.

There were some really useful presentations. One that stood out for me was the work Lewisham Council had been doing, using customer insight techniques to drive improvements to public services.

A variety of case studies were presented and some of the customer insight techniques discussed included:

  • intensive ethnography, leading to radical service re-design;
  • video diaries, sketching and visioning with staff;
  • cartoon strips to communicate services to service users;
  • customer journey mapping.

Given my interest in research techniques for human-computer interaction, I feel it’s really positive to see techniques like this being used within local government. Especially where staff are trained to use the techniques themselves. I do worry that the current budget cuts will mean that these techniques are viewed as a “nice to have” in service transformation projects.

In a few of the case studies presented today we learnt that real efficiencies were typically gained as a by-product of using customer insight to design customer-centric services. One Council reported that involving staff in customer insight work had increased morale and reduced sickness levels. Not what you might expect, within a service transformation project that involves significant changes for staff and customers.

I particularly enjoyed a presentation by Andres Crespo from Brent Council about their Brent Going Green campaign. The purpose of the campaign was to use social media to engage customers who had not been reached through other forms of engagement. As Andres pointed out, with access to mobile phones and the internet these days, it’s not that people are hard to reach, but they are hard to engage. Andres shared some heartfelt experiences about the effort it takes to engage customers using social media, but he also demonstrated how rewarding and valuable that effort can be.

Here are the slides from the presentation I did with Inspector Paul Ormerod, from Cambridgeshire Constabulary.


Update on social media project in Wisbech

I mentioned in an earlier post a project I’ve been involved with in Cambridgeshire. Over the Summer we’ve been trialling ShapeYourPlace.org in Wisbech and the surrounding villages. It’s a community website where residents can raise issues and suggest ideas and local service providers respond. The site also pulls in feeds from other useful sources such as neighbourhood policing team details and meetings and community events and activities from Cambridgeshire.net.

I’ve been working closely with the exceedingly patient and helpful team at RuralNet Futures, who developed the website for us in WordPress. We’ve recently made a few tweaks to the design and the back-end processes that partners agencies use. The ShapeYourPlace.org website will be promoted to residents in Wisbech from the end of this month.

The website is managed and moderated by the Rosmini Centre in Wisbech, using their existing pool of volunteers. On Friday Anita Grodkiewicz, Community Centre Manager at the Rosmini Centre, was interviewed about the website for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Anita explained how local residents will be able to use the website to raise issues and local service providers will respond on the site. Anita also explained how the Rosmini Centre provide IT facilities and support for members of the community who don’t have access to the internet at home, or lack the skills to be able to get online easily.

My MSc dissertation research was closely aligned with this project. I interviewed residents in the area and Council officers involved in the project. There’s more info about the project on our project blog.