Best practice for council websites – by default

The relationship between organisations and digital agencies is largely limited to that of supplier/provider of site design, re-design and build.  This has been sufficient while digital has built and established its place in the world – most organisations now have an online shop window and ‘digital’ supports their strategic objectives. However, as the concept and the bigger benefits of an online presence have been acknowledged, increasingly more innovative and creative ways for organisations to succeed have begun to be realised online.  
    
At the beginning of the digital revolution, before the velocity of change within the digital environment was yet to gain momentum, this more formal, stayed approach was workable. Times have now changed. In the last 3 years (an eon in digital terms) the rate of change in the digital space has increased exponentially and continues to do so. Indeed the tempo of change, technology advancements and available applications are increasing with such intensity that organisations will very soon ill afford to be flexible. This is about focussing on long term, iterative improvement, rather than big leaps every few years with nothing in between. Given that an organisation’s digital presence needs to be subject to a steady program of evolutionary (or in some cases revolutionary) transformation to accommodate the rate of advancement in the industry – cultural and organisational changes will need to be deployed faster and without compromising the efficiency of the change.  

The GDS
The Government Digital Service (GDS) was formed in 2011 to ensure that the Government offers the best digital products to meet people’s needs – simply how can they use the internet to communicate and improve the way they interact with citizens. Since their inception, we’ve witnessed a fundamental shift in online services for governments. 5 years ago it was about evolution – replicating offline services online, and coming up with digital methods as to how people can pay their council tax and apply for building permits. But now, because of the recent reinvention of digital towards services becoming more agile, cheaper and open – the message from the GDS is revolution, not evolution. It’s about starting from scratch, and inventing a service that has the user at its heart – a driven move away from just bringing offline services online, towards the building of native online services, which of course now means using Open Source.

The Challenges
The main challenges for Local Authorities (LAs) and central Government is how to promote the GDS’s strategy of ‘Digital by Default’, which means thinking digitally about everything from the outset, rather than it just being added into the mix as an afterthought. A further problem is how to design superior digital services, so that doing things online, whether it is accessing transitional services or how-to information, becomes the users’ preferred choice. This is after all, why the GDS was formed – to make things easier for the user, which in this case, means making the delivery of online services more efficient.
    
Another talking point is how much influence SOCITM (the membership association for ICT professionals in local government and the public sector) has on local authority websites.

SOCITM’s annual Better Connected survey has become the benchmark against which many local authorities measure their success, but it would be very wrong to see the criteria used by SOCITM as being the be all and end all. Whilst best practice guidance is always useful, it’s always more important to focus on your own users in your local area – what are their needs, their goals and their priorities? This hyper localisation, the information pertaining to a particular community, is often overlooked, and is something that can vary significantly by borough. So certainly local authorities should consider this first before worrying about how many stars they are going to get this year. 

Gov.uk
The UK’s new public sector website, Gov.uk, was created by the GDS and launched in February 2012, and is viewed as a frontrunner in government websites. Although being successful as a go to place for information, so for people who don’t have that much communication with the Government, it is still a work in progress. It operates brilliantly as a quick reference guide for useful information, whilst also providing new services and tools. But it isn’t as effective in meeting the  needs of government organisations on a G2B level, because it hasn’t been designed for strategic communication. However, LAs can learn from the way it was built, in fact Brent Borough Council based the principles of their new website on Gov.uk, but crossed it with a more communication orientated vehicle.
    
Another part of the problem, in terms of best practice, is the fact that the majority of citizen-government interaction is at LA level, rather than the new Gov.uk website. Indeed, “individual LA’s may be required to deliver over 700 different services”1. Plus, one LA will use the web to do things differently than another because boroughs have their individual processes and needs. For instance, the way you pay a parking ticket or your council tax, or how you report that your bins haven’t been collected could vary by LA. Furthermore, users in one borough may have lower levels of literary because of an ethnic majority where English is not the 1st language. Circumstances are not the same in every area. Therefore it’s difficult to define uniform best practise nationally, because you can’t compare the same set of rules to all LAs.

Open Data Initiative
A further issue is something that has come about since the Government’s Open Data initiative, which means Government data is free and available for anybody to use for any purpose and has to be in a machine readable form. But challenges still remain in terms of the quality of this data, and of course best practise in the way that data is used. This ‘grey area’ gives rise to third parties interpreting the data in any way they wish – such as the controversial ASBOrometer, an app which tells users which areas in the country have the most people branded with an ASBO. Just publishing this data isn’t enough – the Government has made the first necessary step of making this data open, now they need to move towards offering guidance and advice on how this data can be interpreted, so that apps like the ASBOrometer aren’t all that there is.

The Solutions
The key principle of a government is that they exist by and for the people, so they have a responsibility to make their processes people-centred, which is what digital is all about. For example, in terms of gathering data from citizens, the Government can learn from another key mover to digitisation, the US, where tools exist such as SeeClickFix – a web platform that allows users to report non‑emergency crimes and other issues in their area. This encourages residents to become active in the community through technology – they can use their Smartphones to post pictures, comment and vote on high priority cases. So there are opportunities to harness the data, and then use technology creatively to build the tools which can benefit communities, and enable maintenance and improvement of local areas through digital.

Essentially, Local Authorities need to build upon the GDS ‘Digital by Default’ vision, and go beyond just putting existing processes online, by starting from square one to create native online services that are best for the user. Part of the solution is changing the perception that digital is one of many ways, and making it the preferred way – something which is an intrinsic part of the way organisations work.
 
ACT
The relationship between organisations and digital agencies and how they interact, is embarking on a journey of profound change. Given the requirement for an organisation’s online presence to remain current with new technologies, an evolutionary approach to consistently deliver fast projects must be adopted in place of lengthy builds which become outdated before their even completed.  
    
One type of methodology being employed by us at Reading Room, is a blend of an Agile style of project delivery, married with a close ongoing collaboration between the client and agency, which we call Agile Creative Technology (ACT) – an iterative, unique service aimed at providing fast, cost effective and flexible digital solutions. The guiding principle behind the methodology is the use of a multi‑functional client/agency team, that has the decision-making and technical capacity to rapidly create site pages complete with UX and design components, without the need for time consuming sign-off processes. Due to the client/agency ‘in the room’ partnership, decisions can be made as the creation of the site takes place. The sign-off processes which traditionally mark the end of each project phase are reduced to decisions being made constantly by the client, and immediately affected by the development team. The back and front end developers and designer work concurrently.  
    
ACT is a methodology designed to rapidly deliver projects, whilst engendering robust collaboration between client and agency. The project style utilises the original principles of Agile – focusing on close collaboration with the client, the journey is undertaken together, allowing key design and functionality decisions to be made there and then.

The Way Forward
In summation, this is not only about LAs buying into the GDS ‘Digital by Default’ vision, but also using digital to design services that are cheaper, more convenient, and the best for their individual communities. The priority shouldn’t be on conforming to a set of national best practices, because this is an ever shifting bar – but it should be on producing quality online services that cater for the users’ needs first, and utilising the best of the creative technological approaches available to achieve this.

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