CMS, Better Connected and making better websites

The Better Connected 2010 report shows some interesting results. Compare it to reports done 2/3 years ago, it's clear you can see improvement.

However, simply using a good CMS does not a good website make. Sure, a good CMS will give you features, templates, nice CSS, faster publishing, workflow, audit, compliance, data management, RESTful interfaces (if you are lucky), SOAP services etc. etc. - but its content that is still king. That and also the love, care and attention that a dedicated web team gives up to their employer.

In fact, Better Connected is a very broad, detailed measure (perhaps a bit too broad) - but in the absence of any measure at all, it's both necessary and important. One of the issues with the report as I see it, isn't with the report itself. The issue is the interpretation (and sometimes manipulation) of the results.

Inevitably, there is sometimes a violent reaction (or perhaps passionate is a better adjective) to the release of the data and this is followed by long comments about the report's integrity. Followed by a score of press releases and Tweets on the headlines of the report.

The results themselves are now split into star ratings. Given that no-one really wants to stay in a two star hotel, I'd suggest that senior managers see this ( possibly ignoring the detailed data) and immediately react. Four stars and your in the luxury hotel, two stars and your sleeping next to roaches.

I know a lot of web managers and developers. Some use Jadu, some don't. I like them all. They are strong willed, passionate and resilient (I used to be one). I really don't think that getting TWO or THREE of those stars is sleeping next to roaches. However, a senior manager may have other ideas.

Like any annual benchmark, it's out of date as soon as its published - new websites go live all the time and the web changes faster than most analysts can keep up with. CMS systems get upgraded. The web gets all semantic. We start publishing RDFa and getting all excited about SQARQL end points.

Will the Better Connected report focus in the integrity of my RDFa, SPARQL endpoints or RESTful interface next year?

So the web right now is already different to the web last November.

It's a shame the reviewers are not rotated and changed on a regular basis - to reflect that pace of change, but then they know the market, they know the challenges and auditing over 450 websites cannot be a trivial task.

I've always supported the Better Connected report and although I've also criticised it in the past ( I dislike automated accessibility testing) - I'd always cite it as a unique measure on website improvement that all sectors should enjoy. Perhaps next year, the report might also focus on the Third Sector, as its parent SOCITM has.

Every year, I hear web managers stating how they hate it. Every year I see invitations to tender stating "we must be rated excellent in the SOCITM ratings - please state how you will achieve this".

The report itself states that CMS will begin to become ubiquitous and possibly standardise on a few select systems.

It is not difficult to predict that the financial pressures of the next few years will make the instant procurement and implementation of a web content management system (CMS) in a secure, high-performance environment an attractive option to local councils seeking to reduce costs and improve their online services... ...While local government websites may continue to look different, the underlying operational environment could start to become a commodity utility within a few years.

Page 16 - Better Connected 2010
Every great website in any large organisation needs a Web CMS. But the truth is, the only way you can achieve anything great in life - is to invest in it. Not just a financial investment (believe it or not, great websites aren't always about how much money you spend). No, the investment is passion, resource, commitment and drive (and of course, talent).

I know this as many of our customers have these qualities in abundance and make great examples. Sadly, because of the harsh economic climate, they are more or less devoid of money to spend.

One such example is SOCITM itself. Recently, Adrian Hancock (Managing Director of SOCITM) wrote on the SOCITM Blog about ­"Better Connected, Future Public service delivery and Socitm development­" - describing how the massive behind the scenes operation in delivering the Better Connected report had itself, transformed.

..the new site has intelligent individual authenticated logon so we really do know who you are and where you work and if you have subscribed etc in theory the system would just let you have it if you had permission to access it and it wouldn't if you didn't. And it worked as we started the day averaging 700 downloads per hour, with very few phone calls.

Adrian Hancock - SOCITM Managing Director

From 8am on Monday morning (the release of the Better Connected report), the site was "averaging 700 downloads per hour, with very few phone calls". I'm led to understand that every year before this, the release of the report was stressful, expensive (in bound phone calls) and risky (passwords being sent in the clear).

So not this year. Nor next year. That's the difference a CMS makes.

Does it make SOCITM's website the richest, fastest, most AJAXed website in the World? Of course not. Not yet. That will take time, testing and love (and more testing), all of which is happening as we speak.

The truth is that in the 18 months of implementation, 1500 working hours (over  200 working days) was spent writing the code to integrate Jadu CMS to GoldVision CRM (and that was just the Jadu effort, there was the SOCITM web team and GoldVision working equally hard) so at 8am on Monday the 1st of March 2010 - there would be dramatically less phone calls to the office. Instead, there were over 700 seamless downloads an hour.

This was delivered by a team so passionate about getting the basics right, that when it came to delivery - the site delivered what it said on the tin. Now that it's full of content, it's being tested by AbilityNet so we can start enriching the site further. It's getting new features and transactionality delivered in phases. It has a CMS, Retail module, XForms Professional, secure authenticated log-in, member peronalisation and a heap of custom features all surfacing over the next 12 months. It's the start of a wonderfully rich online journey.

SOCITM ate their own dog food, took their own pill, tasted their own medicine - so how about Local Government in general?

Let's take Lichfield District Council as another very different example. I know Elizabeth Thatcher (Communications Manager) and Stuart Harrison (Web Manager) very well. They are part of a passionate, pro-active team at Lichfield, who push things to their limits for the benefit of the people living in their district. Their site is often regarded as a fine example: community driven, innovative and forward thinking. ­

The Lichfield site has a rich menagerie of intelligent, automatically generated linked data pages, beautiful mapping pages and wonderful mashups.

Yet the same CMS also powers over 40 other Local Authority websites (and the same number in Intranets) - why isn't everyone such an example?

Well there are a few of these sites that don't have a web manager at all, let alone a passionate, semantic web aware developer like Stuart Harrison (they are entirely devolved in terms of management). Some have huge investment in resources - some have none. Some are luxury airliners on auto pilot - some are beautifully and lovingly guided by skilled pilots.

As a technology vendor, you can only provide better technology. It's the talented teams behind the scenes who deliver rich experiences. We CMS software engineers hopefully make their lives that much easier.

A great CMS alone does not a great web site make. You need senior management support and talented human beings who understand that content is king for that.

Better Connected remains a useful and important report. The level of intense (and instant) activity reported by SOCITM on the day of it's release, proves that most folks in Local Government takes it very seriously.

We say well done to all Local Government web teams who have tried hard to make things work with limited resources, budgets and senior support. We applaud those mentioned in the Better Connected report - but also those gone un-noticed. May the force be with you all.


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