Building The Perfect Council Website 2009: Visions of the Future

To have visions of the future, you have to see whats happening now...

Two workshop sessions and a closing presentation (that blew the projector up) later, I'm left wondering about the challenges of lifting the barriers for Social Media in Government and opening up data to deliver a more semantic web.

It was astonishing to see how many Local Authorities have ado­pted Twitter and YouTube (as current examples of social media platforms). However, it was also interesting to still hear the usual tales of: ­
  • IE6 - the 10yr old browser is still the biggest barrier to progress right up there next to...
  • Blocked at the firewall - everything from Twitter to YouTube is unavailable
  • Who owns Social Media?
  • Comms vs I.T - the war of web 'ownership'

I ran two sessions and spoke at the end of the day about 'Visions of the Future - The Semantic Web'. Now, I had 10 minutes to say rather a lot in the presentation so I had to miss out a lot of important detail. I focused instead on data sharing and publishing the rich data that Local Authorities hold in back office systems. This is a subject on which Sir Tim-Berners Lee has a lot of important things to say. You can Google the subject and find a lot of useful resources.

Here is my experience of t­he third annual Perfect Council Websites conference:

Workshop #1: Social Media engagement.

I had some really nice people in this session - but it was hard to get past the challenges that stop engaging in social media at the outset - here were the main points raised at the table:

  1. Most of the folks around the table were barred from using Social Media web applications at the firewall. They can't see YouTube (some could see it but only at lunch time!) and Twitter was totally out. How do you engage in something you can't access?
  2. Cultural issues. Some Council Senior Managers just don't see the benefit.
  3. Political issues.
  4. The battle between IT and Comms (in some cases it's comms pushing for Social Media, in others it's Comms resisting and visa versa for IT).
  5. Security (of data, content, governance...)

One authority had a successful campaign tweeting election results, which prompted Councillors to follow and join-in the conversation. In fact, the effort was noted by the Guardian.

Brighton and Hove - an excellent example of a forward thinking Council now have over 500 followers on Twitter and tweet 2/3 times a day! They also use Yammer internally and are doing a great job (trailblazing authority methinks). eGovernment Bulletin recently did an interview with Brighton and Hove using Yammer for internal Social Networking.

One of the group raised the important issue of authenticated accounts - how do you know the Twitter account is authentic (Twitterjacking). We discussed the importance of a Council claiming its account and using it as a deterrent to counterfeiters (i.e. if you use it and ensure the Council has a strong presence, your less likely to be Twitterjacked and if you were, you could easily put out a statement - on Twitter - as a counter measure).

(Twitter are also creating 'Authenticated Accounts' to help fight this issue).

Another real issue was policing tweets. How do you workflow tweets? (Your CMS is (or should be) a good starting point!)

One of the real conversation starters was one of ownership. In some cases, more traditional communications teams are proving to be a barrier to new Social Media, and their primary focus is on print based 'press releases'.

The Golden Nugget

One very interesting idea came from a Local Authority who are partnering with a digital agency to help them manage their Social Media channels and strategy. This on the surface sounds odd, but if you look at the real issues (some of which are above) this quickly becomes quite an intelligent solution.

The point here is, that the Council may not be able to move as quickly, so whilst policies and ownership are being established, let someone who 'gets it' manage it until the organisation is ready to take it on. This also provides the opportunity to prove the case for Social Media engagement and Editorial Policy / Guidelines (thanks to WebYogi for this great blog post collecting all these examples).

Obviously, this approach carries a cost in time and resources - but in many ways, there is also several costs to not engaging.

round table 1Thanks to Vivienne, Emma, Geoff, Chris, Gavin, Stuart, Dave, Rob, Hazel, Mel and Alison (hopefully I haven't missed anyone!).

Workshop #2: The Top Tasks.

On the agenda it was called "Happy Landing Pages". The intention was to discuss task based landing pages (this was also the subject of an engaging presentation later on by Gerry McGovern). Once again I was lucky enough to have a group of intelligent web / project managers who knew their councils and their stuff. The hour went by so fast I barely got time to capture these great ideas for tasks you should be able to perform on a landing page.

As well as the usual landing pages (some of which are listed below), there were a number of other neat ideas for what could be useful entry points:

/Bins, /CouncilTax, /TideTables (as in coastal tide), /FamilyHistory,  /planning, /birthcerts, /schooladmissions

We also discussed the SEO properties of landing pages. It's very common for users to come into a website from Google or another search engine and completely bypass the homepage. Aa sense of place is therefore very important. Google indexes more relevant pages by the way they are structured and this includes the URI.

Here follows the output:

/Planning

  • View and search planning applications
  • Pay for planning applications
  • Object/Comment/ Track planning applications
  • View Decisions by Postcode
  • View appeals
  • View/search diary of meetings
  • Download planning applications, maps and plans.


/Jobs

  • View all jobs at the council (and possibly in the community)
  • Search for a Job
  • Sign up for an email alert
  • Apply for jobs

/Haveyoursay

  • Easy access to comments and complaints
  • Use Social Media (i.e. Twitter)
  • Publish updates to latest consultations
  • Publish statistics and feeds from local news (encourage people to feedback)

/Payments

  • All payments
  • Libraries
  • Buy Images
  • Parking Fines
  • Book Events
  • Phone numbers (in case the user cant pay for what they want)
  • Personal account page (last sign in, balance checking etc.)

It was clear that this was a subject we could spend a few hours talking about, coming up with some great ideas along the way.

Finally, to close the session, we made a list of 10 things to do (in no particular order) - to make our sites more focused on tasks:

  1. Highlight key tasks (as above)
  2. Improve the use of language - reduce and simplify
  3. Set expectation (every click carries an expectation for the user)
  4. Ask users for feedback and ideas - "was this page useful? How can it be improved? i.e. Manage content better
  5. Personalisation with meaning for the user (have drag and drop widgets - but target them based on tasks and not facebook logins, Google Mail or other such gadgetry) (i.e. use a 'search applications by postcode' widget on your planning landing page - not the homepage)
  6. Ask users where they want to go - i.e. signpost
  7. Maximise the power of your search system (learn it features and use them) - then have focused search (i.e. search in this section)
  8. Use Social Media appropriately on your landing pages  (Twitterplan.com is a great example of a widget you can add on your planning pages)
  9. Include news specific to the subject of the landing page
  10. Always use a friendly URL and promote that URL everywhere relevant.

round table 2Thanks to Alison, Jason, Rob, Cathy, Dave, Adrian, Simon, Kath, Ian, Alison, Alison, Melanie, Adam and Neil.

"Fix the Basics"

After this session finished, I didn't get the opportunity to film Gerry McGovern, but his presentation on Top Tasks was really very engaging and relevant.

One of the points he made superbly, was the three things people feel pain over when using a website (in general) 1. Search 2. Navigation and 3. Freshness (or the lack of it):

Visions of the Future

There were three closing presentations - The 3D Web, The Semantic Web / Web .3.0 and Mobile Web.

I sadly missed recording Brian Gordon's, (Project Manager, Tangent) Mobile Web presentation - but a friend did manage to capture mine and Brendan Neville's, (Chairman, Lateral Visions) on 3D Web. You can see Brendan's presentation in the full video.

For those that missed the event the projector blew its mind right in the middle of the presentations. As well as causing an unexpected 10 minute break (and some frantic scrambling to re-save my slides as PDF), it enabled me to tweet some links in the rather long, uncomfortable pause while the AV guy searched for a new projector. He returned in super quick time for me to continue:

­And finally, you can see the event in images in the Gallery. The 1 hour long movie of the event (including intro plenary sessions) - is here:

Perfect Council Websites 2009 from Jadu on Vimeo.

I wonder what adoption will be like for Social Media in UK Government next year when we see everyone again at this event. Final thought on Perfect Council Websites - "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission" Grace Hopper.


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There are 3 responses to “Building The Perfect Council Website 2009: Visions of the Future”

  1. Paul Irvine Says:

    I find it interesting that the conversation around 'social media' is still one of "Comms vs I.T - the war of web 'ownership'", a question which, in my opinion, is the wrong question to be asked.

    Social media is all about conversations, it is - or it should be - about the business talking to its customers, so perhaps the question should be one of ... who is going to break down the barriers, often imposed by the ICT department, that exist between the business and their customers?

  2. Lee Pilmore Says:

    Following on from Paul's comment, the ownership of social media is a timely reminder of problems still facing many large organisations regarding their web presence in general. The Comms vs IT debate reminded me an article by J. Zeldman, which I read back in 2007 but to this day I think it's a pertinent observation.

    See: http://www.zeldman.com/2007/07/02/let-there-be-web-divisions/

    Some organisations have taken this problem by the scruff of the neck and forced change and so should be better prepared to adopt and acclimatise to 'social media' with much more grace.

  3. Michele Ide-Smith Says:

    I really liked Will Perrin's suggestion on how to break down organisational barriers when it comes to social media. He suggested taking screenshots of the "conversations" people are having about your organisation online and showing them to senior managers. I have found this a really effective method for changing perceptions in just 1 week.

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