Group -

Welcome to The Perfect Curve.

There are 23 posts in total.

Manifesto for Local Government Digital Services - part two

simon gray - 2019-11-06, 17:02:48

I recently attended Nick Hill’s Public Sector Digital Transformation Forum event Local Gov MIDLANDS Transformation, Collaboration & Digitisation at which I did a session to introduce and talk about my Manifesto for Local Government Digital Services.

One thing which especially pleased me about the event was the extent to which the other speakers there were sharing insight and experiences which complemented the ideas in the Manifesto quite well - to the degree that rather than simply write up the other sessions as a simple event report, I can write it up as a Part Two of the Manifesto.

So, to round up what I learned from listening to Kate Hurr, Hilary Jones, Ben Proctor, and others and their presentations:

Transformation

For about the last 10 years, the work we’ve collectively done to develop and improve our online services has been done so under the banner of Transformation. We could say there have been four phases of that transformation up to now:

  • Phase one - 1996. The creation of the first council websites and the baby steps of development they took, starting with initially with just a handful of pages and a handful of reporting forms, eventually crystallising into comprehensive websites (some of which may have been over-comprehensive!), some of which following the standardised pattern of the Local Government Navigation List. The LGNL has come in for a lot of stick in recent years, much of which is now justified, but we often forget what it was for and what it replaced - as the first experimental [...]

    Read the rest of Manifesto for Local Government Digital Services - part two.

Local Government Digital Services 3.0 - A manifesto

simon gray - 2019-06-11, 17:41:11

"There will come a time soon when for some councils there won't be a council website any more - the website will be the council" - Tom Steinberg, founder, MySociety

This is the second time I've opened an article with this quote - the first occasion was in March 2016 at the start of A Web strategy for local government. I don't normally do pithy quotes from other people in articles, but this one seems sufficiently relevant that it bears repeating.

But what does it mean?

Go to any modern council website these days, and you'll see more or less the same layout of links on the home page - at the top, you'll see the so-called Top Tasks, links to specific services such as paying your council tax or a parking ticket or reporting a pothole or that your bins weren't collected, followed perhaps by some links to more general service areas, some links which will have been provided by the council's communications and marketing team to the latest council news stories and some marketing and information campaigns they want highlighting, and a series of other links which make perfect sense to the council but perhaps seem a little random to the website visitor.

A lot of the choices for links on the home page, particularly the Top Tasks area won't have come out of the website managers' heads, they will be data driven - if the most prominent four links at the top of your council's home page are to pay your [...]

Read the rest of Local Government Digital Services 3.0 - A manifesto.

Council digital teams - have we stopped innovating?

simon gray - 2017-10-05, 16:15:41

Way back in November 2013, as part of the project to improve Birmingham  City Council's website I was leading on, I wrote a blog post speculating on a few ideas which might be coming up in the Local Government digital sector in the coming year; at the time of writing I didn't expect I'd be likely to be implementing any of the ideas myself, because at that point my project was principally an information architecture and content strategy project, we weren't at that point expecting to be in a position to improve the underlying technology behind the site. So these things which I predicted somebody else might do were: 

  • Open data, 
  • Mobile, 
  • ‘The Internet of Things’, 
  • Responsive Design, 
  • Ebooks, 
  • Crowdsourced content, and 
  • Real time information 

So when recently I was copying the old blog posts from the site for that project into this site, that original post caught my eye – in the sense that I was moderately surprised that nearly four years on, actually not much has changed. 

Let's examine those predictions and what's transpired over the last four years: 

Open data 

Open data in local government is still a niche area; yes, many councils now have their data portals with a handful of datasets on them, but they tend to just be token efforts so the councils can say they're doing something with Open Data, rather than the rich datasets that are being exploited by enthusiasts, activists, and third party agencies to do something useful with. I think it's still a vicious circle – councils are reluctant to put in [...]

Read the rest of Council digital teams - have we stopped innovating?.

Applying for a copy of a Birth, Marriage, or Death Certificate

simon gray - 2017-01-20, 16:08:44

tl;dr - Applying for a copy of certificates from your council's register office is considerably more painful than it should be. And for online applications, it probably makes more sense to signpost people to the central government General Register Office site.

A couple of years ago it occurred to me that I didn't know where my copy of my birth certificate is, and that it might be a good idea to get another one. When I went to the website of the council where we lived until I was 10, I saw there was no online process to order copy certificates, meaning an order process of sending a cheque or postal order through the post. Since I've not had a chequebook for about 10 years, that meant going to a post office to buy a postal order - and Birmingham city centre only has two post offices, meaning most lunchtimes and near-closing time the queue is out the door and down the street. So since I had no pressing need for a copy of my birth certificate at that point I didn't pursue it.

Time passes and more recently a need for my birth certificate arose - but of course this problem of having to go and get a postal order still got in the way of me stirring myself, until last week I eventually hauled myself out to the post office queue to pay £11.25 for a £10 postal order. And by this time, the deadline for [...]

Read the rest of Applying for a copy of a Birth, Marriage, or Death Certificate.

Local Government Digital Service Standard Summit, 19 September 2016

simon gray - 2016-09-19, 13:20:35

Earlier in 2016 the Local Government Digital Steering Group, of which I'm a member, held a workshop day at the Government Digital Service to discuss whether there was any mileage in creating a local government version of the GDS Digital Service Standard. Not surprisingly, there was overwhelming agreement that it was indeed a good idea, so the steering group set to work in collaboration with local government digital practitioners up and down the country to create one - the Local Government Digital Service Standard. Today there's a summit at City Hall in London to share the work that's been done so far, gaining insight from people working in central and local government in their experiences of using the standard - and an important point being emphasised that it's not about creating a whole load of bureaucracy, and neither is it about replicating the same thing across hundreds of councils - it's just about creating good digital services.

Here are my notes from the morning main speaker sessions.

Natalie Taylor, Head of Digital Transformation, GLA - City Hall and the Digital Service Standard - Building the new london.gov.uk

  • changed the focus to be based on user needs and user research.
  • Introduced an agile development methodology, with clear roles. Daily stand-ups, sprint planning, retrospectives, show and tells, and moved to fortnightly sprints with continuous development and testing.
  • Reduced the content by 75% to make it better written and relevant to the users, by proper talented content editors.
  • Got successful buy-in from senior management, [...]

    Read the rest of Local Government Digital Service Standard Summit, 19 September 2016.

UK Parliament petitions website - potentially compromised?

simon gray - 2016-06-29, 12:39:08

In the aftermath of the referendum vote to leave the European Union, one of the things being focussed on is a petition (which ironically was created a month before polling day by a Leave supporter when it was looking like there would be a likely Remain win) calling for a second referendum. At over 4 million signatures it is probably the most-signed petition in history. Or at least it would be, if those signatures were valid.

Suspicions started to be raised when somebody had a look at the raw open data JSON feed for the petition and noticed there were a number of signatures appearing to come from the UK - including more signatures from certain countries than those countries' populations! The Government Digital Service is already investigating these potentially fraudulent signatures and removing them.

As much for a programming exercise to learn how to parse a JSON feed as anything else, I decided to make a tool to make that country data human readable, and display on a pie chart what the proportion of UK to non-UK signatures might be, and how significant that proportion might be.

So the tool is at https://perfect-curve.co.uk/toys/petition, and on there you can see a live real-time feed of signatures as they are logged in the system after a user follows the confirmation email..

The first thing to note is the proportion of (notionally valid) UK-sourced signatures vs (notionally invalid) non-UK signatures, at 96% UK to 4% non-UK; i've done some checking with other petitions [...]

Read the rest of UK Parliament petitions website - potentially compromised?.

A content strategy for local government

simon gray - 2016-06-21, 12:45:57

In a previous job role on the main corporate webteam for a local council, one of my main focuses was on website content strategy, for the Birmingham City Council website; towards the end of that role (before the team itself was fundamentally changed in a departmental restructure) I completed the first draft of that strategy. As departmental and corporate priorities have shifted my original document has been changed and expanded considerably, but I thought it seemed worthwhile sharing it here for the wider community - the Local Government Digital community and any other public / third / educational sector digital community to use as a basis for their own work on developing content strategies.

It is high-level, strategic in nature; its goal is to outline principles to be followed when creating content; although there are some specific matters of detail towards the end of the document, a content strategy should not be expanded into a highly detailed how-to guide for creating content or checklist for evaluating it - such detailed information is best contained in separate documents rather than expecting content designers to read and absorb one large all-encompassing document.

Many of the principles outlined are taken from the work of others, most notably the Government Digital Service’s Style Guide and LocalGovDigital’s Content Standards, and further details can be found there.

Definition

Content Strategy has been described as…

‘…the practice of planning the content creation, delivery, and governance…’

and

‘…a repeatable system that defines the entire editorial content development process for a website development project…’

by using

‘…words and data to [...]

Read the rest of A content strategy for local government.

A web strategy for local government

simon gray - 2016-03-11, 13:38:00

"There will come a time soon when for some councils there won't be a council website any more - the website will be the council" - Tom Steinberg, founder, MySociety

Purposes of the strategy

  • To document the roles of the council's website estate and how we might best achieve those purposes
  • To agree key stakeholders
  • To state ownership and governance of the web estate
  • To plant a stake in the ground outlining our aspirations for the future

Purposes of the council website estate

  • To deliver channel shift savings by enabling citizens and others to interact with the council digitally instead of by telephone or in person
  • To promote the services the council offers (or commissions) to citizens and visitors
  • To promote civic engagement shifting people from being passive residents into active citizens, taking an interest in the council, its policies, and its workings to enable them to better inform us in our decision making and be better informed themselves at election time
  • To communicate key messages to target audiences
  • To promote the city / borough as a location for business and tourism

Stakeholders and audience

The stakeholders of the council web estate are:

  • Ordinary citizens of of the area,
  • Business operators in the area,
  • Potential and current investors in area,
  • Potential and current students in the area,
  • Potential residents of the area,
  • Visitors and potential visitors to the area,
  • Service area staff of the council,
  • Suppliers to the council,
  • The council Digital Services team(s),
  • Corporate Communications,
  • Council Directors, Assistant Directors, and Heads of Service,
  • Councillors.

These stakeholders each have a variety of different transactional, informational, and marketing needs from the site, some of which may on the [...]

Read the rest of A web strategy for local government.

Wuthering Bytes – A Festival of Technology in the heart of the Pennines

simon gray - 2015-09-30, 17:12:37

I went to the Wednesday session of Wuthering Bytes, which was called Tomorrow’s People, exploring the future of public service provision and how councils, SMEs and individuals can work together. It was quite a departure from the usual local government technology events I tend to go to in that the topics were more of parallel relevance to my usual job rather than of direct relevance – but that said it was still of use for me to take back to work tomorrow, especially the talk about Open Source Circular Economy Days. It was also an good reminder to those of us who’ve become accustomed to the unconference / Open Space Technology format of events that it’s not the format of the event which makes it good or bad, it’s the quality people who turn up to speak at it.

I’ve not written a prose account of the day, instead, here are my bullet-point notes from the sessions, which may or may not be relevant to people outside of the context of the event itself:

Kathryn Grace – Digital Occupational Therapist – Digital tools and dementia

  • Dad had a sensor which can send a text to a carer if he’s left the gas on
  • NFC check-in and check-out on mobile phones for carers
  • CareZone iOS app for logging all relevant data for his care and medication; also caring.com

Dan Powers – IOU Theatre – The role of the artist in developing technology

  • ‘As a society we implicitly understand the value of play and the imagination’ – Brian Eno

Read the rest of Wuthering Bytes – A Festival of Technology in the heart of the Pennines.

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Thinking a bit further ahead

simon gray - 2013-11-28, 17:05:14

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

Our primary focus for this project is on delivering an improved website in 2014 which will meet the needs of users and ourselves for the next few years, and which will be scalable and extensible for the few years again beyond that.

Whilst the world of the internet is still a fast-moving world, there’s no denying that the world of the local government internet is…

…a little slower! When dealing with technological changes, in most organisations which are relatively small or on which the organisation’s whole business model is predicated on the technology for service delivery it’s relatively easy for them to quickly embrace change and innovation and incorporate it into the business. But in local government, whilst its easy for webteams who live and breath internet technology as part of their working days to get excited about emerging technologies, inevitably the transport planners, the road safety officers, the social workers, the swimming pool lifeguards, the bin collectors, and the parks attendants who deliver the overwhelming majority of council services will by [...]

Read the rest of www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Thinking a bit further ahead.

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - To feature or not to feature? Where information turns out to be not as important to citizens as we expect it to be!

simon gray - 2013-11-06, 16:28:50

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

For many working in some form of communications function in local government, winter is our favourite time of year. Why, you may ask? One word:

Gritting!

We love gritting in local government communications – it’s the nearest we get to taking part in the excitement of 24 hour rolling news coverage; eyes are constantly tuned to the Met Office hourly forecast to see what the temperature’s doing, ready to push out to the Twitter Gritters the notice that the wagons are going out to treat the roads. And most council websites naturally have a prominent link to the gritting information on the home page, because it’s important, and therefore popular, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Like most councils, ever since I remember we’ve every winter put a link to our gritting information on the home page, and for the last couple of years since we’ve had the current version of the home page, in the ‘most important’ popular pages section (our place for top tasks) in the left hand third of the upper half of the page. [...]

Read the rest of www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - To feature or not to feature? Where information turns out to be not as important to citizens as we expect it to be!.

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - A usability review of council websites

simon gray - 2013-10-31, 11:31:44

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

We of course have our own ideas about what makes a council website usable – and part of the point of sharing the work in progress of this project here is to test if our ideas are shared by our citizens and our industry peers. But it’s always best practice not just to rely on one’s own generalist expertise and one’s own individual consultation work, but to also engage the advice of independent specialist experts, to either verify your own findings or alternatively shed light on where your own proximity to a project might be skewing the results in favour of what you might want them to be – this process is sometimes known as red teaming.

To that end, we commissioned some independent usability experts from AbilityNet to do some work on our behalf – a quantitative benchmarking exercise of a number of other council websites, and a qualitative focus group exercise looking at our current website together with our plans for the next one.

To summarise a definition of what ‘usability’ [...]

Read the rest of www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - A usability review of council websites.

The C Word

simon gray - 2013-10-14, 17:07:46

Over the last week or two at work I've actually started being a little bit naughty.

The webteam in Birmingham here, like many council webteams, sits within the Customer Services division of the council, rather than within either Corporate Communications or IT, like in many other councils. This means the word which underpins all the work we do is the word 'customer'.

Being frank, I was never particularly happy about us being moved from comms to cs when it happened - as a person out on the street who buys things, my overwhelming experience and view of 'customer services' is they're the people you take a faulty product back to, who spend a lot of time trying to pursuade you it isn't faulty, or the people you complain about an intangible service to, who spend a lot of time telling you the majority of their customers think the service is just peachy. I, frankly, have never been happy about my job being associated with that sort of thing.

I've also never really liked this description of our website users as customers, but it's only in the last few weeks or so I've been able to really crystalise why I've never really liked it. The first reason is one which I've shared a lot in many arenas, and which underpins a lot of my discomfort with a number of current council website trends - customer services divisions of councils seem to have quite a skewed view of who their customers are, focusing on the people [...]

Read the rest of The C Word.

I only ever use search, nobody uses menus, nobody scrolls down the page, it needs to fit on the screen

simon gray - 2013-08-29, 09:42:26

There have been many a time I’ve sat in a meeting or been at an event, and I’ve heard the phrase ‘I only ever use [x], nobody ever [y]s’ in the context of a discussion of user behaviour on the web.

It’s an attitude which is not just the bane of all local government web officers’ lives, but actually is the bane of all people who spending a significant amount of their time making things for the web, as opposed to just consuming things on the web.

When the person in front of you declares that they never use menus, that they only search, even their own personal description of their own behaviour can be suspect. All web users will have their default preferred strategies for navigating around a web site – but the point is different web users have different preferred strategies; some people will prefer to use a menu, some people prefer to start off with a search box, and some people will jump straight to the A-Z section, if one is present. It’s also the case that – whilst a casual user might lose patience and go elsewhere if their preferred method doesn’t work for them – a persistent user will fall back on one of the alternative methods available to them, especially if the alternatives are clearly visible.

Sometimes the same user will have different strategies depending on their knowledge of what they’re looking for – an expert user might know exactly what to type into the search box to find [...]

Read the rest of I only ever use search, nobody uses menus, nobody scrolls down the page, it needs to fit on the screen.

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - The importance of Eccles cakes to channel shift, or the value of less important content for search visibility

simon gray - 2013-07-31, 14:20:12

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

In thinking about the future shapes of our council websites, we all of course understand the need to perform brutally honest ROTE analyses of every single page on our sites, and likewise we’re all geared up for restructuring our websites and the content in them according to properly thought through content strategies.

So we know we need to get rid of those pointless pages about stuff the council has nothing to do with such as the history of Birmingham’s canals, or the history and recipe behind Eccles cakes, right?

Not so fast!

Both of those pages – canals on our own website, and Eccles cakes on the website for Salford City Council, are both in the local history sections of the website, and whilst some people might suggest the responsibility of councils for the curation and dissemination of local history might be tenuous in the modern era, it still does remain a function of many council library services. So you might believe – as actually I did until relatively recently – that whilst this content belongs [...]

Read the rest of www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - The importance of Eccles cakes to channel shift, or the value of less important content for search visibility.

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Current thinking about mobile device access of council websites

simon gray - 2013-06-20, 17:13:18

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

On 11 June 2013, Socitm – the national association of people working in the field of public sector online services – held an event to present their latest findings in the area of how people are using mobile devices to access council websites.

The headline fact that was revealed was that during the first five months of 2013, 27% of visits to council websites were from mobile devices – ie, 27% of the people looking at and doing things on council websites were by people using mobile phones and tablets, as opposed to on laptops and desktop computers.

Rubbish, leisure, and schools were the top three areas which people were more likely to look at on mobile rather than desktop, with libraries and housing following behind. Transport information, roads and streets, jobs, council tax, and planning also all featured high in the list of services accessed with a mobile device, but at roughly the same proportion as desktop users. The other usual high hitters were on the list as well, but interestingly parking – a [...]

Read the rest of www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Current thinking about mobile device access of council websites.

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - User testing customer journeys – it’s not just about the top tasks

simon gray - 2013-05-24, 15:38:23

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

When designing a new website, especially when proposing a radically new menu system (‘information architecture‘), it’s important to test with one’s potential users that the design and navigation proposed actually works.

There are many pairs of pliers in the usability tester’s toolbox to help them with this – card sorting exercises for navigation, eye tracking studies for layout, unstructured sessions with or without interviews to get a gut feeling for the level of success and/or to look out for potential problems outside the planned testing, and the setting of specific tasks to test participants to establish (a) if they can complete them at all, and (b) how easy it was for them, what their ‘customer journey’ through the site to task completion was.

The prevailing wisdom in the Local Government digital community, as pioneered by Socitm, is the Top Tasks Methodology – whereby using your access and search statistics you identify the 10 most frequently accessed tasks on your site, and optimise your home page and search engine optimisation around that. Socitm themselves with their [...]

Read the rest of www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - User testing customer journeys – it’s not just about the top tasks.

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Marketing campaigns on the home page

simon gray - 2013-02-20, 10:12:31

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

As well as the issue of images on the home page, another issue which has been the subject of a fair amount of internal discussion is the one of marketing campaigns on the home page.

Our current site – like almost every other council website in the country – has an area on the home page devoted marketing campaigns, such as where we promote our commercial property portfolio, advice about staying warm in winter, or information about public question time at full council meetings.

It’s part of the received wisdom of how a council website is constructed that the council has messages it needs to communicate to the public, and the place for it to communicate those messages is via the home page, because the home page is the most important page of the site, isn’t it?

We now challenge that received wisdom.

We have a number of evidential reasons to challenge the notion that the best place to market to our audience is via the home page, plus the consideration of what is the established marketing good [...]

Read the rest of www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Marketing campaigns on the home page.

www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Images of Birmingham on the home page

simon gray - 2013-02-13, 17:43:08

Back in late September 2012, as part of my work at Birmingham City Council, I instigated and led on a programme of incremental improvements to the council's website, blogging about the ideas and progress along the way, taking inspiration from Shropshire Council's Project WIP and the Government Digital Service work on www.gov.uk. The site on which I blogged has been taken down now, but I thought it worth reposting the more broad-reaching content from it here.

One of the issues which has caused a fair amount of discussion amongst colleagues internally is the matter of images of Birmingham on the home page.

There’s a strong view that as well as being a gateway to the services the website and the council as a whole offers, the home page should be used to market Birmingham the city, particularly by means of having pictures of Birmingham on the home page.

We’re not automatically opposed to this idea on principle – but we are indeed unsure about it as a direction to go in, partly because we want to ensure the home page is as focussed and uncluttered as possible, and partly because we don’t think people come to the council website with a particular interest in looking at pictures of the city; residents will already know what the city looks like, and visitors and potential visitors will always find a richer source of imagery of the city from sites such as Flickr.

There’s also the more pragmatic question of what images [...]

Read the rest of www.birmingham.gov.uk Alpha project - Images of Birmingham on the home page.

Brought to you by simon gray.

Please note! This is work in progress - if you have come across it by accident you're free to stick around, but please be aware not everything will work as intended yet. I have a To do list.