There are 35 posts in total.
So you want to build a new council website, but why? What's wrong with your current one?
— 2023-09-28, 18:25:55
The public sector digital legend that is Dave Briggs has recently started a collaborative project, the New Council Website Playboard - a shared generic high level plan for councils to use as a starting point for their own website redevelopment projects.
One of the cards I've added to it is 'Carry out an Irritations Audit'.
What does this mean? Well, pour yourself a drink and get a biscuit and I'll tell you.
If you're wanting to rebuild, redesign, re-whatever your council website, then there's obviously something wrong with the existing one. In my experience, what people feel is wrong with it boils down to one of two things (or sometimes both) - either the technology that makes the website happen, the web Content Management System, or the content itself. This analysis of what might be called the Problem Statement often ends there - 'our CMS is old now' or 'our site is too hard to navigate'. Teams might dig a little deeper and do something of a content audit to decide what pages are no longer relevant (or outdated, or trivial...), or they might have concluded there's no way the existing CMS can be adapted to deliver pages meeting modern accessibility requirements, but often the statement (which may be explicitly written or it may simply be a shared understanding) doesn't go into any further detail.
Given the number of council websites which in some shape or form have been redesigned in the last five years, you'ld think by now there would be a critical mass of [...]
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Make a plan for the system going down
— 2023-08-30, 11:41:52
So it's looking almost certain that what caused the UK National Air Traffic Services' computer system to go down for several hours was some dodgy data in an inbound flight plan.
When the GDS Service Standard was first launched, Point 11 in the acceptance criteria was to Make a plan for being offline; for reasons I don't know or understand, when the [...]
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To Microsite or Not To Microsite, or, What’s the council website actually for?
— 2023-08-15, 18:49:44
I’ve not been involved in council website content for a good few years now, but obviously that hasn’t stopped me taking an interest in it.
In my early years working in local government, my job was as Web Communications Officer, working initially as part of a directorate — a group of related service areas — communications team, then moving to the Corporate Webteam in the Corporate Communications team. As a directorate Web Communications Officer it was essentially my job to take facts from service areas within my team’s portfolio and turn those facts into engaging web copy. Sometimes I got to play journalist a little too, such as when I attended the statutory public inquiry associated with a major infrastructure project within my portfolio and summarised the proceedings as part of the latest update on the project for the website.
One of my regular frustrations during that period was the near-daily occurrence of me walking out into town for lunchtime and seeing the headline boards in front of the newsstands selling the city’s local paper, splurging a big announcement about some big new initiative within our portfolio, and seeing that headline would more often than not be the first I’d heard of the initiative. This was frustrating enough, and even more frustrating when the group responsible for the actual initiative itself were sitting in the same office less than 10 feet away from our team separated only by a walkway and an open plan cubicle divider.
The problem of Microsites
Fast-forward a few [...]
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Information Governance and the PSNI data breach
— 2023-08-09, 07:21:15
On the PSNI data breach, it’s important to remember there’s an individual somewhere who right now just wants to find the Marianas Trench and dive into it. Their management chain, mindful of their own legal and financial liability for the breach, will be looking to shift as much blame as possible down the tree to the individual.
They’ll point to the annual mandatory training all employees have in information governance, and say it’s therefore entirely the individual employee’s fault that this monumental stuff up took place.
Mandatory annual information governance training does little to actually prevent accidental data breaches from occurring; the purpose of mandatory information governance training isn’t to prevent breaches, it’s so that when a breach happens the organisation can throw their employee to the wolves and say ‘well the employee had their training so it’s not the organisation’s fault the breach happened, it’s the individual’s fault’.
In the ærospace industry, a staff member screws in a bolt, a supervisor watches the bolt being screwed in, and an inspector agrees with the supervisor’s assessment that the bolt was indeed screwed in properly. And every week, there’s a big meeting where everybody shares when in the last week they realised they didn’t screw a bolt in completely. And if anybody seems to be not admitting to very many bolt-screwing deficiencies over a few weeks, the MI people go ‘hang on, this seems ssusssss, nobody is really this good at screwing in bolts — what’s this person hiding’. Humans are fallible, and [...]
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How about a LocalGovDigital consultancy?
— 2023-08-07, 17:14:09
In the LocalGovDigital sector, within our respective councils we spend an awful lot of money engaging consultants to help us do things.
Sometimes, the expenditure on the consultancy is genuinely justified - there's a skills gap within the organisation that training won't adequately fill immediately, because skills require experience as well as knowledge, and the consultants can provide both for the period of engagement; if the consultants are good, and the contract is robust, the terms of engagement for the consultancy will include proper knowledge transfer to enable the organisation to not need to engage the consultancy again.
Sometimes, the consultants are engaged not because of a skills gap, but because of a capacity gap - the skills exist within the organisation, but there are four people employed to do the job and there's a temporary need to do eight people's worth of work in a short space of time. As it happens, that's how I entered the sector in the first place, though it would be an exaggeration to say I was employed as a consultant!
Sometimes, though, there isn't actually a skills or capacity gap at all; there's the unflattering characterisation of consultants that what they do is interview all the staff and find out what the staff think should be done, write a report, and then the management goes well done, consultants, you're worth your weight in gold for this insight. Less snipingly, what consultants can bring to the party is a fresh independent pair of eyes - they can hear [...]
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Should the council have a citizen app?
— 2023-06-28, 18:25:34
Tl;dr - I refer the reader to Betteridge's law of headlines.
But if you have a few moments spare in your busy day, the answer in most cases is the same, however there's a more nuanced argument to the question than just a single word.
It's a question I've seen many times in LocalGovDigital circles, and since it came up again in the Slack group recently I thought it might be helpful to put my answer to the person asking the question there in the form of a post for a wider audience.
So the first and foremost question for any council considering building an app might be what is the established clear user need for an app that a good mobile-first website can't provide?
And by 'established clear user need', I don't mean "as a civically-engaged citizen, I need to tell the council about a pothole or some flytipping I've just seen whilst out and about, so that I can drive safely along that road next week". The question is, is there a clear user need for an app which a user will download to their phone (and remember on which screen or folder the icon for the app is kept) which you can reasonably predict the users will use at least once a week because the functionality you're hoping to offer is something tending towards the specific that an individual user needs to do regularly and thus an app will make it easier for them to do that thing, or is the idea [...]
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Service menu ordering on council websites
— 2023-06-21, 18:37:15
A friend this morning directed me to a link to a certain council website, which she was fairly sure had been completely redesigned recently (at the time of writing the Internet Archive WayBack Machine seems to be down, so I can't check). She'd sent it to me because she was aghast at something she saw on it, but what I saw below what she was aghast about was even more terrible to behold...
A service menu on the website home page thus:
Council website service menu
|Council Tax |
|Recycling and waste |
|Transport and roads |
|Adult Social Care |
|Children, young people and families |
|Sport and activities |
|Planning and building control |
|Education and skills |
|Your Council |
|Births, deaths and marriages |
What is this random order this list of links has been presented in?
If you know me well, you know the extent to which this sort of thing rattles my cage. In order to get myself even more rattled, I went to three other council website with a similar home page service menu User Experience strategy:
More council home page service menus [...]
|Council B ||Council C ||Council D |
|Council Tax ||Cost of Living ||Cost of living help |
|> Difficulty paying ||Bins and recycling ||Report a problem |
|> Pay your council tax ||Council Tax ||Local elections and Voter ID |
|Health and Social Care ||Housing ||Subscribe to garden waste |
|> Adult Social Care ||Planning ||Make a payment |
|> Children Social Care ||School Admissions ||Rent a council property |
|> Health and wellbeing ||Safeguarding ||Latest on bin collections |
|Cost of Living Support ||Parking and roads ||Warm Spaces |
|> Warm Spaces ||Learning and Schools ||Events |
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Generic personas for Local Government
— 2023-06-09, 12:24:54
Way back in 2016 I made the content strategy I'd written for the previous version of our website publicly available and edited it to make it generic rather than specific.
Time passes and I've decided to update some parts of that document and completely rewrite other parts from scratch; the finished version is still a while off as of right now, but I thought in the meantime I'd share a sneak preview of the updated Personas section.
#LocalGovWeb #LocalGovDigital #Manifesto
In common with standard practice in the communications, marketing, and brand management industries, content is best designed having in mind a number of fictional individuals and families which are intended to represent the breadth of potential users of the website. The purpose of these profiles is to enable web editors and content authors to have in their minds a picture of actual people with real and definable needs who will be users of the web content to focus on, rather than thinking in terms of a generic amorphous mass of ‘just anybody’. The profiles also are there to remind us of the wide diversity of citizens we provide services to and who wish to transact with us, find out information from us, or otherwise wish to engage with us (or indeed with whom we ourselves wish to engage) – indeed, to remind us not to focus on one particular group of citizens at the expense of other groups of citizens.
Whilst by nature these are stereotypical, they are [...]
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The Rise and Rise of ChatGPT
— 2023-04-28, 08:03:30
As an AI language model, I’m seeing that ChatGPT has now gone from the fun toy folks have been playing with to a tool that people are using to write full text prose passing it off as if they wrote it themselves, and I’m noticing an increased amount of people on LinkedIn reposting inspiring thought-leadership and game-changing marketing copy there. There is no doubt that the power of ChatGPT will stay with us for many years to come.
The thing is, if you’ve played with ChatGPT enough and have an analytical eye for content, you can see it a mile off; whence whenever I’ve seen what I’ve suspected as ChatGPT content I’ve checked it in ChatGPT Zero — https://gptzero.me/ — and indeed sure enough, it’s confirmed my suspicion.
I’m a full supporter of using technology to help the creative process; I’ve been using computers in my own creative work since 1985. As previously mentioned, I used ChatGPT myself to help me write a song, and I’ve been having lots of fun using Stable Diffusion, Dall•E, and Midjourney to generate images, some of which I might print on mugs to try to sell.
But I’d like to emphasise a massive note of caution to those using ChatGPT professionally; if you’re using it to write marketing copy consider the reputational effect on your brand if you’re just copying and pasting the output without doing significant editing when your (potential) customers start seeing the exact same words written by your competitors — AI text won’t give you [...]
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10 Principles for Good LocalGovDigital Design
— 2023-04-11, 04:41:27
If you have a liking for Apple products, then indirectly you have a liking for the design principles of Dieter Rams, whose work as Chief Designer at Braun has been credited as a major influence on Jony Ive, the former Chief Design Officer at Apple whose design ethos can be seen coursing through the veins of every Apple product since 1997. Dieter Rams himself coined his 10 Principles for Good Design as a handy distillation of his whole ethos.
is innovative – The possibilities for progression are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for original designs. But imaginative design always develops in tandem with improving technology, and can never be an end in itself.
makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic criteria. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could detract from it.
is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user's intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.
is unobtrusive – Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore [...]
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Making maps accessible
— 2023-03-01, 02:13:14
How many times have you been to read the Accessibility Statement of a website, and if it’s even mentioned maps, it’s said ‘unfortunately it’s not possible to make maps accessible’?
I was recently asked by a colleague to comment on the accessibility issues of a request by an internal department to put some interactive maps online. It transpired along the way there had been some confusion between the terms ‘access’ and ‘accessibility’, because when I went to look at the content in question in order to form an opinion I couldn’t actually access it anyway, because it was on an external party’s Sharepoint site protected by a login, and it turned out it was that aspect they wanted some help with.
So at the point of my initial reply to the email, without having seen the content, all I was able to respond was - to my shame - ‘because there’s an understanding there’s no real solution to making maps accessible, maps are generally allowed to be exempt from accessibility requirements’. I hopefully redeemed myself with my next sentence by adding ‘however, in many cases something at face value looks like it’s not possible to make it accessible, but with a degree of imagination it’s often possible to make it more accessible than simply not bothering, and the team would want to explore this with you before simply creating a link to your inaccessible maps’.
If the online service in question is a form the purpose of which is for the [...]
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#accessibility #localgovweb #localgovdigital [...]
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Manifesto for Local Government Digital Services - part two
— 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:
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:
Local Government Digital Services 3.0 - A manifesto
— 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.
Setting the scene - council website home pages
The standard council website home page
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 [...]
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Landing pages - October
— 2017-11-17, 13:22:20
Just for fun, as Peter Snow always used to say, the proportional landing page accesses to www.birmingham.gov.uk during October 2017.
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Council digital teams - have we stopped innovating?
— 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,
- ‘The Internet of Things’,
- Responsive Design,
- 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 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 [...]
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Applying for a copy of a Birth, Marriage, or Death Certificate
— 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 [...]
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Local Government Digital Service Standard Summit, 19 September 2016
— 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
UK Parliament petitions website - potentially compromised?
— 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 [...]
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A content strategy for local government
— 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.
Content Strategy has been described as…
‘…the practice of planning the content creation, delivery, and governance…’
‘…a repeatable system that defines the entire editorial content development process for a website development project…’
‘…words and data to
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