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Council digital teams - have we stopped innovating?

simon gray 2017-10-05, 16:15:41
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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 the extra effort required to publish more datasets in an open format without any indication of the value of doing so, and third parties aren't coming up with ideas of what can be done with that data because they don't think councils are going to give it to them anyway. There's not a lot of interesting work which can be done with a dataset containing the list of chief officers' salaries published as a .csv on an open data portal that can't be done just with the text of that information on a web page, and indeed the idea that was expressed in 2013 about presenting the website as XML as well as HTML so somebody else can easily scrape the content to produce a microsite from it was an idea which seemed good in the meeting it came up in, but I guess now, yeah, why? I still want to see my idea of a mash-up of housing allocations data with school places data so that people affected by the bedroom tax can find a new house in a place where there's room to send their children to school. Councils and the Open Data Community still need to do more work together to build mutual trust to come up with some really useful innovative work in this regard. 


Back in 2014, mobile access was seen as a done deal for council websites. I think it's fair to say that pretty much most major council websites, even if they had good mobile usability in 2013 have improved their mobile usability by 2017; mobile-first as a strategy is fairly firmly embedded into most local government website designs. What I've still not seen yet is anything acknowledging that some tasks might well be best started in the mobile domain but completed in a desktop environment, so users can hand off a process part way through from one device to another. And we're still not really seeing anything which actively takes advantage of a mobile platform – mobile on a council website is basically still just putting the council website on a small screen, with (hopefully) bigger text so people can still read it. 

The Internet of Things 

To be fair on this, over the last four years IoT has become a bit of a dirty word; Just because Tim Berners-Lee had it as thing he wanted to push, that doesn't mean it's automatically a good idea. No, there's really no point at all in putting your kettle or your toaster on the internet, and I still don't quite see the point of central heating being on the internet myself, although I have friends who swear by it. Lichfield District Council's project to put QR codes on their street assets to aid reporting has been all but abandoned, partly because the person who was leading on it moved on to another job. Self-reporting broken street lights? There actually has been quite a bit of work done on these, although right now the technology is still a bit flaky. 

Responsive design 

Responsive design is still overwhelmingly limited to fitting the website into a smaller screen, but I still don't see any layouts which change to accommodate bigger screens. Again, to be fair on this for most council websites there's probably not that much more which can be usefully done to change the layout to take advantage of a bigger window; websites have largely settled into a two or three column layout mainly I think because there's not much content or navigation chrome which can usefully be shuffled into a fourth, fifth, or sixth column should one become available. But I still think there's scope for the other kinds of responsiveness – content which changes according to time of day, or according to the user's location, or according to the weather. 


The Amazon Kindle is still pretty much the number one platform for eBook delivery, whether that's on a dedicated Kindle device or using the Kindle app on a mobile phone; this is one of the few areas in which Apple's attempt to barge in to an existing market and claim to be innovating hasn't washed with the general consumer. 

The pilot I did back then was just a simple compilation of a section of the website's content (the history of Birmingham's canals) into .mobi and .epub formats for all eBook readers – but what I was most interested in at that time was the possibility of making use of the specific feature of the Kindle format, whereby publishers can update a book's content and those updates will be pushed out automatically to people who've bought the book. At the time I didn't have any clear ideas in my head about what this could be used for, but subsequently the obvious areas could be news and blog content, very much a mainstream area of local government communications now, which has Amazon now has a specific Kindle Periodical format for, and, say, automatically updating minutes of meetings for the civic-minded section of the population. And there's almost certainly more fertile ground to explore in this area. 

Crowdsourced content 

There's still not much being done in this area, mainly limited to comments on blog posts. With the passage of time, I'd put this as being one of those 'nice to have' things – but as well as being limited by the web CMS technology in use, it's a thing which is going to be more limited by available staff time to moderate contributions by members of the public. And available staff time is unlikely to increase in local government during the forseeable future... 

Real-time information 

We do see webcams showing the queue to the council tip on a few websites now! Car park RTI is probably going to be limited by the infrastructure investment which may be needed to connect the car park available spaces sign to an API to feed into the website, coupled with questions about the value of presenting that information on the website (and how would a driver access that information in real time whilst driving around looking for a parking space anyway?). Is there any other RTI which could be easily and cheaply presented which would have real value to the user? 

So, have we stopped innovating? 

It was with my review of that old article in mind that at #localgovcamp 2017 in Bristol, I initiated a session with the provocation: Has the local government digital sector stopped innovating? 

A fairly provocative accusation to put before my #localgovdigital peers, so when the session started I was simultaneously pleased (because it meant I wasn't going to get lynched) and disheartened that the response in the room was 'yes, we've stopped innovating'. So we then went on to consider some of the reasons for that: 

  • Innovation could have stopped simply because we actually did all the easy stuff years ago - we've now got harder stuff to do, which might be costlier and take longer to deliver, 

  • Because of budgetary constraints we're much more risk-averse - and innovation is inherently a risk. Everything you do has to be justified in advance with predicted costs and predicted ROIs, 

  • In many organisations, people who are doing the innovating are engaged on a task-and-finish basis for a specific project, so they get seen as completing a job and then being moved somewhere else entirely - they don't get to stay on to carry on doing more work, 

  • 'What do we actually mean by being innovative anyway?', 

  • We're still hampered by rubbish procurement contracts which tie us in to sub-standard vendor-supplied products where making changes are at best prohibitively expensive and at worst impossible, 

  • The increasing attitude in the sector that we aim to buy off-the-shelf with no scope for customisation anyway regardless of whether or not the products on the shelf actually fully meet our requirements, 

  • Even before contract stage, the procurement selection process is stacked against small-scale companies who are delivering innovative products - one company built a system to do bin lorry tracking at a total cost of £50k using cheap, modern, ubiquitous hardware such as phones and tablets, competing against large companies charging £500k for an inferior product using older, clunkier hardware - they're still having difficulty breaking into the market because of being seen as too cheap or too small, 

  • We've taken 'delight' out of the user experience, 

    • OK, it might be easy to make Adoption and Fostering or Leisure content delightful to use - how do you make paying your parking fine delightful? Maybe if finding information about parking in the first place was more delightful, maybe people would have fewer parking fines! How do you make reporting a pothole delightful? Many councils have PFI contracts for road repairs requiring users to give more details about the size and depth of a pothole, usually in relation to pound coins and various sports balls. Ideally we'd negotiate these arbitrary questions out of the contracts (since the experience of a number of councils with these contracts is the contractors ignore them anyway), but if we must have them, graphical representations of the size and locations on the form are at least more engaging than just the words – especially if those graphical representations allow the user to place the pothole accurately on a graphical representation of the part of the road it's located, 

  • And when your digital team – and all the service delivery teams it interacts with - is half the size it was five years ago, you've just about got time to deliver basic functionality, never mind delivering enhanced and refined delightful versions of that basic functionality, 

  • Many councils now operate Internal Recruitment First policies, where in order to mitigate against compulsory redundancies all effort has to be made to fill vacancies internally, even if an applicant is less suited to a job. It's good that councils continue to try to mitigate against compulsory redundancy, but if councils can only re-employ their own existing staff it does somewhat stifle the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Even if IRF policies were broadened to allow vacancies to be filled by people working for different councils that would be a massive improvement, 

  • Where are the successes and innovations celebrated and publicised? There doesn't seem to be a central repository where we can share what we've done to inspire each other. This is something which the Local Government Digital Steering Group could help with, 

  • With success comes scrutiny and other pressure – one council's website improvement plan started off as a skunkworks, where they had free reign to do what they wanted - but then when they started having their successes as they were releasing, they then started to get noticed by senior management and then expected to deliver to targets and deliver according to other priorities rather than what made sense to them to deliver next according to their own plan. 

As were coming to the end of the session, one participant posed a couple of further provocations:

  • Have we actually done any real innovation in the first place yet at all? 

  • Why would people with cool crazy ideas of great things we could do want to work in a command and control environment where the overriding culture is one of fear and backstabbing anyway? 

And a possible solution was offered: 

  • Why not actually do away with job titles and job descriptions? Recruit people who seem like they have something to offer the organisation - and then see what they can best do, rather than the other way round of recruiting to job titles. 

What next for innovation? 

With all that aside, what might be just around the corner (ie, still not ubiquitous after another four years...) in the local government digital sector? Aside from the areas on my original list which I still think have possibilities for investigation, there are a few more things which currently interest me outside the council world which I think offer possibilities for us: 

Virtual Reality 

Webcasting council meetings is now commonplace; whilst people don't exactly watch a council meeting as an alternative to watching The One Show, there's general agreement that this has been a good thing overall, especially with the weakening of the local mainstream news media sector over the last five years to keep us under proper public scrutiny and hold us to account, and viewing figures for many meeting webcasts are reasonably respectable. 

A step further than a simple webcast could be the casting of a select few council meetings in virtual reality – cameras to film and stream virtual reality are inexpensive, a couple of hundred pounds at most, and virtual reality footage doesn't need an expensive Oculus Rift or HTC Vive to be viewed, it can work just as well in a Google Cardboard headset costing just a few pounds, or a slightly more luxury experience such as Google Daydream View for a price which isn't bank-breaking; and you can still watch VR content on an ordinary phone or computer without a headset for the full immersive experience. 

Now, there's limited value in VR-casting a council meeting from the democratic accountability perspective, to be sure, but from a public engagement and education point of view, what better way to give the public a feel for how a council meeting works and what the councillors in meetings do than placing the viewer right in the middle as a participant in the meeting rather than an observer from the gallery? Better engaged citizens means citizens who are better informed at election time – and better engaged citizens means better candidates putting themselves up for election. 

But if the democratic potential of VR doesn't convince you, how about the commercial potential? 

Many of our council buildings these days also operate as traded services – wedding venues, banqueting halls, conference centres, and the like. If you're looking for a venue to hire for your special event, then a key consideration in your choice is what's the venue actually like inside? And flat photos rarely do a good room justice, whilst clever cropping of a flat photo can easily make a mediocre space look better than it really is. As more and more people are becoming accustomed to looking up a place on Google Street View before making a decision to visit in person to size it up properly, the venues which have decent VR pictures inside and out, on Google and on their own websites, will have the competitive edge over the venues which don't. And virtual reality footage of a past event is a great way to give a flavour of what a future event may be like. 

Personal Digital Assistants 

'OK Google, when is my next bin day?' - 'Alexa, remind me to put the bins out at 7pm the night before each bin day' - 'Hey Siri, report that my bins haven't been collected this week'. 

I have to admit the rise of voice-control has left me a bit non-plussed; I don't understand why anybody in a public place would want to broadcast their business to the world on the train in this way, and it's surely easier to type on a phone than it is to speak sufficiently clearly for the assistant to hear exactly what I'm dictating? But apparently a lot of people swear by these things nowadays, which is borne out by the fact that more and more of the dedicated devices are being brought out to be stuck on the kitchen table. 

As internet-connected devices, at their most basic level they just go and do web searches when a user gives them a command. But content providers can also develop for these devices, in order to give users a better quality of result and interaction. Aylesbury Vale Council claims to be the first local authority to make use of Alexa 'skills' in this way, and some initial investigation I've done indicates, for basics at least, it's reasonably easy. 

Frictionless Personalisation 

Why do our council home pages all look the same to every visitor? We look at our access statistics to see that most people are coming to the website to report potholes, request housing repairs, find school term dates, pay our council tax, and check the library opening times, and we design our home pages and main pages accordingly. But why would the childless be interested in school term dates? Why would a visitor to the borough want to know how to pay their council tax? Why would somebody who owns their own home require a quick link to a form to request a repair to a council flat? Etc. 

About 10 years ago personalisation became a bit of a thing on the web, with the BBC, Google, and indeed a couple of councils doing work with it. Pretty much every implementation was clunky – it required you to login to create an account just for the purposes of personalising it yourself, and the personalisation options available to users didn't amount to much, and mainly involved the user themselves dragging boxes around the screen and ticking tickboxes to say what they were and weren't interested in, so few people actually bothered with it, and after a year or so most websites which were offering it quietly dropped it. 

Fast forward 10 years, and most council websites offer some kind of online account functionality, so the concept of logging in to the council website isn't such a novelty nowadays. But with that login, combined with the online newsletter preferences many of us set, the council website knows quite a lot about us already in order to make intelligent predictions about what we're interested in – if a user is logged in the site will know whether or not they are a council tax payer and if so whether they are indeed paying their council tax already so whether it's worth sticking the council tax payment link front and centre of the home page to them. Even if a user isn't logged in and doesn't have an account, there's a reasonable amount of information the site can automatically infer and react to (see Responsive Design above!) - it can detect whether the user is a local or located in another city, so it can guess whether to prioritise content related to living here or content related to visiting here; for leisure content, there's no reason why the website couldn't take a feed from a weather forecasting API, and prioritise indoor activities on the list if it's raining, and outdoor activities on the list if it's warm and sunny. It could keep a log with a cookie or HTML5 local storage (on the user's own computer, without sending that information back to the council) of the pages the user visits the most, and offer those as the top tasks on the home page rather than offering the tasks that everybody else in the aggregate has visited the most even though the individual user has no interest in them. 

Jadu and Spacecraft have been exploring this area, and in my own workstream to investigate the possibilities myself I've named it 'frictionless personalisation' - so-called because the user doesn't have to do anything themselves in order to receive the personalised experience more relevant to their own needs. 

Getting the basics right 

Of course, all this innovation malarky is all very well, but playing around with the cool things shouldn't be done at the expense of getting the basics right - but at the same time, delivering high quality forward thinking and engaging digital services shouldn't be an either/or proposition. It should be possible to develop an online form to quickly and easily report a pothole and develop a system which can make use of the accelerometer data in users' mobile phones to build up a crowdsourced map of possible pothole locations as they drive over them. 

#localgovdigital #localgov 

In group Public / Third Sector Digital

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The code behind this site is a bit of an abandoned project; I originally had lofty ambitions of it being the start of a competitor for Twitter and Facebook, allowing other people to also use it turning it into a bit of a social network. Needless to say I got so far with it and thought who did I think I was! Bits of it don't work as well as I'd like it to work - at some point I'm going to return to it and do a complete rebuild according to modern standards.