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To Microsite or Not To Microsite, or, What’s the council website actually for?

simon gray 2023-08-15, 18:49:44
Read this article aloud — 2048 words

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 years to when I moved to the Corporate Webteam, and one of the collective frustrations we faced there was microsites — the tendency for service areas to decide, for whatever reason, that their content didn’t belong on the main council website, and they needed their own separate site. Sometimes there was a good and valid reason for this — they needed functionality that the main website content management system couldn’t provide, or there was an operational reason for them to present with branding downplaying their connexion to the council — and sometimes the reasons were less valid; they simply didn’t like being associated with the council website. 

Whether their reasons were noble or not, the splitting off of the site more often than not led to problems; sometimes they’d get ripped off by shyster media agencies and pay a lot of money for actually not a lot, sometimes the outcome would be the removal of content from a website maintained by content professionals who took service area facts and turned them into engaging web copy to be replaced by a microsite with content maintained by service area professionals who would create pages referring to gyratory systems rather than roundabouts. Sometimes, the problems were worse than that. 

But regardless of the validity of the reasons for a service area creating a microsite, it’s generally been the received wisdom in local government that we should have One Website To Rule Them All – one overarching website with one overarching information architecture with one overarching user interface design and one set of content standards, with the needs of average citizen users, the media, small and large business, policy experts, and visitors from out of town all assumed to be able to be met by this one single common site. Oh, and increasingly over the last few years, we’ve told service areas that citizens aren’t interested in their content so we’re not going to allow it on the site. 

Until the last few years there has been a certain justification for wanting to keep all the council’s content together in one place – user awareness of the existence of the council website was still developing, Channel Shift was the phrase of the decade, and our hope was that by keeping disparate service content together all in the same site a user who has just reported their bins as having not been collected would see oo look I can report that pothole here too, or a user looking up the school term dates would go aha I can check what the requirements are for getting a market stall. And, of course, one website maintained by one team ensures quality and consistency. 

Time to change our thinking

I’m not completely convinced the paradigm of One Website To Rule Them All is actually the correct way to deliver a council digital service in the modern era. 

For instance, go to many council websites and try to use the internal search function to find anything, and the chances are you’ll get a lot of results of content generated by the council’s media office (we used to call them press releases) making it hard to find the actual service information you’re looking for. This is a natural consequence of how media office content is created – there's a lot of it; there might only be one page for reporting flytipping, but there are tens, perhaps even hundreds of press releases about flytipping whenever a new anti-flytipping initiative is announced or another serial flytipper has just been caught and slapped with their £1,000 fine. 

A good search engine will allow the webteam or the user to tweak how content is prioritised in the results; but not only are there not many good search engines, who might the webteam be to assume that the user isn’t actually looking for press releases about the latest anti-flytipping initiative? 

But then go and read some of those press releases – put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary citizen who’s just walked past a mattress somebody has abandoned on the pavement that you want t’corporation to come and take away. Be honest, do those press releases read like they were written for you in mind? 

Although the ultimate end user of a press release is the public, the public is not the initial audience. Press releases aren’t written to provide information to the public, they’re written to make the council – the politicians and the staff – look good. The audience for a press release is not the public, it’s the media; the expectation is that the media will take the press release and rewrite the content as a news story, and create a fiction that the political reporter for the local paper has done an in-depth interview with the cabinet member and the service director rather than having lifted the quotes verbatim from the release. 

Taking another area of the site’s content – leisure content. And no, markets are not leisure content, people don’t shop for fruit and veg down the market as a fun leisure activity. Even the smallest council has fun and edifying things to do in the area – even the smallest council has nice parks, a couple of museums, and even the most cash-strapped council still puts on events. A lot of councils might have outsourced their sports and leisure centres to private companies or community leisure trusts, but those facilities are still being managed on behalf of the council. And library content doesn’t just need to be limited to the opening times and locations of the libraries, there’s a wealth of information about the town, about the services available within libraries (with some examples of how some of those services are played out), about this month’s book recommendations, etc. 

So why do we think information about all the fun things we offer as the council have to be presented in the exact same way that information about applying for a council tax discount or exemption has to be presented? Business-related content is another area where the standards governing its presentation may not be appropriately transplanted from the standards governing standard resident-focused content. 

And lastly, there’s the matter of all those council policies and the council structure which nobody is interested in, except the people who keep raising Freedom of Information requests to get them because we’ve removed them from our sites because nobody is interested in them... 

My favourite example to use for this is the Waste Strategy – I have an ambition at some point to see if I can take a council Waste Strategy and put it on a website somewhere in a manner which is interesting and engaging rather than it being an inaccessible .pdf document. I’m not actually particularly interested in the Waste Strategy myself per se, I just think it makes a good example of the kind of content around which a circular self-fulfilling prophecy has grown up around that because it’s boring content nobody is interested in it so no attempt is made to make it interesting so nobody is interested in it. Apart from, of course, the person who is interested in it so ends up costing the council £3,000 to fulfil the edifice of governance which surrounds formal FOI requests because they couldn’t find it on the website. If we can make the Waste Strategy engaging and interesting, we can make anything engaging and interesting. But apart from anything, the Waste Strategy should be interesting – we all care about whether or not our bins are collected how and when they’re supposed to be, and a lot of us care about whether after collection the rubbish is processed in an environmentally friendly manner for the best possible cost, so if we’re not interested in the Waste Strategy by which the rubbish is collected and processed, that’s absolutely a failing on the part of the council! 

The future

So I’m inclined to think we should now not just be willing to drop our insistence on having just one council website on to which everything has to be put, in a one-size-fits-all way which actually doesn’t really serve the purposes of large amounts of that content’s users, but that actually we should not just be willing to entertain a multi-site council web estate, we should actively embrace the idea, plan for it, and create the best citizen site we can, the best business site we can, the best media office site we can, the best leisure site we can, and indeed the best policies and structure site we can, with branding, content, and user experience guidelines which are each appropriate to the individual circumstances at hand. 

This should not mean a loss of control for the corporate team which is tasked with keeping all the plates spinning – creating a series of microsites rather than a single site should not mean devolving the maintenance of those sites, the corporate team can still be the team which maintains them. Ideally those microsites will all be powered by the same web Content Management System which can easily cope with the different designs and functionality of the different microsites; indeed, ideally that CMS would seamlessly allow the site maintenance team to do their work on one single login to a single admin area, rather than having to juggle different logins for the different sites. 

The One Site To Rule Them All is essentially a 2000s solution to a 2000s problem. The way we’re constructing our One Sites right now is a 2010s solution to a 2010s problem. As we move into the middle of the 2020s, we should not still be hanging on to 2000s and 2010s thinking, we need to be updating our thinking to solve the problems of the 2020s with a view to the 2030s. 

#LocalGovWeb #LocalGovDigital #Manifesto

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.