Friday, 19 December 2014

Minimum usable services

Between April and October 2014 the number of transactions per day on westberks.gov.uk almost doubled.

I went into how it was achieved here, but the short story is less, better quality information, and more, good quality digital services supported on devices right down to 320px wide using RESS.

There's still much more to do though. If you stand still online, then you're less likely to continue to meet the evolving needs of customer expectations and technology.

Whilst the project to launch our new platform might have finished, we're conducting continuous improvement, prioritised by actual numbers for services used on a Transactions Dashboard.

If I had one thing to pass on from this it's about minimum viable products, or perhaps a better phrase is a minimum usable service. What I mean by this is get your digital service to a usable state, test it in alpha, launch it in beta, gather data and improve it until you're happy to launch it live, then continue to improve.

Perhaps you want your service to do ten things. Launch it with two and build on it.

It becomes much easier to make a case with actual usage data and customer feedback rather than just a projected channel shift. The minimum usable service route allows you to do this which can be useful in an environment where many groups are competing for the same funds.

Just one word of caution; be sure that your service is good enough to move to the next stage by assessing user testing, before you do. This should be standard practice though. not just for this but for anything that involves any sort of user acceptance testing.

If you've got a view on this, follow a different path or have tried similar I'd love to hear from you.








Sunday, 30 November 2014

Carl's Conundrum of Internal Influence

I'm writing this partly as a reply to an excellent piece that Carl Haggerty published about the disconnect between internal and external influence and partly due to various conversations over the past month about how to make using tools like collaboration platform Pipeline common practice.

This isn't really about Carl though, or Devon County Council, or any other council specifically, it's more a comment on the influence of digital teams in local governments, or lack of, and how to resolve this.

So here's the question that prompted this piece. How can someone who's been recognised nationally for their work, first by winning the Guardian's Leadership Excellent Award and who has more recently been placed in the top 100 of the Local Government Chronicle's most influential people in local government, "sometimes feel rather isolated and disconnected to the power and influence internally".

First, let's consider whether is this a problem to unique to Carl; is he's doing something wrong?

He discusses if he should do things differently, and for me this is an excellent reminder that we should all be on a journey of learning and self-improvement, rather than an admission of doing anything incorrectly. It's the LocalGov Digital mantra of thinking, doing and sharing applied to oneself and in this he's leading by example.

I regularly talk to people from many different councils and it's certainly not a problem unique to Carl. There are those who have created great digital services and saved their local taxpayers tens of thousands, and in a few cases hundreds of thousands of pounds through promoting and delivering good digital practice, who also feel marginalised and unable to extend this success to the whole of their organisation.

So why is this happening?

IT departments generally support how things work now. Yes they provide electronic services, so email has replaced post, word processing has replaced the typewriter, and so on, but the manner in which these electronic services are used is very similar to their analogue counterpart. There are some excellent CIOs in local governments shaking things up, but as a general rule IT services are inward facing and respond to the demands of the business.

Digital service teams are different. They're predominately outward facing, often taking the business' information and publishing it in a clear and customer friendly format. They may use service design principles to borrow, build or buy digital services to meet local users' needs. In the best cases, they work with the business help to re-design the process behind a service to take advantage of the benefits digital can bring.

The problem occurs when service delivery managers see digital practitioners as "IT people". If you're an "IT person" and you're advocating widespread change to how your organisation does business, perhaps you're not going to be taken seriously by some.

The ever straight talking Kevin Jump summed this up well:

and he's right. Might some service managers think "why's that computer nerd telling everyone how we should run our business"?

It could get worse when "that computer nerd" has some success in doing what they proposed with another service a council offers. Suddenly someone who should be supporting the business is succeeding in changing it, "computerising it". They could be coming for you next, and how could they ever know more about what you do, than you and your team? This is madness and it'll be a complete mess.

So collectively, how do we resolve this disparity between perception and reality?

First off, digital and IT teams can be equally guilty of using jargon and buzz phrases and they need to start using language people can understand, not terms like "digital transformation" or "channel shift". Sure we know what they mean, and if you're talking to another digital practitioner it's fine, but if you're trying to teach a new language and sell a concept at the same time that makes it twice as hard for both parties involved.

We need to explain the difference between digital and IT and promote how a progressive approach to both can benefit service delivery teams. Jos Crease recently wrote about this piece about the distinctions between the two and Tom Steinberg wrote about councils being websites back in 2012. These might help.

The Society of IT Managers advocate empowered in-house digital teams which I support. They also suggested that incentives are needed to make this happen, but this is indicative of the problem. If better services and happier customers aren't an incentive enough, then I don't know what is, so clearly there's a disconnect.

So here's what I propose. We need to get the message across to service managers that digital teams aren't "IT nerds" knocking how they run their business. We need to show how we can work with them to save them money, create capacity and make their service users happier, and we need to do this in language they understand.

That isn't going to happen through seminars, reports or papers about digital transformation so we need to start getting service managers involved in the process of digital service design. We need more practical days like the Waste Services Discovery Day that LocalGov Digital ran recently with the Local Digital Campaign

We need to run events that aren't about digital but instead are about better services and happier users and communities, because whether you're a service manager or digital team this is our common goal.

In 2015 we should strive to change any perception that we're stomping our feet and try to do things together, because only working together will digital teams truly be able to influence service delivery, to gain the maximum benefit for their organisation, and more importantly, for users.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Pipeline: The First Fifty

Back in 2013 I wrote about about kick starting collaboration and in the spirit of LocalGov Digital's ethos of "Think. Do. Share" we've been thinking, then doing something about it.

A couple of weeks ago LocalGovDigital Makers launched Pipeline, to help enable collaboration between council digital teams. At present it's very much an alpha, a platform to investigate the functionality needed to allow councils to work together more closely together and a pilot to test out Makers Project Teams.

We publicised the launch with a few tweets, an article on the LocalGov Digital website and Digital  by Default News ran a piece on it you could say it was fairly low key.

As I write this, we've had people from 50 different councils sign up.

I'm under no illusion. This isn't 50 councils all ready to dive head-first into the sharing and collaboration of their digital work, I'm sure some will have joined through personal interest or curiosity.

I don't want to downplay the initial enthusiasm though. In my mind, "good" looked like people from 20 to 25 councils signing up, the usual suspects plus a few more. So far we've got 80 people across 50 councils and more private companies (who are also very welcome to join) and there's interest from the wider public sector too.

What's most heartening is that the interest isn't down to a full on, well planned media campaign. It's also not down to a great product. Pipeline is good, but it's far from finished. If neither of these are the main attraction, it's more than likely down to a genuine interest in collaboration.

Pipeline is progressing and the next release contains the first functional elements to help join up councils. The real test will be to keep those who've signed up engaged it its development, to get them adding projects.

So here's to the first fifty. The councils with at least one person forward thinking enough to be curious about collaboration:

The First Fifty

Aberdeenshire Council
Adur District Council
Barnsley Borough Council
Birmingham City Council
Bristol City Council
Calderdale Council
Cornwall Council
Devon County Council
East Sussex County Council
Eden District Council
Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council
Guildford Borough Council
Halton Borough Council
Hampshire County Council
Herefordshire Council
Hertfordshire County Council
Hinckley & Bosworth District Council
Huntingdonshire District Council
Kent County Council
Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council
Leicestershire County Council
Liverpool City Council
London Borough of Barnet
London Borough of Camden
London Borough of Hillingdon
London Borough of Lewisham
London Borough of Redbridge
London Borough of Southwark
London Borough of Wandsworth
Monmouthshire Council
Nottinghamshire County Council
North Lincolnshire Council
North Yorkshire County Council
Northamptonshire County Council
Northumberland County Council
Norwich City Council
Plymouth City Council
Reading Borough Council
Reigate and Banstead Borough Council
Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council
Shropshire Council
South Gloucestershire District Council
St Helens Borough Council
Suffolk County Council
Surrey County Council
Surrey Heath Borough Council
Torbay Council
West Berkshire Council
Worthing District Council
And the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities

Friday, 12 September 2014

The start of a localGDS?

Yesterday was the first LocalGov Digital Makers (LGMakers) meet, in Guildford. It was an event that Ben Cheetham, Dan Blundell and I organised to show some of the Makers Project Team pilot projects but more importantly hear people's views on collaborative working and get them involved in LGMakers.

The event was only open to those working in local government  (I wrote why here) and around 40 people from 25 councils attended.

For me the event confirmed there's a growing desire amongst those working for local governments to do things differently. This is heartening, as given the diminishing funds councils have at their disposal, increasingly local authorities have to stop doing things or find alternative ways of doing them.

With Makers Project Teams, by using existing tools such as GitHub, Trello, Slack, Twitter and creating a few more (they'll be more about the pilot projects in the next couple of weeks) council digital teams would share their work, where common aims and local user needs.

Rather than working independently on building a similar thing, or worse, spending taxpayers money on buying the same product in each council, teams would work together, not through a formal shared service but through the sharing of their skills using digital tools.

Is this unworkable? Perhaps, but that's not the impression I got yesterday and if an initial group of makers can start to build things together for others to use then this would not only prove the case, it would also start to provide a catalogue of re-usable digital services.

Is is unscalable? Let's consider that if it happens. We've seen a lot of talk about a Local Government Digital Service (LGDS) in the past couple of years so perhaps some pooled administration resource might be needed in the future to help manage the tools that Makers Project Teams use.

What if someone takes and doesn't give back? Generally Makers Project Teams would be making things that they'd be doing anyway, just together. Also, if someone takes 100 things and only gives 1 back, that's still 1 more thing. To start with anyway, everyone has to give as there's nothing to take.

The can-do mentality showed yesterday said to me, along with a Change Academy this could be the start of LGDS, not advising or criticising but concentrating on getting stuff done differently. Follow @LocalGovDigital, @LGMakers or join the G+ Community and start to get involved, whether you work directly for a local government or just have an interest in making local services better.

I'll end with Dominic Jones' tweet, that really says it all:

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Connecting local government digital makers

LocaGov Digital Makers (Makers) is the network for designers and developers from LocalGov Digital.

Makers is open to all, and attendees at our Hack Day in June included people from local governments, the Ordnance Survey, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Government Digital Service, the NHS and the private sector.

So why is the Makers Meet-Up on 11 September just open to those working for a council?

Change is generally enacted by those with a mandate or by consensus when a critical mass start doing something new. Makers don't have a mandate, and whilst we're much more that just a group of volunteers, we're only working in tens of councils rather than hundreds.

On Thursday we've got people from over 25 councils coming to talk about how they can start changing things and working together, whilst still retaining the autonomy the need to meet local users' needs.

We've got LocalGovCamp veterans coming, we've got others taking their first tentative steps into tweeting and we've got loads of people in between.

Real change isn't going to happen until we start to get a number of councils doing things differently and this is only going to happen by getting them to engage directly with each other, not just once every few months but through things like Makers Project Teams.

Most Makers events will be open all, but just sometimes we'll need to connect councils with other councils, almost as a local government digital service.






Monday, 18 August 2014

Is "digital transformation" hindering digital transformation?

Last year I helped put together the LocalGov Digital Content Standards. They're a guide to writing content for local government websites, drawing from and adding to best practice that already exists. I also managed a project to create a local government site written to the standards.

It made me think about written language in a new way, though Twitter and its 140 character limit had already done this to some extent.

There's a great quote from Mark Twain:
I didn't have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one.
It's harder to put your point across succinctly without losing the meaning, than it is to waffle on using superfluous and convoluted phraseology over and over again, much the same as I've just done.

Along the same lines, I love this video from GDS, "It’s not dumbing down, it’s opening up":



Enough said.

So what's this got to do with digital transformation? In the past few weeks there's been some discussion about what "digital" actually means. It made me think about the language people use to promote the concept of doing things digitally, to those who might not fully understand the benefits.

It wasn't until I read this piece about investing in digital staff that alarm bells started ringing. It uses the word "digital" 68 times.

The people one might need to advocate the benefits of digital to aren't generally stupid. If you're going to put "digital" on the front of everything they're probably going to notice.

Imagine I'm trying to sell bananas. I'm guessing that if I repeated the word "bananas" to you 68 times you'd probably be less likely to buy bananas? Sure there's a few occasions this approach works, here's the advert for webuyanycar.com:


Both might be selling digital, but it's to two very different "markets".

What I'm saying is, just as the content standards promote presenting information to the public using appropriate language, perhaps the same should apply to other content one might write? For example, if one needs to write a whole article to define a two word phrase, perhaps it's time to look for a better term?

Perhaps "digital transformation" is hindering digital transformation?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Making a change for the better

Last week LocalGov Digital Makers published information about the creation of Makers Project Teams. Unlike top-down initiatives such as Individual Voter Registration (IER), Makers Project Teams is very much a bottom-up collaboration, largely created by local government digital practitioners.

Makers Project Teams will commence with two pilots and they'll form part of the discussion at the Makers Meet-Up on 11th September. There's still a few places available, so if you work for a council and are interested in joining the discussion please get in touch with @LGMakers or leave a comment on my blog.

The pilots will not only create outputs to improve cross-council collaboration, they'll allow those who take part to assess and improve how project teams work. Think of it as an alpha version of a project team creating a beta product.

Given my involvement, naturally I'm a big supporter of this initiative however I do have one word of warning. Makers Project Teams need to have the necessary skills to produce whatever they're seeking to create.

However well joined up projects may be, if what they make isn't as good as it might be, whilst at least it's not lots of teams all independently doing so, ultimately, everyone loses out.

With this in mind, when I read Carl Haggerty's piece about a Change Academy he's been talking about recently, I was delighted.

A Change Academy could equip Makers Project Teams with the knowledge and experience they need to create fit for purpose digital products and services. There's a definite synergy between the two and helping individuals discover and explore through experience would be translated into a better skilled teams when councils collaborate on projects.

Whilst it's very early days and both the Change Academy and Makers Project Team exist as little more than ideas at the moment, I really believe together, they could change how local government does digital.

If you work in any aspect of local government digital service delivery, or just have an interest in improving what councils offer their residents online, then I urge you to get involved. LocalGov Digital isn't a central service, mandating change, nor is it a pay to join society, looking to maintain the status quo.

If you want in, you're in, and it'll be better for having you contributing your ideas and enthusiasm. After all, isn't that what we're here to do, to make stuff better for people by making better stuff?

Get in touch with @LocalGovDigital or just leave a comment on my blog, if you'd like to know more.




Sunday, 20 July 2014

What is digital?

Yesterday I joined in a discussion on Twitter about "what is digital" and then read the piece that provoked it. Usually you'd do this the other way round, but conversations online don't always follow a linear pattern. That's my excuse anyway and I'm sticking to it.

The piece was called Defining Digital by Matt Jukes.

It's an excellent summary of the problems one faces when trying to define what "digital" actually means. It got me thinking about how I define it and I was with Matt all the way to his statement:

Digital is a belief in the ability of the internet to transform…whether that be society, businesses, education, government or whatever…and the understanding of how that might be achieved.

For me, digital doesn't mean online or relating to the internet. If you're using digital to mean online, just say online. Matt's research shows that it's a far more prevalent term which means users stand a greater chance of understanding it.

The word digital has been around for years and I probably first encountered it when Compact Discs were released in 1982. It was either that or from a friend of my dad who had a digital watch. The red LEDs consumed so much power lighting up the display that you had to hold down a button to see the time.

I'm going to stop reminiscing about tech or I'll end up getting the snaps of my 1986 family holiday to Falmouth out (there's some great pictures of Goonhilly Earth Station), but the point is, the digital media and device I used as examples above have nothing to do with the internet and pre-date the World Wide Web by 10ish years.

So "digital" wasn't synonymous with being online when it first came to prominence, but is it now? 

If you listen to BBC Radio Five Live their station indent says "On digital, online, on smartphone, on tablet". I'm assuming they mean digital radio when they say digital, as they've interfered it's something different from being online. This ambiguous use of "digital" says to me that those in radio think it means something quite different to Matt's definition above and perhaps different sectors (ie government) and those working for it (ie me) might use the term questionably too, to denote something that it isn't.

So based on the above, how would I re-define my understanding of what "digital" is?

Back in 2012, I asked what is Twitter. In summary, I proposed Twitter isn't a platform for sharing ideas, promoting your organisation or getting your message out to the world, that's just stuff you can do with it. I see Twitter as the world's most used open database for storing small pieces of information.

Now, apply this to digital. "Digital" isn't the internet or being online, those are things that use digital technology. "Digital" isn't transformation, that's what you're able to do with it.

Here's what I think digital is: 

An application, service, process or device that uses binary technology, and is often considered superior to any analogue counterpart.

Can you think of something that doesn't fall into this category that's "digital"? It covers CDs, digital radio,  channel shift, mobile phones, social media, and digital watches. For me, this is what digital is.


Saturday, 12 July 2014

Does "register to vote" show why a Local GDS wouldn't work?

Register to vote is a new digital service created by the Government Digital Service and is available on GOV.UK.

All you need is your National Insurance Number and it takes about 5 minutes to start the voter registration process.

Satisfaction with GOV.UK users is high, around 95%, and I can say from experience that I found it quick and easy to use, myself.

There are problems with the process once you leave GOV.UK however, in fact the first warning signs are as you finish the GOV.UK part of the process. "contact your local electoral registration office" says the completion message (pictured above), but there's hundreds of them. Given the address of the user is known, wouldn't it be better to do the hard work to make it simple by adding a link to the appropriate council?

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but to me this says to users, "we've done our bit, you're not our problem any more".

User experience once the process is passed to a local government is varied. It works fine for some, however other users have reported no contact after over a month, some say they've received letters when they've asked for email correspondence, others complain that where before they were able to tell a council they'd changed their address in one place, now they have to use two digital services, one on GOV.UK, one on a local government's website.

So why is this occuring?

Whilst there's one digital service to start the process there are hundreds of electoral registration teams that finish it and even though a great deal of work was put into making the start of the process excellent, creating consistency at end seems to have been forgotten.

So, would a Local Governments Digital Service help resolve this? The short answer is no, in fact it's more likely to make things worse. Why? Because the digital practitioners embedded in each local government who could assist, wouldn't be there, they'd be in London or Manchester, or a regional hub, not working alongside the electoral registration teams who complete the work for this service.

One solution would be to operate the whole of the service centrally, but this means centralising not just digital, but an administrative function of local governments which is a fundamental shift in the other direction of localism.

In my view the answer is to improve skills in and collaboration between local governments.

LocalGov Digital will be working on this over the next six months. We'll be creating tools to enable local governments to work together when they need to, but continue to retain the autonomy needed to deliver service that meet the needs of local users.

We'll also be starting to create ways in which local government members and officers can equip themselves with the skills needed to deliver better and more consistent services.

Unlike any proposed separate service, organisation or central team if you're a digital practitioner working in or around local governments right now and you want in, then you're already part of LocalGov Digital.

Let's get digital done better and start joining things up, together as LocalGov Digital.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Have you heard of a hack day hangout?


There's no substitute for face to face communication but sometimes it's just not possible. Take UK GovCamp this year for example. I know for a fact there were local government officers who wanted to attend but couldn't afford to pay for travel themselves, nor could they get their organisation to fund it.

If you're wondering why there was less local government representation at UK GovCamp 14, this may be the answer and as an aside, anyone proposing a centralised local government digital service would need to factor in the travel of talking to multiple service teams at 400 councils across the country, but that's another topic.

After the LocalGov Digital Makers Hack Day I talked about how hack days are essential for better digital services, and LocalGov Digital are working to help create formal structures so collaboration can occur where political priorities and local user needs align. Given that financial constrains are limiting some from attending discover or hack days, I wondered if it was possible to run one solely online.

Generally, the main weapons of choice at a hack day, before if and when anyone gets to the tech, are post-its, flip charts and pens. Online there are tools like Trello for post-its, Google Docs for flipboards and Google Hangouts for free video conferencing and screen sharing, but would these work and is there anything better?

I've seen organisations like Global Jam use Hangouts to bring together a number of physical hack days, but I've not heard of one done just online, so if you have I'd be very grateful if you could point me in their direction please so I can ask them about it and learn from what they did.

As you probably know, LocalGov Digital people are doers, so once we've explored the options we'll be doing this. I'll talk about the topic in another post, but if you're a digital practitioner working in or around local governments I'm sure it'll be of interest to you, so let me know if you want to join in.

Just like the Makers Hack Day, a hack day on a work day attended by around 50 people, it'll be just as much about discovering if it works, as the topic we'll be working on.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

A single website for local government


This week I've seen discussion about a "single website for local government", so I think it's important to clarify what's being talked about when we're talking about local authority websites.

Council websites deliver information to residents; that's traditionally been their core task and if they're following the LocalGov Digital Content Standards, where possible they've linked to a definitive source rather than write a page themselves, unless they're the definitive source of the information themselves.

This means that the 500 to 1000 pages on the site all serve a purpose. This content could be put into a central local government site (if that's not an oxymoron) but it still takes someone to author and edit these pages that are specific to each council, so putting them all on one site isn't really going to be any more efficient.

So that's information, but councils offer a lot more online and many will have a collection of forms or a set of digital services. Take Solihull's Missed Bin Collection form that supplies some of the data to this experimental dashboard, built with the Government Digital Service. There's also West Berkshire's Service Site with over 100 digital services and a real-time dashboard of activity. Yes, again you could replicate this centrally, but you'd have to work with each team delivering each service in each council for every digital service to make sure it was fit for purpose.

It doesn't end there. If you're looking for a planning application you'll probably be directed to another website, for example here's Newcastle's public access planning search. It's different from their website.

Library books? That's usually another site, here's Worcestershire's library catalogue on a separate to site to their main content.

Want to find out about your councilor? That's another site and here's Surrey's separate My Council site as an example.

I could go on and give examples for consultations, petitions, family information services, local offers, social care information directories, school admissions, job applications, and more, potentially all on different sites, but I hope you get the idea.

When someone talks about "a single website for local government", ask them which of the above they're hoping to include and if it's just information and they're not thinking about reusable digital services for local government, ask them to think again about the bigger picture of the services local governments offer their residents.

Monday, 23 June 2014

What became of LocalGovCamp 2014?

LocalGovCamp 2014 was last weekend and judging by the response on Twitter and blogs, it looks like people thought it was a success.

From a personal perspective there were so many people I'd talked to online that I met in person for the first time. There were people I really wanted to chat with but missed or just nodded to as I dashed to a session.  However long the day is, it's never long enough.

I was also proud to organise the Makers Hack Day which around 50 people attended on a work day, and importantly I learned a lot for the next time. I'll post more about this later.

I've already seen blog posts about a coming of age for LocalGov Digital, how LocalGovCamp is vital for disrupting and pushing the sector forward, how LocalGov Digital should have more balls (in fact perhaps Glen Ocsko should have the title "LocalGov Digital Voice of the Balls"), all of which I agree with, so in Makers' style, I wanted to focus on doing stuff.

I've put together a list things people did, started to do, or say they'll do:


I'm sure with Sarah Lay in charge LocalGovCamp 2015 will be a success and the Makers Hack Day and the Local Leaders fringe events showed that attending these types of days can now legitimately be considered part of one's work.

With Cornwall being a days travel for some however, I wanted to put something together for those who'll have to make a case for attending. I want to show that the return on investment of a day out the office, a couple of nights in a cheap hotel and a train ticket is huge, based on the collective output from this weekend.

The list is just the stuff I know about, so there's bound to be a load more, and if you know of something tweet me and I'll add, which I'll then put on the LocalGov Digital website.

Let's document what became of  LocalGovCamp 2014, so that the legacy lives on and helps others to attend or perhaps even run their own, because as Dave Briggs tweeted, "remember - you don't need permission to run your own", just the inspiration to do so.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Could the ECB inspire a Local GDS?

So back once again is the debate about a Local GDS.

For me, here's the dilemma. To understand local governments and the ever changing demands and constraints which are even more evident in the digital world you need to be part of one as a member, or work for one as an officer. I wrote about this back in 2012 just after LocalGov Digital was formed.

In my view it's essential to be directly accountable to the representatives of local people or local people themselves, if you're delivering public services for them.

The problem with this is, quite rightly, one's time is taken up with working for one's council, so unless you find other councils interested in doing what you're doing which in itself takes time, any work beyond the day job for the wider sector is largely done in one's own time.

So, take the person out of local government and they lose the essential accountability to local people, keep them in and they'll have little time to do anything for the wider sector.

There's a model from sport that could work and perhaps solve this problem. It's used by the England and Wales Cricket Board and it's called the central contract system.

The system sees 12 or 13 English cricketers offered central contracts each year, which means they work as part of the national team to practice and prepare for international cricket. Instead of working solely for the national side, they still retain the link with their county side and some cases, they return to play a match for their county.

Different types of people make up a team. There's batsmen, fast bowlers, spin bowlers, a wicket keeper and perhaps an all-rounder too. You don't need to know what any of these roles do, I'm just using them to illustrate that it's similar to a digital team that might also include many disciplines.

You can see where I'm going with this. Central contracts could be offered on annual basis to create a Local GDS. Officers would work as part of a central team but still retain the connection with the local government they work for.

This raises more questions than it answers, for example:
  • Who appoints and manages this team? 
  • Who funds it? 
  • How do you back-fill their post for the time they're not working for their council.
  • Projects don't normally last exactly a year, do you employ people for the term of a project only? 
  • What if they're working on more than one project? 
  • Can people be employed for a second, third term or longer, as they are with cricket's central contract model? 
  • If not are you throwing away experience gained? 
  • If they can, will they become so distanced from their council, might you be better employing them on a more conventional fixed term contract?

Perhaps this might move the debate on, perhaps it just confuses things or perhaps you just think there's a better way to do it. Whatever your view, you can join in the debate through LocalGov Digital Voice.




Saturday, 7 June 2014

A local public services search

It's funny how conversations on Twitter start off about one thing and end up about another.

This morning I started tweeting about how we're aggregating Google Calendars (gCal) into an events search, found out Kevin Jump had written some code for pulling events from gCal too, talked about testing the Solr search engine against Google with Jason Williams, Sarah Jennings and Richard Kingston, and ended up discussing a local public services search engine with James Cattell and briefly, Saul Cozens and Tom Loosemore too.

Both the first two subjects deserve their own post, but this one's about the last, a local service search engine.

On 20 June LocalGov Digital Makers are running a Hack Day in partnership with Nesta and for one of the challenges we're looking at is creating a central resource for local governments, perhaps based on the some of the work the Government Digital Service have done.

The discussion this morning got me thinking, what if we could pull together search data from local governments into one resource. Unsurprisingly this isn't an original idea, and Saul pointed me in the direction of a basic specification for a federated search for local governments that he'd written.

But then I thought some more, why just local governments? With NHS Choices kindly giving us full access to their API for the Hack, why not include health information like the locations of doctors, dentists and more, too.

Add spatial data to the mix too, and it just so happens that the Ordnance Survey are at the Hack as well, and you've got the start of a local public services federated search.

Councils could embed a faceted version of it in their sites and use it instead of their internal search to provide a much wider range of information. Hyperlocals could use it to display local services and information which could cross council borders. It could even be included on GOV.UK. It's not about creating one central search page for information and services, it's about better signposting to public service digital content.

At the moment it's just an idea. There's a few tickets left for the Hack. Come along and help to start to make it a reality.






Saturday, 31 May 2014

A new platform for LocalGov Digital

Last week a project I'm managing launched two new websites, this week I'm part of a group that's launching a new beta website for LocalGov Digital.

We aim for the new LocalGov Digital website to become both a voice and a resource for digital practitioners working in local government.

It's the new home for the Content Standards, which aim to help content designers create local government websites in easy to understand, plain English. It's the new home for the guide on how to share code, helping digital practitioners work more collaboratively. Both these and more come under the LocalGov Makers banner, the design and development network from LocalGov Digital.

More than that just a resource though, it's a voice for digital practitioners bringing together tweets, blogs and more from those who work on the digital front line, in or around local governments, through Sarah Lay's creation, LocalGov Digital Voice.

We hope that a regular audience will return to see what's happening across local government digital and we can add your voice to the site too. Haven't got a blog yet? Now's a great time to start and get your localgov digital voice heard.

The site was built using open source CMS Umbraco, which means, true to the aims of LocalGov Digital, it can be amended and added to if someone feels they can create something to improve it. I found it a great opportunity to get to know this CMS and feel we've only scratched the surface of what we could achieve using it.

I would like the site to become a collaborative space for local government digital practitioners which means it's very much a start and a new platform to build on, rather than the finished article.

We'd love to hear your feedback and for you to shape the future direction of what we add to the site. Please get in touch with us @LocalGovDigital or with me @PhilRumens of you'd like to be part of it.


Monday, 26 May 2014

A Tale of Two Websites


Sunday night, 7pm, 19 May, we launched our new websites, www.westberks.gov.uk and info.westberks.gov.uk, the products of a project called Choose Digital.

I'm going to tell the story of the culmination of a year's work and a whole lot more planning, though past posts on my blog and those that helped inspire it.

We start back in 2011 when I was thinking about the next generation of local government websites. Perhaps one site wasn't enough to publish information, engage with people and deliver digital services. I looked at the retail sector and originally thought about creating "customer" and "shareholder" or in the case of local governments, "citizen" websites.

It wasn't until we asked what the purpose of each site was, we decided on a service or "doing stuff" site (www), and an information or "reading about stuff site" (info).

So that's the sites themselves but also in 2011 I started thinking about content, not as web pages but as reusable objects. Pages weren't just pages any more but where possible, meta descriptions of services or physical locations, here's the structured data on a page about one of our offices, for example.

The strange thing is, whilst traditionally new websites are all about attracting more visitors, this approach could actually reduce website visits, and even weirder, this would be a good thing.

We then needed to think about what we'd put on the site. This wasn't difficult. Essentially the service site was a catalogue of all services that could be created digitally and the other would contain supporting information on those and all other services.

The initial index we used was the Local Government Services List (LGSL), not to be confused with the Local Government Navigation List. In May 2013 we compared the LGSL with what our organisation actually did and created a complete list of what the council did and therefore potentially needed to be included on the new sites.

In July we took the list we'd created, printed cards for each of the services or bits of information on the list and spent time sorting them in to two structures. This formed the basic taxonomy for the new sites. It's changed a bit since then, and will continue to do as what the council does and what people expect to see on the site evolves.

In September 2013 we launched our alphas and gradually the design evolved. If you're running a similar project, try to run a public alpha, definitely run a beta. I could write a big section on this but don't take my word for it, read the Government Service Design Manual; Government Digital Service have already done the hard work to make it simple.

It's also about this time that I and local government colleagues in my and other councils started working on the LocalGov Digital Content Standards. The standards seek to improve the quality of content across the sector and are a resource which councils can take wholesale for their own use, or append localisations to.

It's worth noting that we didn't re-write our existing content, we chose to start again, an approach supported by both usability expert Gerry McGovern and former Head of Content Design for GOV.UK Sarah J Richards which enabled us to make sure our content adhered to the five golden rules of the Standards.

By October 2013 not only were starting to write content, we were starting to develop digital services. Some councils have taken the approach of creating exemplars. We did something different and created a Minimum Viable Product for each service, where it was feasible to do so.

This enabled us to start creating over 100 transactions the user could complete online which were at the very least in enough of a functional state request and deliver the service.

In January we were ready to launch our betas and we started to get the opinions wider groups of our own council officers, elected members, more of the public and peers in the the public sector. The LocalGov Digital Google+ Community proved really useful for this and we posted designs and links to content and invited feedback.

The betas continued to evolve and a month before launch we started to test with a local Age UK session, children's centre users, young people with learning difficulties and more.

So this all brings us to 7pm on 19 May, when we launched the new sites. One with over 100 digital services, the other with less than 1,000 easily understandable pages, written in plain English to the LocalGov Digital Content Standards.

Whilst it's the very nearly the end of the Choose Digital project, it's also the start of something else.

We built a dashboard which shows which service are being used when, so now the process of iterative improvement of our digital services starts, and rather than a best guess about which to improve first we've got actual data to use, or will have a month after launch, when we've got a full set of data, but that's another blog post altogether.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

People, Personas and the Unpredictable

A few weeks ago I spoke at an event in London about the LocalGov Digital Content Standards and how they're helping councils make better websites.

Another talk covered user testing and the speaker showed a picture of session they'd helped facilitate. In the picture however, there were no real users, just personas.

Wikipedia describes a persona as "a social role or a character played by an actor" and it's not uncommon for digital teams to create persons to help them design the content, taxonomy and other aspects of their sites.

User testing by young people with learning difficulties
So in the picture I saw, council staff were interviewing other council staff who were role playing users. Now, there's nothing unusual about this in usability testing, however when I asked if they'd tested with real users the reply was "No, we tried that and they're too unpredictable".

This seemed bizarre and reminded me of an example of unpredictably that excluded someone from using one of digital services.

When we created a digital service for people to apply for free school meals we included a select field for the year of birth of the applicant. To make things easier for users, so we they weren't shown a huge list, we set the earliest year an applicant could be born in as 1950.

If you were to construct personas and decide which would apply for free school meals it would probably be those aged between 18 to 40 years old, so setting 1950 as the earliest date should have been fine shouldn't it? It wasn't.

A couple of months after launch we got a phone call from someone saying they they couldn't use our service. Why, because they were born in the 1940s. The unpredictably of a grandparent applying for free school meals had made the service unusable for them.

This was a great lesson for us, and as a result we've been testing out beta.westberks.gov.uk with users at an Age UK session, young people with learning difficulties (pictured above) at a local Post 16 facility, children's centre users and we plan to run more sessions with an even wider range of people.

As a result we've been learning out all sorts of things that I'm sure another member of staff playing a user wouldn't have been able to teach us. I'm not saying I think we've captured all the potential problems before we launch, but I bet we've found a lot more than if we'd just tested with personas, and of course the process of iterative improvement will continue after launch based on real user feedback both in user testing sessions and general use.

Personas have a purpose, but if you're creating new digital services or content I suggest you test it out with as many real people a possible. It's more work, but capturing as much unpredictable behaviour as possible will most certainly help you create a better product.


Thursday, 17 April 2014

Borrow, Build, Buy


This week I had a brief chat on Twitter with John Jackson and Gavin Beckett. John mentioned a National IT Procurement Strategy so I thought I'd write mine own.

OK, so it's not really a strategy, just three options I think you should consider when creating a new digital service.

Borrow

If you're looking to create a new application the best place to start is finding someone who's already made it and willing to share the code. There's increasing number of public sector organisations on GitHub all round the world.

Sites like Europe Commons also offer a catalogue of open applications and networks like LocalGov Digital's LGMakers and the Open Systems Alliance are promote code sharing.

Build

Last year I wrote about an Kickstarter for local governments. As collaborative working becomes easier and professional networking more prevalent this is increasingly becoming an option, however I've yet to see a platform that will really enable this.

LGMakers will shortly be releasing help on how to share stuff, including the issues you need to consider and the practical steps on how to use GitHub.

Buy

Let's face it, it's not always possible or feasible to borrow or build but even if you have to buy something there are certain things you can look for.

GDS have a good guide on open standards and Warwickshire County Council's Applications Strategy is an example of including open standards in an ICT Strategy. Anything you buy should be build to open standards to enable it to be integrated with other stuff you borrow, build or buy.

So "Borrow, Build, Buy. It's not so much a procurement strategy, more of an attitude to application creation.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Planning makers perfect

LocalGovCamp, the unconference for local government takes place in Birmingham on Saturday 21 June and is this year it's organised by LocalGov Digital.

In addition to the main event, there are also fringe events on Friday 20 June, including a hack day, run by LocalGov Digital Makers in partnership with Nesta.

A hack day is an event in which programmers and others involved in digital development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on projects.

As part of the planning, Makers are running a survey to find problems that people in, or who use the services of local government face which could be solved by a hack day. It runs until 30th March and you can see the survey here.

Hack days usually run at weekends as it makes them easier to attend. People don't have to take a day off or ask their boss if they can go. So are there any benefits to running an event like this on a Friday?

I think so and here's why.

Running the event on a Friday means they'll be digital teams all over the country at work, and via the magic of the internet they'll be able to participate.

Through GitHub, a platform for software development projects and collaboration, those working inside the room will be able to share what they're doing.

This means that prototypes developed at the hack could be "forked" or copied and modified remotely by those not attending in person. They could even be tested out on real users and feedback

If there were a few predefined challenges from suggestions in the survey, it would make it a lot easier for anyone who wanted to get a group of users together remotely as they'd have an idea about what they'd be testing.

Google+ can help too and running a Hangout On Air means there could be an open video link between the event and the outside world. I know some organisations block Google+ but YouTube often isn't so at least most will be able to watch, even if they can't participate via this medium. Of course they'll be Twitter and other social media too.

Too ambitious? Probably.

Will it work as planned? Probably not.

Whatever you think, I'm keen to hear your views.


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

How Flooding Reversed The Flow Of News


You might have seen in the media, it's been a bit soggy in Berkshire over the past couple of weeks. They say necessity is the mother of invention and because of the flooding we bought forward the launch of our new news page by a few months.

The page is still a bit rough round the edges in its design, doesn't yet do all it will, but we took the same line as the Government Digital Service, and release something that's certainly a Minimum Viable Product.

It'll eventually show a summary of latest blogs, events listings and most recent consultations, but for now it just provides the additional functionality of a feed of news.

What's so special about that? Don't most council sites have a list of press releases?

As well as our news content, including the service status of over 100 schools, libraries, car parks, children's centres and more (something we introduced during the snow of 2010) it gives us the ability to import tweets into the news feed.

The LocalGov Digital Content Standards ask "Is the content original?" and being able to import tweets from other organisations means we don't have to repeat their messages; we just republish them and link to their content.

Take a look at the feed and you'll see messages from partners like Thames Valley Police, the Environment Agency and Public Health England, but you might notice something else.

Right at the top is a tweet from the council.

Many organisations publish news on their site and then tweet about it, or use something like Twitterfeed to automatically tweet it.

Our news feed gives us the ability to reverse this so that we tweet stuff, then import it into our site. Effectively we've reversed the flow of news, instead of flowing from our site to Twitter, and it's running from Twitter to our site.

The import isn't automated. The page editor can pick and choose which tweets from whom they decide to include. This means that something that shouldn't be on the site is far less likely to appear, although it's not impossible for this to happen occur due to human error.

Of course we'll still need to publish some news content on our site first, but for quick 140 character updates we'll be able to put them on Twitter then add them to our site.

In content strategy terms, this isn't anything new. I've often read that content should be published not all in one place, but in the best place for the each specific type of content and this also fits in with what I wrote in 2012 about Twitter just being a big database of content.

So that's how the floods helped us reverse the flow of news.

I'd be interested to know if anyone else in local government and beyond has take this approach. We've only been doing it week, so I'm keen to hear the experience of anyone who's been doing it longer.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Content Together

This week the Department for Education (DfT) changed twenty or so pages on their site, so I thought I'd write about it.

Seriously, that's what this piece is about.

So you're probably thinking, why does it matter, it's the department's site they can do what they like, and you'd be right. You're probably thinking, twenty pages, we've published more in one go before, it's not a big deal, and you'd be right.

So why on earth am I writing about it?

When it comes to digital, Central Government and local governments need to work closer together. The LocalGov Digital Content Standards promote this idea, and there's a whole section called "Is the content original" which basically says, if it already exists, link to it.

I've seen whole parts of local governments' websites that have been lifted from others' including those of Central Government. In almost all cases, this is a complete waste of time. Why reproduce what a credible source has published, potentially four hundred plus times across the country?

But there is another side to this, and it's the biggest argument for maintaining the wasteful practice I described above.

On Monday morning twenty emails from our Content Management System were sitting in my team's inbox telling us we had broken links to the DfT site. This means, that we had to try to find the new pages and replace the links. This isn't a huge amount of work, but sites change regularly so this happens reasonably often.

Not every organisation has a method of checking links like this, so they'd have to wait until someone came across them to find and replace them.

What would have really helped is to be told in advance when they were changing, and what they were changing to. This isn't a criticism, just an idea to make things better. There are technical solutions to solve this problem like persistent URLs that Legislation.Gov already use, but I suspect we might be a little way off this being enabled for all Central Government sites.

So here's a proposition. If LocalGov Digital continue to promote not recreating, but linking to Central Government content through our Standards, slimming down local governments' sites and only publishing what really needs to be there, perhaps the Government Digital Service might promote better communication with local governments.

I realise this only one minor part of how Central and local governments could work better together, but it could be another piece in the jigsaw.

Friday, 31 January 2014

The Beginners Guide To Hangouts

Last year I wrote for Comms2Point0 about what Google+ can offer.

Communities such as the one run by LocalGov Digital give you a great new way to connect interest groups. Pages are another way to promote one's brand or organisation, but like much of Social they're still reminiscent of the telegraph and newspaper era of traditional media. It's Google+ hangouts that bring Social into the radio and television age.

Skype has been offering video chat for years but it's more akin to the telephone than broadcast media and with the number of features to help one engage with one's audience being added to all the time, hangouts really feel like the the next generation of Social.

So here's my quick guide for get the most out of attending a hangout:


Step One

Join Google+. You'll probably find you've already got a Google account if you use Gmail, or Google Calendar, or Google Drive, or one of the many other things Google provides.


Step Two

Buy yourself a webcam to connect to your laptop or desktop. A few quid on one from eBay will do fine.

OR

Use your smartphone: Many will have a camera and most can run the Google+ App. The only drawback to this is you'll have less of the hangout features available to you.

OR

Don't bother doing either. It's not vital that people see you, so long as they can hear you well and most computers and all smartphones will have microphones good enough for the task.


Step Three

Start a hangout on your own; press all the buttons and see what they do; share your screen; give yourself a silly hat (you'll see). Get all of those rookie mistakes and "how does this work" moments out of the way without anyone else there to see when it goes wrong.


Step Four

Find some headphones (useful to avoid feedback and echo) and join an existing hangout. When I say join in, I don't mean fully participate, unless you're feeling brave. For my first hangout I muted the mic and just listened for much of the time.

If you're using it on a desktop, you'll have access to a traditional chat room that runs as a back channel to the hangout. You can ask questions in here and people in the hangout might discuss them.




At this stage you might want to do Step Two again as you've seen a hangout in action so you'll have a better idea of how you could use all the features. I still do this when Google add something new. If not, you're ready to go.

So that's it. Four easy steps, not to make you a pro, but certainly not a novice any more.

When you're ready to think about starting your own hangout, you might like to read Conor P's guide to running video conferences.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The first tweeters

New Year can be a time for reflection, and partly promoted by an excellent post from Dan Slee about radio and content without boundaries I thought my first post of the year might be one of introspection and a look back at the history of one aspect of communication.

Long before Twitter, long before the internet, there existed a publicly available, worldwide network of transient conversation between people around the world. These former day "tweeters" were Amateur Radio (sometimes called ham radio) enthusiasts, or radio amateurs as they're known.

During my childhood my dad was (and still is) a radio amateur and this played no small part in forging my interest in communications and techno geekery. As a kid, I spent time with my dad in a room not dissimilar to the picture above, listening to crackly voices being broadcast through the ether.

In these pre-internet days there was something incredible about being able to listen to radio broadcasts or even better, strangers talking, from other countries in the comfort of one's own home. If you had a licence like my dad, you could even join in the conversation.

Eerie chimes, repetitive number stations and the way single-side band distorts voices also added to the atmospheric nature of the experience and probably explains why I love electronic music too.

There are many parallels with social media. Like Snapchat, messages are over in an instant. Like Twitter, one can initiate or join in an open conversation with one or more people. Like Facebook, users "friend" others, in the form of QSL cards through the post.

Another similarity is that radio amateurs often use amateur radio to talk about amateur radio with other radio amateurs, given this is the only interest they know they have in common. Likewise there are chats and tweeters who's output largely consists of telling everyone how great social media is and discussing its use.

Of course there are limiting factors that don't affect social media, including the need to acquire enough technical knowledge to pass an exam. Citizens Band radio attempted to overcome this, but the range is limited to tens of miles rather than worldwide.

Amateur radio still exists today. Public services maintain a list of radio amateurs for civil emergencies; should all state run communication suffer catastrophic failure they're still there as the backup. There's also innova,tive stuff like WSPR going on that uses open source software and very low power transmissions.

So next time someone tells you the concept of social media is new, remind them that instant, open, worldwide communication between individuals has been around for over 100 years.
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.