Bring out the Windsor and Newton, I need to paint…

Huge apologies to those waiting for me to write up the discussion on Thursday. It will come, next week, it will be useful and yes… you can play too.

In the meantime, the questions that I have been sent privately suggest that my presumed awareness of website rationalisation and transformational government might be a little skewed.

The official documentation can be found by Googling the two terms, and maybe downloading a couple of PDFs, but the following is an explanation *MY OWN PERSONAL VIEW ONLY* of why it is important background to how we consult policy development in the future, and hence: the changing face of e-democracy… and why it is a part of what I am trying to do.

(My qualification for writing about this comes from the period of time I worked with Alex Butler *formidably good* and Andrew Stott *formidably mathematical* communicating the practical requirements of the policy across Whitehall).

Essentially, transformational government contains a piece about the online world: given the handle of website rationalisation. Website rationalisation has sub-divided itself  into rationalisation and convergence.

Website rationalisation is simply: reducing the number of websites government uses to disseminate information.

Website convergence is (I am not going to say simply) migrating the content out there onto the three proposed ‘golden’ destinations:

  • Directgov: for citizen information
  • businesslink.gov.uk: for business from SMEs to large corporates
  • Departmental sites: for stakeholder/’corporate’ information (central department sites only, non-departmental public bodies NDPBs are required to associate themselves with their ‘owners’)

There are more, NHS, Police etc but they are exceptions. Stick with the simple version…

In theory, this is a good thing: it simplifies how government delivers information, helps us members of this democracy find the information we need and it will eventually reduce cost.

All of this needs to be complete by end March 2011.

So for us, it’s good!

For departments it is more challenging as it does mean that every website needs to be audited, carved up and re-delivered through the three agreed channels.

I cannot hope to give the number of websites we are talking here, but there are many🙂 please forgive my reticence to quote numbers, I know I will only be proved wrong!

Again, in theory, this is simple: audit the sites, audit the information, de-duplicate: re-deliver.

The challenge comes when policy units need to consult, to engage with us and find out what we think. Can using such a remote version of e-delivery work?

The challenge is already here. The people working in departments across Whitehall and the UK are now, have been and will be consulting on policies they are charged with developing over x number of years, and the Internet is a key tool for doing so. Take away the policy unit’s website and… how can this be done?

Well, the choice right now is the departmental website: until Directgov is able to offer consultation tools (not knocking DG, this is a biggy).

But… what if we were to look at this as white space? The information that we all need to know in any circumstance will, by 2011, be delivered through the three approved government arms. (Tempted to go Ganesha on the arms thing, but, let’s not.) Departments have time to streamline the corporate sites.

So is this an opportune moment to look at better ways of getting peoples’ opinion on policies in development?

My gut says yes. The temperature in the department I work for says yes. Hence all the fuss.

I will bring you details of the discussion last Thursday and will show you where you can play and what you can do if this matters to you.

Hoping that helped…

15 responses

  1. OK, I speak here in a personal capacity: I don’t have responsibility for web convergence or rationalisation nor am I signficantly affected by it, so this is the perspective of an interested bystander of someone who happens to work in government.

    I’d like to see better targetted, better quality, better value government websites too. But why – in 2008 – worry where or how many they are?

    I want government online to be innovative, and to make the most of social media to get ideas in and get information out. The government web estate in 2005 was a mess, and still is to a great extent – in terms of many dull, outdated and expensive sites, with few visitors and no clear sense of audience. User journeys were disorientating and frustrating.

    That’s an argument for spending (maybe less?) money better, promoting innovation where it exists, developing a strong core of content (which we have now with Directgov and Businesslink) and a backbone for online services. And for closing down poorly performing sites, while encouraging the best to grow and expand their influence – maybe in the way that the leadership of failing schools is taken over by more successful ones.

    But show me a supersite that works on the scale of UK government, and is sufficiently flexible and adaptable to work across all audiences, for every issue. Show me how you encourage civil servants to engage well with the online debate when you distance them from hands-on experience as publishers. And above all, show me where the innovation in great citizen- and business-facing information and service provision online will come from when you have just two, PRINCE II-managed, tightly-templated players in the ring.

    The opportunity for a government supersite came and went. We’re in a different world now, one that’s leaner and more fluid where consumers are creators too, and nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.

    It’s time we focussed on the end, and not the means.

  2. Rationalisation and convergence are OK for static information, I suppose, but they don’t cut it for engagement and participation. It’s a live issue in local.gov as well – the council standard website design is horrid blocky static crap (here’s mine) which is borderline OK if you want to find out how to suspend the parking restrictions outside your house, but worse than useless if you want to keep up with what’s happening in your local democracy, or tell others what you think. I’m a politics geek who works in local government, and even I glaze slightly looking at the homepage.

  3. Crumbs.

    Last time Steph and I discussed this I disagreed with him, but this is really well argued.

    It implies you don’t think the BBC is a comparable supersite, though. Would be interesting to unpack that a bit. Also what do we know of overseas governments? Canada gets mentioned a lot in this context. Where else is this being done?

    And (focusing on the ends and not the means) I think the cost savings of rationalisation can be a distraction.

    The real point (for me: speaking personally) is making it easier to find and *trust* information and services from government. I’m not sure a fluid, organic model can prevent the duplication of content and variance in standards to guarantee that. What if you google service X and get three, four, five relevant-sounding results from different government bodies? Which do you click first? Which do you trust?

    But what works for info and services is less applicable to participation. For two reasons (off the top of my head):

    1. online participation *is* fragmented, made up of pockets of niche audiences. As is oft said round these parts, we should take the questions to the audience, where they hang out online, and not try to corral them onto our own tools. (But also provide a hub linking out to all those conversations and pooling them together?)

    2. the citizen/business/practitioner distinction doesn’t fit. As I said on Emma’s previous post, many consultations will span all three. So when there is call to build consultation tools on govt sites, a TG approach could mean we need to create three… which is a very funny kind of rationalisation indeed.

    I don’t feel like I have disclaimed enough. These are my personal thoughts. I’m totally sold on the government web strategy and interested in making it better. Phew.

  4. One from the article: “businesslink.gov.uk: for business” – you mean “against business” don’t you?

    Really, this is a key point. If you’re going to migrate to an existing site, it should be a credible and popular one. The old DTI site was better than many, but BERR’s link-breaking has annoyed people. Do any business owners like BusinessLink or their website, though? I’ve yet to meet any, except at BusinessLink and RDA meetings.

    One from the comments: “What if you google service X” – if you google it, you’ve abdicated your responsibility and you take your chances. gov.uk should be encouraging people to start at http://www.gov.uk (which I think used to redirect to http://www.direct.gov.uk but now goes nowhere???) and stop all this “search online for …” crap which leaves people vulnerable to TheYesMen.org and other, less benign, impressionists.

  5. “In theory, this is a good thing: it simplifies how government delivers information,”
    This may be true, but the process hardly seems to have been smooth. If it makes it easier for Govt to deliver information why is it taking until 2011? Surely DirectGov must be inundated with Govt webbies wanting to put their sites on it?

    “helps us members of this democracy find the information we need,”
    No it doesn’t. Google is the search engine that most people use in this country and will continue to use. People won’t always know whether what they are looking for is Govt and therefore DirectGov or not. They won’t check DirectGov and then Google if they can’t find it first time. Although DirectGov may be getting better it still isn’t there.

    “and it will eventually reduce cost.”
    Theoretically speaking this may happen. However, without innovation Govt will not find cheaper ways of disseminating and more importantly listening to people, and continuing down the path of these supersites will stifle innovation.

    As Steph says, Govt is right to cut back on poorly performing sites and to provide a space for Govt programmes to publish information if they want. It is right to set some standards in accessibility and clarity of language. it is right to provide support. But to prevent civil servants from publishing their own site and with their own innovations is going to drive govt and citizens even further apart and that is not a good thing.

  6. Gulp. Steph, what you have written here is brilliantly insightful and the conversation seems to be ongoing. I agree that the need for super-sites is now gone and that we use ever more clever search engines to get what we need, and yes – we need to look at how this ‘fluid web’ works.

    I am just catching up with this between meetings, will have a proper read tonight.

  7. It’s a shame I wasn’t there in person. Firstly, because I happen to know a thing or two about website rationalisation (time for a different name!) and secondly because my daily life is spent trying to move the collective thinking in the public sector towards exactly the vision that Steph outlines. We really do have to stop thinking about this in terms of the ‘property’ we own, and the technology we use to deliver messages.

    But that doesn’t mean no websites. It means far, far fewer, better, more useful and usable websites and an active relationship with the public (and other groups and individuals) IN THE PLACES THEY ARE. I don’t think it spells the end for Directgov or Businesslnk.gov either. It is just as important to put the citizen in the middle so they don’t need to work out how we structure and manage ourselves – and in my mind success would be that we ‘Directgov’ the experience, (join it up, design it better and put it in people’s language not ours.) That leads to all sorts of other opportunities to work in partnership with others – from basic syndication to other forms of partnership and just contributing to discussions online.

    There is not a quick fix, and I’m afraid that there are some less ‘sexy’ things that have to be done. It’s great that we are now starting to get involved in good, direct conversations in the social web, but if you work in government and you came to work wanting to make a real difference – then don’t lose sight of real issues. Innovation is great. Getting it right first time is just as important. We have to do both – and pull in the same direction.

    As those of you who know me know, I can wax lyrical about all this for a very long time – and I’m very happy to do that – just get in contact.

    But your session was about online consultations, and I guess by that you really mean digital engagement! There is a whole heap of very good work already underway and some of us are trying to join all that up. It would be good to hear some of the outcomes from your session to feed into that.

  8. Alex, thank you so much for this. We all seem to be in violent agreement which is a great point to be working from. What I also find hugely encouraging is that so many of these conversations are happening across Whitehall.

    Within the department where I currently work, for example, we have found four areas, completely unbeknownst to each other, working essentially to the same end, tackling the same question: how do we reach the right people, at the right time to engage, consult and inform?

    Part of me wants to elaborate your points, but every time I try I seem to simply be repeating what you have said!

    I am so excited by all of the work happening in this area, across Whitehall and beyond. (If you hadn’t noticed, yes I am sad and boring).

    It would be wonderful to have a conversation with EVERYONE across government who is addressing this issue.

    I am gutted that I missed out on having you at this meeting, we could always have another!!

  9. But to prevent civil servants from publishing their own site and with their own innovations is going to drive govt and citizens even further apart and that is not a good thing.

    Firstly, I expect there are no explicit procedures in place preventing civil servants from publishing, but I hope we can agree that a supersite strategy doesn’t encourage nimble, lightweight, innovative online work by civil servants.

    I’ll tell a couple of stories if I may. I used to work in magazine publishing. Our company, VNU, was a behemoth in business and IT publishing. We had over a thousand titles globally. Each and every one of those titles had it’s own editor and editorial team. They listened to what their reader wanted and wrote for them. They constantly tweaked the design of the magazine; they changed the sections; they brought in new writers; new advertising positions. They were closest to their reader so they had permission to innovate and because they controlled their magazine they were able to. Knowledge was regularly shared amongst titles and as a whole the company prospered.

    For a while.

    In more recent times the pressure from websites has increased more and more. VNU’s first strategy was to have VNUnet. A supersite that took content from the magazines and publish it in one consistent place where anyone could find anything. At least that was the theory, but it didn’t work. VNUnet was a soulless place bereft of personality and meaning. Nobody used it.

    Next VNU passed control of the websites to the magazines. It was more successful and it remains that way today because each site was able to move with the magazine and be better attuned to its readership. But it isn’t the end of the story.

    Pressure from specialist websites without magazines continued and those publishers freed from aligning sites with magazines were even more nimble, were even closer to their audiences and they have prospered.

    One final story. I attended a Consultation on Consultation last year. The meeting was full of intermediary organisations such as the Federation of Small Business, the Marine Engineering Forum, the Aerospace Action Group etc. They all argued that consultations should go through them (as opposed directly to companies) as they are best placed to represent their members. In the next breath they all told stories illustrating that getting ministers to talk to CEO’s was the most effective way of getting through to Govt.

    In summary: by giving control of the means of communication to the people with a need to communicate you get more effective communication.

  10. Pingback: Mission Creep | Neil Williams » Blog Archive » See Emma

  11. I’m all for rationalisation, but convergence is generally misunderstood both technically and as a business objective. I hope you’re able to communicate that to departments.

    What possible benefits do you get from migrating to a single platform when your users on both sides of the firewall are performing such different tasks? Who thinks that DCSF is offering similar services to HMRC, or that people writing complex policy content need the same tools as people writing press releases or creating rich media?

    The cost of convergence has been understated and its benefits overstated, while few people have made the case for diversity. Does no one recall dotP?

    In general I believe that there is too much content published for publication’s sake. If government began to think about what the public needs rather than satisfying some kind of publication compliance, we’d have far better websites.

    Of course any civil servant should be allowed to publish to the web, but you also need to remember that just because you feel the need to say something doesn’t mean anyone else will find it useful.

    Yes, I do realise the irony of that comment.

  12. Philippe, convergence is not about the technology or platform – rather the content and a single way in to the services being offered by individual departments.

    What you say about content publication is spot on, and is entirely the point.

    In the department where I currently work, I am working the convergence piece, amongst other things. The points that you raise are being addressed by completing a large piece of customer needs analysis, alongside detailed web audits that are both qualitative and quantitative. By marrying these two, we should be able to cut a path through what people want to know about, what they need to know about (but don’t know what they don’t know, as it were) and produce content for Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk that delivers against both business and customer needs.

    I do know that other departments are taking the same approach.

    Watch this space, I guess.

  13. “businesslink.gov.uk: for business” – you mean “against business” don’t you? … If you’re going to migrate to an existing site, it should be a credible and popular one … Do any business owners like BusinessLink or their website, though?

    By any rational measure, businesslink.gov.uk is a very popular and credible web service. We survey more than 900 business owner-managers every six months, carrying out a detailed telephone interview into their usage of the site and perceptions of it. Among the many questions we ask, we look at overall customer satisfaction. The percentage of customers who rate the service as good, very good or excellent totals consistently higher than 85%. At the last baselined survey it was 94%. That is an amazing number by any standard. I’ll very happy to share the full survey with you on request; I would be very surprised if, after a thorough exposure to the users’ views as captured in the survey, you still hold the view that the service is neither popular nor credible .

    To give a little more context about the methodology: the business owners are not a self-selected sample through an online survey. We go to just under 9,000 businesses on a randomised basis, selecting them from a standard commercial business register, and find those businesses that affirm they have used the site one or more times in the last 12 months. We then go into the more detailed survey.

    This is just one of hundreds of ways we engage with our business audience – highly quantitative, and there are many qualitative ones too. Please don’t read this as saying we’re complacent or certain we have the world-beating service we aspire to in every way and on every level. We’re dedicated to understanding where we don’t live up to our users’ expectations and acting accordingly. But by any reasonable analysis we are building on a service that is enormously popular with its current users.

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