Every day I love you less and less

Communication used to be fun for me. Digital communication especially so. In the mid 90s it was a blank sheet of paper, or one only scribbled all over in pencil. Common sense was all it really took to say what you wanted to say, online, to the audience you wanted to reach.

Since the digital revolution of the last decade (at least) – and as ‘organisations’ make their online presence a strategic priority – it has become increasingly hard to keep that clear line of sight.

Take website rationalisation in the UK government. It is a perfectly simple and absolutely right policy. The information was often badly managed, not maintained and completely impossible to find, notwithstanding the cash that was being poured into a plethora of websites.

Put in its simplest form, website rationalisation means that all public sector information for citizens can be found on Directgov, and for business on businesslink.gov.uk (corporate information stays with the departmental websites) by 2011. This requires convergence of the content on the two main sites and throws up the inevitable cry of: what about the old stuff? Clearly, content that was written yonks ago needs to be re-written and there are new style guides to consider &c &c. But we can’t just switch off the old sites, it is wrong to have broken links in recorded answers to PQs/PMQs, that information must remain in perpetuity; and once you go down that path you end up in all sorts of mind-boggling complications. The National Archives provides the obvious solution (but that is so not as simple is it sounds – because I am nice I will not drive you down through that particular ‘detail devil’). Nor can you switch off urls, as to do so risks cyber squatting (on non-.gov domains) by questionable folk.

*sigh* you see… by the time you have wound yourself up in knots about this, the simple pleasure of getting the right information to the right audience is swept up in such a maelstrom, you wish you never started! but you can’t do that…

Then along comes a new lovely clean simple way of communicating online: one that is not simply a push of content…

WEB TWO (twenty if you’re cool)

Oh how attractive this is to the frankly ragged people like me; and to be fair the bemused policy units, communication and marketing teams, press officers and the rest: aching to be relieved from the too complicated discussions around getting the ‘old, flat’ content to the spangly new macro-sites (and keeping the… yes you get where I am going).

And so we have seen the remarkable rise in supremely fantastic new work across the public sector digital arena, using social media tools: monitoring, influencing and engaging in the *hopefully* appropriate digital communities… so much so that I cannot keep up (unless I give up the day job and simply watch).

In the last 18 months the most desired digital skill set has not been the ability to craft and manage online content, rather the canny knowledge of the community manager: someone who understands how everything works NOW, and can steer a department/organisation into utilising crowdsourcing, cloud computing and Open Source software.

This is all well and good; it honestly is the Good Life of the internet: community based communication.

But it’s not that simple.

Now we have embraced social technologies we come to the problem of data. In order to continue with this trend of ‘going to the people where they are communing’ we must listen to what they need – and increasingly those who enable us to utilise these social tools demand that the raw data be free. I don’t mean personal data about you and I, I mean the data feeds. Give it to us, they say, and we will make our own stuff in a way that we understand.

The answer to the eternal cry of ‘How can we engage the young people’? Give them the data and let those who know what they are doing, create something that their peers will understand.

And so we find ourselves in a quandary. Not because anyone is precious about the data, rather it is not ready; often it has not been held in any format that is easily shared; sometimes data sets have been held in different formats and updated by a variety of people; borders and boundaries differ &c &c.

In order to free this data, a cross-government (central and local) audit needs to take place; and as with the rationalisation of content onto Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk, a redrafting and ordering of the raw data needs to occur, APIs created, ratification of the accuracy, maintenance contracts drawn up, SLAs…

*sigh*

It’s just never as simple as it seems, but we need to do this work. All of it.

I just wanted you to understand how complicated this all is :)

Oh and by the way, go and sign up to this: http://www.mashthestate.org.uk/index

#babysteps

PS Apologies to the Kaiser Chiefs… er not sure what I am legally up for when using a song as a blog title.

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…

HELP ME

I seem to have written that as the subject line of a great many emails today! So why not a post?

On Thursday, 4th December 2008 – midday, I am hosting a meeting, wrong handle…, hosting a ‘thing’, about how departments will consult policy online and how we might help policy groups choose the most effective channels available (in light of transformational government) to engage/inform (gulp).

The background to why this event is happening is:

  • that online communication has moved on at a speed that organisations/public sector would struggle to keep up with
  • adoption of social media as a communication tool in the digital world has been aggressively successful
  • transformational government: website rationalisation

The problems we are looking to address are:

  • how can those involved in developing policy in this democracy ensure that they can engage effectively online with those people either affected by or interested in that policy
  • what are the most effective channels for digital engagement in the ‘website rationalised’ world

This started as a very small discussion amongst those I knew in the public and private sector who were great at this kind of thinking, an informal chat that would offer up some interesting grist for our overworked mill. I blagged favours and felt rather chuffed that I had so many great people agree to come.

It has grown into much more than that, as obviously there is much interest in this, and it is a huge opportunity not to be wasted: having so many stonkingly brilliant people together in the same room for two hours.

Why am I posting? Why do I want help? Well, I thought that those of you who read this blog are obviously also interested in this kind of stuff and thought that it would be a bit rude not to include you.

So, two things, send me, by email or post here:

1. Questions/thoughts that you think we need to address in such a meeting

2. Ideas/links to innovative ideas you have on consulting policy online

Special thanks to Sarah Goulbourne and Will Jones from Tom Watson‘s office for helping at the last minute with a suitable venue; Oli Barrett for an invaluable telephone conversation about tips on getting the most value out of this session; Steve Moore for offering his facilitation skills; Mitch Sava for agreeing to present and Tiffany St James for focusing my mind (as ever).

So, I drive my car to the hand car wash

This post will hold little relevance for anyone not interested in government interaction online – and even then…

Every time I go to the Guildford hand car wash – funnily enough there is no website, there is a mobile number on my air freshener but I am sure it is unnecessary – I am astounded by how brilliant they are. That does not do them enough credit to be honest. I drive in, they descend on my car in a pack and clean the outside with almost extra-terrestrial efficiency; then they offer to do the inside, which I always accept as my children are wont to eat their breakfast in the car on the way to school. I drive into the next shed, hop out and read the paper whilst a further dozen descend upon the car – spitting it out a gleaming (if elderly) specimen of blue metal. Job done.

This über-efficiency has nagged at me, every time I go I want to somehow apply it to my life. I absolutely salute the genius who created this perfect business: an abundance of happy staff, the tools always work, responding to a need: lazy Surrey car owners.

Today whilst waiting sans Sunday paper (bad planning, Emma) I wondered how I could perhaps apply this to my life… nope, nothing. Then to work: *ping* – why this business works so well is because it effortlessly understands my need, responds to it, charges me a reasonable sum, job done.

Here comes the pedantic bit

So, in order for me to get my car to the car wash, I have to know how to drive. In order to know how to drive I have to pass a test. In order to pass a test I have to understand the laws of the road. Behind each of those three simple ‘to dos’ there are a multitude of rules, regulations and learnings that I have to comply with; as well as an acceptance that the car wash will have covered their arse with various ‘insurance’ statements around the joint as I pass through their premises.

Now, if this car wash was a government website *grin* it would be fully versed in what your need was, the people designing the service will have researched and will know exactly what it is you need to know/do. HOWEVER… in order to deliver the service, it will have to ensure that each policy unit that may have an interest in the service provided is 1. aware of it and 2. signs off the content/tool.

Each policy unit will insist that the right information is given before or during the delivery of the service, so all of the terms and conditions, the precautions, the advice (beautifully crafted) will be given to you, before, during and after you have done what it is you need to do. And how can this be ignored? Of course people need to be aware of what they are doing, the consequences and possible risks.

Coming back to the carwash a second, if it were a government website, from the moment you drove onto the land owned by the carwash guy (assumption here that it is a bloke) you would have a multitude, nay a dearth, of signs directing you down various routes, large bill boards explaining the rules of the road, the instructions for driving a car, possibly a small inlet for the DVLA to check your licence and insurance on the way (not collecting data of course). All done in the very earnest belief that you need to *know* this stuff.

Well, OK, we do. But we learn this stuff en route to getting to the car wash. It has probably taken years and really the re-affirmation of ‘the rules’ at point of service is firstly irrelevant and secondly hugely annoying. More often that not rendering the beautiful simplicity of the carwash service pointless. Far easier to go home and get the kids to do it/do it yourself.

Enter Directgov

Directgov is going to be, by 2011, the only place you will need to go to online to interact with government. Their strapline: Public services all in one place. Transformational government and website rationalisation – (jargon for those in the know, put simply: stop wasting millions of pounds on thousands of disparate websites giving often conflicting advice; spend the next few years getting it all in one place online: Directgov for citizen info, businesslink.gov.uk for business and departmental corporate sites for the ‘corporate’ stuff) – has meant that Directgov is now going to be your Guildford hand carwash for… everything.

This post is already long enough but you get the problem? Poor old DG comes in for much criticism, and I have my own frustrations trying to marry departmental need with DG requirement, but basically what I am trying to do on behalf of the department I am working in – is ruin the simplicity of their service by doing the ‘yeah but’ signs. There is no way to avoid this. Public sector information must carry all health warnings, all of it. The information the Home Office delivers through Directgov on Immigration, Identity, Passports, Police and Border Control comes with a very definite list of ‘yeah buts’… so how on earth can Directgov maintain its simplicity and integrity?

I don’t know

But what I do know is that this problem needs to be solved.

If I were to be actually helpful in my scribing here, I would suggest that the carwash efficiency is looked at as a business model.

It works because:

  1. It assumes that you know how to drive
  2. It assumes that you know that they will not pay for any damage to your car
  3. It assumes that you are familiar with the rules of the road
  4. It knows what you want done
  5. It knows it is not your mate
  6. It does not try to sell you anything else

Perhaps Directgov should be brave enough to make some assumptions. Perhaps departments and policy owners should ensure that the R&Rs of the service are fully understood before the customer gets to using any online service. Perhaps there should be various points of entry… I don’t know and as I write I feel the wrath of my dear friends Paul Clarke and Sharon Cooper who work tirelessly at developing a working proposition for Directgov. I am not trying to develop tin-pot solutions, I just think that sometimes we need to take a GIANT step back and have a look at it from the simplicity of a working service.

Maybe it won’t work, but it will be a damn shame if it doesn’t – if not taxing on the public purse.

Web standards and guidelines for UK Gov websites

Are here: http://www.coi.gov.uk/guidance.php?page=188

Don’t get too excited, much of this is still in consultation (opportunity, folks, to get involved) – for example, the following:

  • Using social media (in consultation)
  • Metadata (in consultation)
  • Minimum standards for web metrics (in consultation)

Sadly, I am unable to fathom how to contribute to these consultations, but someone will know – I know many of you would have some great insights into this, so I will work alongside you to find out how to be included in the consultation.

I am disappointed, and I so SO did not want to be, that the section on domain name guidance and use of a dotgovdotuk url is still in the dated and a bit wonky section of the Cabinet Office website. I know many of the individuals involved in developing this, and I promise you that this apparent belligerance belies the passion of those involved in developing the new standards in light of website rationalisation and convergence.

In my own opinion only, I believe that it is a simple message: no content is to be published online for citizens or business, unless through the adequately funded Directgov and businesslink.gov.uk. Saving the public purse from a hammering through unnecessary website deployment. (That means, you and I no longer have to fund the near on 1000 websites published by the UK government – each with their own design and marketing budgets (it can add up quite quickly)).

Yet it is a very difficult message to deliver. I could bore on about how hard it is to join policy makers with their communication teams, and to establish enough of a relationship to even discuss online delivery of what is happening – my explanation: it is as hard as trying to explain a rave to your parents (for those born in the 70s/80s). Neither party is too fussed by the detail, but both want the outcome to meet our needs, whilst successfully avoiding our worst fears.

These guidelines are the detail, the ‘yada yada’… but they are key, paramount to success. We need to understand the (un)spoken rules – let’s just clarify them and get on with it. But as ever, the devil is in the detail (I really did not want to use that phrase but hey ho) – and probably there is an element of JFDI and if there is a fallout – manage it. (But what fallout will there be, other than brand arguments and ownership concerns? This is the public sector – there is no argument).

Frustration all around.

My reason for posting about this is to show you where the guidelines will be published and to encourage you to keep a close eye on this. Please do join in consultations where you can, and please don’t use it as a stick to beat the beaten. There will be some super cool stuff coming out of this huge change – and this change will benefit us all.

Who could do with a ‘tell us once’ policy and delivery channel that works? All of us, birth, marriage and death – pretty salient and definitely doable… if we can get this absolutely right from the start.

Let’s get on with it.

PS Anyone who knows any more, please let me know, particularly on the status of the consultations.

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