WEB: So, what makes a good council website?

Jason Santa Maria / Flickr

This was drawn-up after the ‘What makes an ace local government website?’ session at #ukgc10 by Liz Azyan from Camden Council and also the #ukgc10 WordPress session. Some extra thoughts were inserted after…

You’re in a rush. You’re going swimming. You’ve three minutes to find out when the nearest leisure centre closes… and you’re face with a council website.
 
This could be a pleasant experience and for many it is. But if you’re unlucky  you’ll be faced with a sprawling brick wall behemoth of a website written in a funny language riddled with jargon.
 
Oh, Lord.
It’s not gritting information, for example. It’s a winter service plan.   
Your opinion of your council suddenly plummets and you hurl abuse at the screen.
 
But ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t have to be this way.
 
Liz Azyan’s session at the UK Government Bar Camp ’10 at Google was a thought provoking session with some cracking points.
 
Cards on the table at this stage. I don’t work in a web team. I work with them and more to the point I’m a council taxpayer who uses one.
 
Here are some points that emerged from the session — sprinkled with some that struck me afterwards.
 
What do people want?
 
They want to find the information they are after. Simple.
 
 

What do they often find? 
A website written in council speak with difficult to find pages presented poorly. In short a frustrating experience.
 

Tech frustration by CCB Images / Flickr

Tech frustration by CCB Images / Flickr

So, why bother with a council website?
 
It’s an argument that – surprisingly – seems still to exist in some quarters. Isn’t it just a big waste of money? Actually, no. Quite the reverse. After getting attacked for wasting money by TPA Lincolnshire Council responded with a cool, calm and brilliantly argued piece that argued that the cost of web was staggeringly lower than employing people to help face-to-face or over the telephone. It’s worth taking a look at.
 
What’s the average cost of contact via a council website?
 
For contact, read an occasion a member of the public needs to contact the council.
 
            Face to face              £7.81
            Telephone                  £4.00
            Online                         £0.17

 
Which does make you think. Vast resources get put – rightly – into a help desk or a one stop information shop. Often, web is seen as a poor relation.
 
There is also a theory that telephone numbers should be hard to find. If you have cost savings in mind pushing people towards the £4 option may not make good sense.
 

 

Do Local Government websites pay enough attention to design and appearance?
 
The hell they do. Some of them look utterly dreadful. There’s an organisation called SOCITM who seek to raise standards in government. Every year they survey Local Government sites on a checklist. Accessibility is key. So is usability. But nothing seems to get assessed on design.
 
One point that Devon’s Carl Haggerty made very strongly – which I totally agree with – is the need for this to change. Design and look IS important. If the website looks poor people won’t even get as far as starting a search.
 
As someone who has worked on newspapers and has put together magazines the look of something is fundamental. Look across the news stands. From the unscientific straw poll in the session colour seemed to be important.
 
Why should we bother to make websites better?
 
We need to improve because people’s expectations are higher.
 
We need to improve because at a time of tighter budgets web is a cost effective solution.
 
We also need to improve because while once council websites had a virtual monopoly on local information those days are changing.
 
As barriers are lowered – by things like WordPress and by the surge in hyperlocal blogs – others can do the job themselves. The case of the tech-savvy Birmingham residents who knocked up their own council website – bcc.diy.co.uk should send wake-up calls throughout local government. If you don’t do it, they are basically saying, someone else will.
 
As more and more data gets released web developers will find their own uses for it. Leisure centres? There’s an app for that. The days of the council website being a monopoly are ending. Smart people are just starting to wake up to that.
 
Yes, but it’s all about the home page, isn’t it?
 
The figures can vary widely. Around 15 per cent of people came onto the site through the home page from one council. That’s not much more than one in ten. A piddling figure. Especially when you take account the time and effort that goes into it. But in another council researched after the session was around 90 per cent.

Brent Council's opt in less busy webpage.

Brent Council's opt in less busy webpage.

The moral of the story to local government webbies  is to research your web stats before changes are made.
 
 
Can you make your homepage less busy?
 
Yes. Brent council offers the option of the traditional busy page and a more simple one. That quite appeals to me.
 
So how do people navigate around your site if they do do that?

 
There’s your website search box. Which often isn’t that great. Even if it’s a google one, apparently. From the experience of several councils much time and effoft is wasted bu users here.
 
There’s your A-Z of services too.
 
There’s also the postcode search which to me seems rather attractive and far more relevant. If I lived in Baswich in Stafford, wouldn’t it be better to tell me what was on offer for me there?
 
There’s also the novel idea of a pictorial map. You point at it. You hover over the bits you want and you click through there. Directgov have a rather attractive planning map that does that.
 
Widgets. Redbridge Council have use this. It’s a similar theory to the igoogle approach where you compose the page that you want from the information that you want. The idea is great but feedback suggests that only small numbers of people have embraced this
 
The message from Liz’s session was that as far as search is concerned you need to pick one way and stick to it. Sites that try and do absolutely everything in the way of search look cluttered, busy and turn people off.

How about open source (and what the hell does that mean?)

At the WordPress #ukgc10 session the idea of WordPress as a web content managament system was talked about. There is much going for it. It’s open source. Which for non-geeks means that you don’t have to pay someone a lorry load of cash to buy it and maintain it. It’s free. You can download it from www.wordpress.com and web developers who know what they are doing can build you widgets so you can customise things to suit your ends.

The downloadable version of WordPress is from WordPress.org while WordPress.com is where you get your hosted versions.

There are plenty of examples of Government using open source. The 10 Downing Street web site relies on it in parts for it’s press operation. So do almost half UK government departments in one shape or another. It’s great if you need an emergency website knocked up at short notice.

However, the feedback was that there was  a 500-page limit on WordPress. That’s probably more than enough for some sites but bigger projects may be hampered by that limitation.  

But how about the Birmingham City Council experience? (insert clap of thunder here.)

There has been plenty written about the Birmingham experience. But if you haven’t come across it it’s a tale to strike fear into local government web managers up and down the land.

In short, Birmingham City Council appointed consultants to build their website. The final bill was more than many expected and wasn’t as good as people were expecting. It led to Press criticism.

The Birmingham bloggers build a DIY site when they were less than impressed with the council version.

The Birmingham bloggers build a DIY site when they were less than impressed with the council version.

There is a thriving community of bloggers and the digitally-connected in Birmingham. They decided to build their own DIY council site by taking the data that was publicly available and constructin their own website.

Based on open source and while it may look rough at the edges, it is a site born of social media and built by community-spirited people eager to do their own thing. That it cooked a snook at authority to boot was for some a bonus.

They came up with something based on a postcode search and using stunning Flickr imagery of their home city.  

It’s legacy will be more than a website. It’s legacy is a warning shot that internet users have a powerful voice and if you don’t provide them with something they’luse and be impressed by, they may well build their own. As a warning shot to council it’s there to be heeded.

So, how about asking people what they think of your site?

I’m impressed with the Camden Council Facebook group set up to see what people thought of their site. An impressive use of social media. Bold, imaginative and connecting directly to the online community. Magnificent. And a template to follow.
 
 
In a nutshell: So what would NINE really good things to do be?
 

 
1 Use pictures better. Pictures tell a 1,000 words and are a brilliant way of showcasing your organisation. Not just the arty commissioned ones. The Flickr ones too.
 
2 Choose a way for people to navigate about the site. And stick to it.
 
3 Don’t make your site busy. It looks awful. Simplicity works.
 
4 Don’t get too hung up on the homepage. Remember that few people can get onto your site that way.
 
5 Speak to the people in the calls centre. What subjects come up most often?
Shouldn’t that play some role in what appears on the homepage? And be well designed and put together?
 
6 In an A-Z of services think Yellow Pages. Put links in several places. For example, people could be looking at household waste in several places. Waste, rubbish or even trash
 
7 And finally, wouldn’t it be good if SOCITM took more account of design and look? That way we may all have better websites.

8 Use social media to see what people think. Use Twitter and Facebook. If social media is about a two way conversation then what better way of connecting with web-savvy citizens? 

9 Don’t rule out open source. It’s free. And one day someone with vision will come up with something that government can use.
 
Input for the #ukgc10 ‘What makes an ace website?’session included points from Dan Harris, Ally Hook, Liz Azyan, Sarah Lay, Martin Black, Stephen Cross and Andrew Beeken.

Flickr pics used with creative commons licence laptop (Jason Santa Maria) and frustration (CCB Images).


SOCIAL MEDIA: Your EIGHT step guide to getting started…

This blog post was inspired by #ukgc10’s local government hug session where one person asked for help in how to get started with social media. Some good pieces of advice came out. Here are some from the session and some that struck me afterwards…


THE 8 STEP APPROACH FOR GETTING STARTED….

You’ve read about social media. You may have thought it was a fad. Now you’ve been waking up at 3am with the gnawing thought that you’ll have to do something.

If you’re at this stage. Congratulations. You’re sharp. You’ve seen which way the wind is blowing. And, yes, it’s only going to blow harder.

So what to do?

Here’s some thoughts on how to go about turning your organisation into something fit for the 21st century.

It’s simply not enough to say that you must do it because Steven Fry does it. Or because it’s cool.

You need to construct a cohesive and persuasive argument backed by figures that will work with people who look on digital with the suspicious eye of a Daily Mail reader.

 

Step 1 – Look at the national picture.

More than 30 million people use social media in the UK, according to the most recent figures. Clicky Media’s figures are a good starting point.

You can compare this to national and local newspaper figures.

Locally, a 20 per cent dip in local papers is predicted by 2012 in weekly papers. In regional daily papers it’s more like 30 per cent.

In short: If you’ve always relied on your local paper to get your message out then think again.

Step 2 – Have a look at the sites.

There are dozens of social media sites.

For the sake of argument, look at six of the most popular sites.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr all do different things. For blogging, WordPress and Blogspot are key.

Don’t worry if it all looks an unclimbable. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Anyway, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates has only just got round to joining Twitter himself. So, relax.

Join one if you like. See how it works. Get to know it.   

In short: Don’t worry about not getting your head around all of them.
Get your head around them one at a time.

Dive in! That water is great….

 

Step 3 – See what some inspired people say.

All you need is out there on the internet. The trick is, like anything, knowing where to look. You’ll find it a creative, inspiring and sharing place if you choose to join.

Check Mashable for basic guides to all this stuff. The guide to social media is a must. Follow the link and click download for Learning Pool Twitter guide.

There are some quality blog posts on the subject. Michelle Ide-Smith recently wrote a post that nails how to construct an argument in favour.

Have a look at these blogs for ideas an inspiration:

Nick Booth, Dave Briggs, Sarah Lay, Carl Haggerty.

If you join Twitter – and I’ve learned so much from it I’d seriously recommend it – I’d also recommend these:

@sarahlay – Derbyshire webbie.
@alncl – Alastair Smith, Newcastle web man.
@davebriggs – Local government social media specialist.
@timesjoanna – Former Birmingham Post reporter turned Times writer. Great for links.
@liz_azyan – Lives and breathes local government and social media.

@gecko84 – Teckie Arsenal fan.
@abeeken – Lincolnshire webbie.

@mmmmmmcake – A stream about cake, believe it or not.

@pezholio – Local gov webbie from Staffordshire who is borderline genius. Also likes real ale.

@talkaboutlocal – a window into the amazing world of hyperlocal blogs that can serve a town or even a housing estate.
@wv11 – a hyperlocal blog based in Wednesfield, Wolverhampton. Shows how a local site can use it.
@philipjohn – a website developer who is a useful font of information.
@mashable – the Twitter version of the social media blog.
@doristhecow – Anchor butter’s well judged use of Twitter. I love it.
@scobleiser – Silicon Valley geek who writes about tech news.
@walsallcouncil – Because their use of social media is really, really, really inspired (disclaimer: I help write it).

 

Step 4 – Create a social media map.

Work out what activity there is in your area. These figures are a clincher so take an afternoon out to build this picture.

Paul Cole and Tim Cooper in Derbyshire did one for their area. They used mindmeister although you could use an exercise book. It’s just as good and you don’t have to re-boot it. It lists all trhe social media activity they could find.

How?

Before you do, I’d find out the circulation figures for newspapers in your area. This is good to compare and contrast. The Walsall edition of the Express & Star, for example has sales of around 22,000.

For Facebook, there are 23 million users as of January 2010. Want to see how many are local to you? Log onto Facebook, then click the button marked ‘advertising’. Fill out an ad. Don’t worry you won’t get charged just yet. It’s then you reach the section that gets really interesting.

Here, you can ask Facebook how many people are registered within a 10 mile radius of a town. This gives some staggering figures. Click the box marked ‘location’ and put in the town you want to aim at.

In Walsall, in January 2010 there are 170,000 people on Facebook within 10 miles of the town. The population of the borough is around 250,000 and the 10 mile radius also spills out into part of Staffordshire, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. But, you get the picture.

There are therefore, around eight times as many Facebook users as buy copies of the Express & Star in the wider Walsall area, you may argue.

For Twitter, it’s harder to work out your area’s figure. Nationally, by November 2009 there are 5.5 million UK users. You’ll have to work out your area’s percentage of the national population, then divide the Twitter users by that percentage.

For YouTube, log on and search for your area or town. You’ll be surprised. Using the keyword ‘Walsall’ gave just less than 5,000 clips.

Same with Flickr. This is a photo sharing website. Count how many images of your patch there are. The Walsall Flickr group of more than 80 members, for example have around 5,000 iamges of their home borough.

WordPress and Blogspot. Search for your areas and they’ll crop up on blogs.

 

Step 5 – Get your arguments ready

There’s a brilliant few resources online with the most common arguments against social media and the counter arguments to deploy.

They work a treat.

Jeff Bullas’ blog on the subject is useful. So is this from SEO Blog. Google the word ‘reasons to use social media

 

Step 6 – JFDI Just flipping do it.

Now, if you are particularly brave you can cut to this one skipping step four entirely.

The argument goes like this. Just flipping do it. By the time anyone important notices it’ll have reached critical mass and harder to close down.

It’s not something I’ve done but other far braver people have and with great success. Will Perrin – @willperrin on Twitter – often talks about how he deliberately avoided asking permission to launch Downing Street’s petition site.

 

Step 7 – Call in an expert.

There’s a good quote about a Prophet never being recognised in his own land.

The translation of this is if you think they won’t listen to you they may listen to someone from outside.

It’s worked on several occasions with local authorities who have called in Nick Booth’s Podnosh company. Dave Briggs and Simon Wakeman from Medway Council have done similar jobs.

However, do be careful of people who call themselves social media experts. Or ninjas. Or any such rot. They’re almost certainly not and there are plenty of snake oil salesmen about right now.

 

Step 8 – Keep winning the internal argument.

Now you are up and running as nobody will be able to counter such stunning arguments it doesn’t end there. No, sir.

The social media head of one of Britain’s main parties once said that up to half his job is taken up with winning the internal argument.

Report back progress and keep a measure of followers and activity.

Banning social media is rather like trying to outlaw the telephone in the 19th century.

It’s a communications channel. We need to embrace it. Smile. It’s the future. And your children’s.

 

Pics: Used under a creative commons licence, Amit Gupta (Facebook), Badjonni (swimmers),  Dan Slee (Newlands Valley), Sean Dreilinger (mobiles) and the Little Tea Cup (Dan Slee).