Saturday, 9 October 2010

Nothing From Nothing

Much has been made of BCCDIY in the past couple of years or so, some heralding it as a new dawn in local authority service delivery. It's the website that does for free what the official Birmingham City Council (BCC) does, if reports are to believed for an amazing £3.3m, or at least did. As of last week however the expensive offering does have one thing over the free facility, it's still up and running. Those such as Conrad Quilty-Harper in the Telegraph who even as late as this August were singing the praises BCCDIY might now have reconsider their point of view.

Perhaps this is a premature post-mortem and someone just forgot to renew the domain but at the very least if the official BCC website was off-line for a fortnight I'm betting quite a few people might have complained and if not I’m very sure that someone might have at least noticed. A Google search at time of writing reveals that perhaps no one has noticed that BCCDIY has gone AWOL.

In truth BCDIY was never free. Whilst the technology it was based on probably didn't cost a penny and the hosting was most likely next to nothing much of the content was lifted straight from the BCC website. Now I don't think there's anything wrong with that as long as it credits the source, I’m all for open data, but to claim it's free when it was no doubt written by an officer paid from the public purse could be construed as a touch deceitful.

Then there's the transactional tools it offered, paying your council tax, parking fines and so on. These were embedded straight from the BCC website, so no BCC, no BCDIY and I given the supposed budget of BCC I bet they weren't cheap. Again BCCDIY profiting from BCC's (over) investment and passing it off as free. I’m amazed so many were fooled.

Of course BCCDIY did have some original content, but if you’d used it in the last few months you probably know that even something as basic as the postcode search had stopped functioning. In fact the only thing that did seem to regularly work properly were the images imported from Flickr. A nice touch, but a pretty picture of Villa Park isn’t going to help someone who wants to know which day their bin is emptied.

Stef Lewandowski says in a video of the Hack BCCDIY Day “If we can’t pull it together in one day I don’t know who can” and there’s the problem in a nutshell. A service delivery website can’t be put together in one day and forgotten about, or one week, or one year, it’s an ongoing operation. You could never imagine the likes of Tesco building a website, flicking the On switch and then putting their feet up, could you?

Once the fun stuff like screen scraping 9,000 pages over breakfast has been done the real work of keeping the not so exciting information on parking by-laws or planning regulations up to date starts. It’s about this point running a local authority website kind of loses its appeal with some I imagine. Don’t these pages stay the same all the time, isn’t it a one-off job? Not so in normal times and in the current climate of change even less so.

So here’s the real cost of free online service delivery. Unreliable, unaccessable and unaccountable websites resulting in a reverse channel shift from the cheap medium of the Internet, to more expensive media such as the telephone and email, hitting councils and therefore taxpayers where it hurts, in the wallet or purse. Some things are done better by individuals and collectives rather than organisations and companies, social media for instance, but if you’re one of the former planning to reproduce an entire local authority website and keep it up to date my advice (in my least patronising tone possible) would be don’t DIY on the cheap.

EDIT: 01/11/11
Looks like BCCDIY is back with a new domain name but all the same problems.
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.