Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Centring on savings sells digital short

You might have seen a paper published last week by UKAuthority reporting that 40% of councils say they're not making savings by using digital.

Whilst I agree with much of the sentiment of the paper I noticed that Steve Halliday, President of SocITM commented on Twitter that perhaps it was "council accountants fail(ing) to count savings achieved through digital" and I can see his point.

I very much doubt that there's a single council that isn't making some sort of saving through digital, it's just that this information hasn't been collated or reported. After all, every council has a website, so this must be be providing some saving, in that it's preventing a level of what used to be referred to as "avoidable contact", so why wasn't this reported?

I'm not advocating the introduction of performance indicators that tie council staff up in red tape rather then delivering services. I'm just saying that when a council says it's making zero savings from using digital, perhaps it needs to look at the way it's assessed this.

This article isn't about savings though, it's about the wider benefits of channel shift, four of which I've highlighted briefly below:

  1. Increased Capacity

    A larger percentage of end-to-end digital transactions and a better quality of online information (something the publication of the LocalGov Digital Content Standards should help improve) mean that frontline staff providing the initial contact can spend more time dealing with residents who still want to use traditional channels.

    It also means that back-office staff can allocate more time to getting the job done and (if using a decent Customer relationship management (CRM) system) reporting what they did back to the resident quickly and easily.

    Perhaps you're thinking you can't have increased savings and increased capacity, but as with almost everything a council provides or commissions, there's a balance between saving the resident money and making things better for them which applies here too.

    The increased capacity that digital can provide across all channels gives an opportunity for:

  2. Better Quality of Service

    Digital provides access to information and services when people want to use them. Whether it's reporting a broken streetlight at midnight or looking up library opening times on a Sunday afternoon it's there when people want to use it.

    What can be overlooked is that the increased capacity digital provides can create a better quality of service for those residents who don't want to, or are unable to use digital services.

    So digital can actually enable a better quality of service across all channels, which leads to:

  3. Greater Satisfaction

    It's natural that better informed residents, able to use services or find information when they want will be happier. So obviously, better digital services make people who like using digital happier.

    If staff are able to devote more time to traditional channels then it's more likely that those who still want to phone, email or face-to-face will also receive a better service making them happier too.

  4. Greater Transparency

    Whether it's publishing detailed accounts or showing residents when, where and how things get fixed, digital provides operational information in a form much more easily accessible to residents than previously available.

The need to find savings is a driver for an improved level of digital services in Local Government of course, but measuring just one benefit is a mistake.

Making a change in any organisation isn't just about technology, it's cultural too and in my view, centring purely on savings sells digital short.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Being Really Useful

Last Tuesday I took part in a Really Useful Day in Newbury. The event was the biggest Really Useful Day so far, and saw over 50 people from more than 25 councils attend.

The days are organised by Local DirectGov, a service run by Department for Communities and Local Government. This was the second LocalGov Digital / Local DirectGov collaboration, the first being part of Create/Innovate in Devon, though in truth all the credit goes to Louise and Abby from Local DirectGov for organising the day.

We heard how Adur and Worthing Councils and Brighton and Hove Council created new websites and from myself on "Connecting Councils", how council officers can collaborate and share using digital media.

I know I promote a digital agenda, but there's sometimes no substitute for face-to-face collaboration and what marks a Really Useful Day apart from many events is the level of practical participation. People are encouraged to think and solve problems together, rather than just being talked at.

Next year we'll be running four more collaborations at venues around the country to help digital practitioners in Local Government. Until then take a look at the Local DirectGov calendar to see if there's anything really useful happening near you.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Four bits of advice for new LocalGov websites.

 John Fox recently posted designs for the new Sheffield City Council website on Google+. I applaud anyone who does this and opens their designs up to critique and criticism; it can only produce a better result for the end user. A discussion followed which prompted me to come up with the following four bits of advice if you're creating a new Local Government website:

  1. Treat Google as your home page. Prioritise the SEO work above things like including top tasks on your home page. At least twice as many people will come from Google than visit your home page.

  2. Treat every page as landing page. Assess the tasks one might need associated with this particular service, wherever they might be on the site and whoever might provide them, and link to them.

    For example, if you want to build an extension on your house you'll need to know about Planning Applications and you'll probably need to know about Building Control which are generally in the same areas of a council website.

    Less likely to be in the same category is information about a skip licence. You might need to know about noise pollution or air pollution. You might need to know when the local tip is open and whether you can take certain materials there.

    Treating every page as a landing page will give you an overview of the services and information the viewer might need from the whole of your organisation.

  3. Offer themed pages that live outside the general structure of your content but bring together pages. Be clever and don't group things simply because they happen to start with the same letter, in an A- Z.

    Group things because they have common elements, may be used by similar demographics or are part of a similar user journey. Someone searching for "disability" might be looking for information from Social Care, but equally they might want help with finding employment, a blue badge, help with waste collection or something else.

    Make all this information accessible from one page.

  4. Treat your site as collection of re-usable objects, not a bunch of web pages.

    Ensuring you use RDF or similar metadata where applicable will mean that people don't have to visit your site to find out what they need in some cases.

    Visitor numbers alone are not indicative of a good service and this will actually reduce avoidable contact to your website by making your content even easier to find and re-publish in other digital media.

It's not until you start to consider a true polyhierarchical structure, coupled with the ability to syndicate your content you'll start to move your website from rigid set of pages to a fluid set of objects relating to services and information your organisation provides.

We'll be using these principles in our Alpha (alpha.westberks.gov.uk) and I'd welcome any feedback on this work in progress.
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.