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Minimum usable services

Between April and October 2014 the number of transactions per day on westberks.gov.uk almost doubled.

I went into how it was achieved here, but the short story is less, better quality information, and more, good quality digital services supported on devices right down to 320px wide using RESS.

There's still much more to do though. If you stand still online, then you're less likely to continue to meet the evolving needs of customer expectations and technology.

Whilst the project to launch our new platform might have finished, we're conducting continuous improvement, prioritised by actual numbers for services used on a Transactions Dashboard.

If I had one thing to pass on from this it's about minimum viable products, or perhaps a better phrase is a minimum usable service. What I mean by this is get your digital service to a usable state, test it in alpha, launch it in beta, gather data and improve it until you're happy to launch it live, then continue to improve.

Carl's Conundrum of Internal Influence

I'm writing this partly as a reply to an excellent piece that Carl Haggerty published about the disconnect between internal and external influence and partly due to various conversations over the past month about how to make using tools like collaboration platform Pipeline common practice.

This isn't really about Carl though, or Devon County Council, or any other council specifically, it's more a comment on the influence of digital teams in local governments, or lack of, and how to resolve this.

So here's the question that prompted this piece. How can someone who's been recognised nationally for their work, first by winning the Guardian's Leadership Excellent Award and who has more recently been placed in the top 100 of the Local Government Chronicle's most influential people in local government, "sometimes feel rather isolated and disconnected to the power and influence internally".

First, let's consider whether is this a problem to unique t…

Pipeline: The First Fifty

Back in 2013 I wrote about about kick starting collaboration and in the spirit of LocalGov Digital's ethos of "Think. Do. Share" we've been thinking, then doing something about it.

A couple of weeks ago LocalGovDigital Makers launched Pipeline, to help enable collaboration between council digital teams. At present it's very much an alpha, a platform to investigate the functionality needed to allow councils to work together more closely together and a pilot to test out Makers Project Teams.

We publicised the launch with a few tweets, an article on the LocalGov Digital website and Digital  by Default News ran a piece on it you could say it was fairly low key.

As I write this, we've had people from 50 different councils sign up.

I'm under no illusion. This isn't 50 councils all ready to dive head-first into the sharing and collaboration of their digital work, I'm sure some will have joined through personal interest or curiosity.

I don't want to…

The start of a localGDS?

Yesterday was the first LocalGov Digital Makers (LGMakers) meet, in Guildford. It was an event that Ben Cheetham, Dan Blundell and I organised to show some of the Makers Project Team pilot projects but more importantly hear people's views on collaborative working and get them involved in LGMakers.

The event was only open to those working in local government  (I wrote why here) and around 40 people from 25 councils attended.

For me the event confirmed there's a growing desire amongst those working for local governments to do things differently. This is heartening, as given the diminishing funds councils have at their disposal, increasingly local authorities have to stop doing things or find alternative ways of doing them.

With Makers Project Teams, by using existing tools such as GitHub, Trello, Slack, Twitter and creating a few more (they'll be more about the pilot projects in the next couple of weeks) council digital teams would share their work, where common aims and lo…

Connecting local government digital makers

LocaGov Digital Makers (Makers) is the network for designers and developers from LocalGov Digital.

Makers is open to all, and attendees at our Hack Day in June included people from local governments, the Ordnance Survey, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Government Digital Service, the NHS and the private sector.

So why is the Makers Meet-Up on 11 September just open to those working for a council?

Change is generally enacted by those with a mandate or by consensus when a critical mass start doing something new. Makers don't have a mandate, and whilst we're much more that just a group of volunteers, we're only working in tens of councils rather than hundreds.

On Thursday we've got people from over 25 councils coming to talk about how they can start changing things and working together, whilst still retaining the autonomy the need to meet local users' needs.

We've got LocalGovCamp veterans coming, we've got others taking their first te…

Is "digital transformation" hindering digital transformation?

Last year I helped put together the LocalGov Digital Content Standards. They're a guide to writing content for local government websites, drawing from and adding to best practice that already exists. I also managed a project to create a local government site written to the standards.

It made me think about written language in a new way, though Twitter and its 140 character limit had already done this to some extent.

There's a great quote from Mark Twain:
I didn't have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one. It's harder to put your point across succinctly without losing the meaning, than it is to waffle on using superfluous and convoluted phraseology over and over again, much the same as I've just done.

Along the same lines, I love this video from GDS, "It’s not dumbing down, it’s opening up":



Enough said.

So what's this got to do with digital transformation? In the past few weeks there's been some discussion about what "dig…

Making a change for the better

Last week LocalGov Digital Makers published information about the creation of Makers Project Teams. Unlike top-down initiatives such as Individual Voter Registration (IER), Makers Project Teams is very much a bottom-up collaboration, largely created by local government digital practitioners.

Makers Project Teams will commence with two pilots and they'll form part of the discussion at the Makers Meet-Up on 11th September. There's still a few places available, so if you work for a council and are interested in joining the discussion please get in touch with @LGMakers or leave a comment on my blog.

The pilots will not only create outputs to improve cross-council collaboration, they'll allow those who take part to assess and improve how project teams work. Think of it as an alpha version of a project team creating a beta product.

Given my involvement, naturally I'm a big supporter of this initiative however I do have one word of warning. Makers Project Teams need to have …

What is digital?

Yesterday I joined in a discussion on Twitter about "what is digital" and then read the piece that provoked it. Usually you'd do this the other way round, but conversations online don't always follow a linear pattern. That's my excuse anyway and I'm sticking to it.

The piece was called Defining Digital by Matt Jukes.

It's an excellent summary of the problems one faces when trying to define what "digital" actually means. It got me thinking about how I define it and I was with Matt all the way to his statement:

Digital is a belief in the ability of the internet to transform…whether that be society, businesses, education, government or whatever…and the understanding of how that might be achieved.
For me, digital doesn't mean online or relating to the internet. If you're using digital to mean online, just say online. Matt's research shows that it's a far more prevalent term which means users stand a greater chance of understanding…

Does "register to vote" show why a Local GDS wouldn't work?

Register to vote is a new digital service created by the Government Digital Service and is available on GOV.UK.

All you need is your National Insurance Number and it takes about 5 minutes to start the voter registration process.

Satisfaction with GOV.UK users is high, around 95%, and I can say from experience that I found it quick and easy to use, myself.

There are problems with the process once you leave GOV.UK however, in fact the first warning signs are as you finish the GOV.UK part of the process. "contact your local electoral registration office" says the completion message (pictured above), but there's hundreds of them. Given the address of the user is known, wouldn't it be better to do the hard work to make it simple by adding a link to the appropriate council?

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but to me this says to users, "we've done our bit, you're not our problem any more".

User experience once the process is passed to a local government is …

Have you heard of a hack day hangout?

There's no substitute for face to face communication but sometimes it's just not possible. Take UK GovCamp this year for example. I know for a fact there were local government officers who wanted to attend but couldn't afford to pay for travel themselves, nor could they get their organisation to fund it.

If you're wondering why there was less local government representation at UK GovCamp 14, this may be the answer and as an aside, anyone proposing a centralised local government digital service would need to factor in the travel of talking to multiple service teams at 400 councils across the country, but that's another topic.

After the LocalGov Digital Makers Hack Day I talked about how hack days are essential for better digital services, and LocalGov Digital are working to help create formal structures so collaboration can occur where political priorities and local user needs align. Given that financial constrains are limiting some from attending discover or hac…

A single website for local government

This week I've seen discussion about a "single website for local government", so I think it's important to clarify what's being talked about when we're talking about local authority websites.

Council websites deliver information to residents; that's traditionally been their core task and if they're following the LocalGov Digital Content Standards, where possible they've linked to a definitive source rather than write a page themselves, unless they're the definitive source of the information themselves.

This means that the 500 to 1000 pages on the site all serve a purpose. This content could be put into a central local government site (if that's not an oxymoron) but it still takes someone to author and edit these pages that are specific to each council, so putting them all on one site isn't really going to be any more efficient.

So that's information, but councils offer a lot more online and many will have a collection of form…

What became of LocalGovCamp 2014?

LocalGovCamp 2014 was last weekend and judging by the response on Twitter and blogs, it looks like people thought it was a success.

From a personal perspective there were so many people I'd talked to online that I met in person for the first time. There were people I really wanted to chat with but missed or just nodded to as I dashed to a session.  However long the day is, it's never long enough.

I was also proud to organise the Makers Hack Day which around 50 people attended on a work day, and importantly I learned a lot for the next time. I'll post more about this later.

I've already seen blog posts about a coming of age for LocalGov Digital, how LocalGovCamp is vital for disrupting and pushing the sector forward, how LocalGov Digital should have more balls (in fact perhaps Glen Ocsko should have the title "LocalGov Digital Voice of the Balls"), all of which I agree with, so in Makers' style, I wanted to focus on doing stuff.

I've put together a li…

Could the ECB inspire a Local GDS?

So back once again is the debate about a Local GDS.

For me, here's the dilemma. To understand local governments and the ever changing demands and constraints which are even more evident in the digital world you need to be part of one as a member, or work for one as an officer. I wrote about this back in 2012 just after LocalGov Digital was formed.

In my view it's essential to be directly accountable to the representatives of local people or local people themselves, if you're delivering public services for them.

The problem with this is, quite rightly, one's time is taken up with working for one's council, so unless you find other councils interested in doing what you're doing which in itself takes time, any work beyond the day job for the wider sector is largely done in one's own time.

So, take the person out of local government and they lose the essential accountability to local people, keep them in and they'll have little time to do anything for the w…

A local public services search

It's funny how conversations on Twitter start off about one thing and end up about another.

This morning I started tweeting about how we're aggregating Google Calendars (gCal) into an events search, found out Kevin Jump had written some code for pulling events from gCal too, talked about testing the Solr search engine against Google with Jason Williams, Sarah Jennings and Richard Kingston, and ended up discussing a local public services search engine with James Cattell and briefly, Saul Cozens and Tom Loosemore too.

Both the first two subjects deserve their own post, but this one's about the last, a local service search engine.

On 20 June LocalGov Digital Makers are running a Hack Day in partnership with Nesta and for one of the challenges we're looking at is creating a central resource for local governments, perhaps based on the some of the work the Government Digital Service have done.

The discussion this morning got me thinking, what if we could pull together search…

A new platform for LocalGov Digital

Last week a project I'm managing launched two new websites, this week I'm part of a group that's launching a new beta website for LocalGov Digital.

We aim for the new LocalGov Digital website to become both a voice and a resource for digital practitioners working in local government.

It's the new home for the Content Standards, which aim to help content designers create local government websites in easy to understand, plain English. It's the new home for the guide on how to share code, helping digital practitioners work more collaboratively. Both these and more come under the LocalGov Makers banner, the design and development network from LocalGov Digital.

More than that just a resource though, it's a voice for digital practitioners bringing together tweets, blogs and more from those who work on the digital front line, in or around local governments, through Sarah Lay's creation, LocalGov Digital Voice.

We hope that a regular audience will return to see wha…

A Tale of Two Websites

Sunday night, 7pm, 19 May, we launched our new websites, www.westberks.gov.uk and info.westberks.gov.uk, the products of a project called Choose Digital.

I'm going to tell the story of the culmination of a year's work and a whole lot more planning, though past posts on my blog and those that helped inspire it.

We start back in 2011 when I was thinking about the next generation of local government websites. Perhaps one site wasn't enough to publish information, engage with people and deliver digital services. I looked at the retail sector and originally thought about creating "customer" and "shareholder" or in the case of local governments, "citizen" websites.

It wasn't until we asked what the purpose of each site was, we decided on a service or "doing stuff" site (www), and an information or "reading about stuff site" (info).

So that's the sites themselves but also in 2011 I started thinking about content, not as w…

People, Personas and the Unpredictable

A few weeks ago I spoke at an event in London about the LocalGov Digital Content Standards and how they're helping councils make better websites.

Another talk covered user testing and the speaker showed a picture of session they'd helped facilitate. In the picture however, there were no real users, just personas.

Wikipedia describes a persona as "a social role or a character played by an actor" and it's not uncommon for digital teams to create persons to help them design the content, taxonomy and other aspects of their sites.

So in the picture I saw, council staff were interviewing other council staff who were role playing users. Now, there's nothing unusual about this in usability testing, however when I asked if they'd tested with real users the reply was "No, we tried that and they're too unpredictable".

This seemed bizarre and reminded me of an example of unpredictably that excluded someone from using one of digital services.

When we cre…

Borrow, Build, Buy

This week I had a brief chat on Twitter with John Jackson and Gavin Beckett. John mentioned a National IT Procurement Strategy so I thought I'd write mine own.OK, so it's not really a strategy, just three options I think you should consider when creating a new digital service.
BorrowIf you're looking to create a new application the best place to start is finding someone who's already made it and willing to share the code. There's increasing number of public sector organisations on GitHub all round the world.Sites like Europe Commons also offer a catalogue of open applications and networks like LocalGov Digital's LGMakers and the Open Systems Alliance are promote code sharing.
BuildLast year I wrote about an Kickstarter for local governments. As collaborative working becomes easier and professional networking more prevalent this is increasingly becoming an option, however I've yet to see a platform that will really enable this.LGMakers will shortly be releasi…

Planning makers perfect

LocalGovCamp, the unconference for local government takes place in Birmingham on Saturday 21 June and is this year it's organised by LocalGov Digital.

In addition to the main event, there are also fringe events on Friday 20 June, including a hack day, run by LocalGov Digital Makers in partnership with Nesta.
A hack day is an event in which programmers and others involved in digital development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on projects.

As part of the planning, Makers are running a survey to find problems that people in, or who use the services of local government face which could be solved by a hack day. It runs until 30th March and you can see the survey here.
Hack days usually run at weekends as it makes them easier to attend. People don't have to take a day off or ask their boss if they can go. So are there any benefits to running an event like this on a Friday?
I think so and here's why.
Running the e…

How Flooding Reversed The Flow Of News

You might have seen in the media, it's been a bit soggy in Berkshire over the past couple of weeks. They say necessity is the mother of invention and because of the flooding we bought forward the launch of our new news page by a few months.

The page is still a bit rough round the edges in its design, doesn't yet do all it will, but we took the same line as the Government Digital Service, and release something that's certainly a Minimum Viable Product.

It'll eventually show a summary of latest blogs, events listings and most recent consultations, but for now it just provides the additional functionality of a feed of news.

What's so special about that? Don't most council sites have a list of press releases?

As well as our news content, including the service status of over 100 schools, libraries, car parks, children's centres and more (something we introduced during the snow of 2010) it gives us the ability to import tweets into the news feed.

The LocalGov Di…

Content Together

This week the Department for Education (DfT) changed twenty or so pages on their site, so I thought I'd write about it.

Seriously, that's what this piece is about.

So you're probably thinking, why does it matter, it's the department's site they can do what they like, and you'd be right. You're probably thinking, twenty pages, we've published more in one go before, it's not a big deal, and you'd be right.

So why on earth am I writing about it?

When it comes to digital, Central Government and local governments need to work closer together. The LocalGov Digital Content Standards promote this idea, and there's a whole section called "Is the content original" which basically says, if it already exists, link to it.

I've seen whole parts of local governments' websites that have been lifted from others' including those of Central Government. In almost all cases, this is a complete waste of time. Why reproduce what a credible so…

The Beginners Guide To Hangouts

Last year I wrote for Comms2Point0 about what Google+ can offer.

Communities such as the one run by LocalGov Digital give you a great new way to connect interest groups. Pages are another way to promote one's brand or organisation, but like much of Social they're still reminiscent of the telegraph and newspaper era of traditional media. It's Google+ hangouts that bring Social into the radio and television age.

Skype has been offering video chat for years but it's more akin to the telephone than broadcast media and with the number of features to help one engage with one's audience being added to all the time, hangouts really feel like the the next generation of Social.

So here's my quick guide for get the most out of attending a hangout:

Step One

Join Google+. You'll probably find you've already got a Google account if you use Gmail, or Google Calendar, or Google Drive, or one of the many other things Google provides.

Step Two

Buy yourself a webcam to co…

The first tweeters

New Year can be a time for reflection, and partly promoted by an excellent post from Dan Slee about radio and content without boundaries I thought my first post of the year might be one of introspection and a look back at the history of one aspect of communication.

Long before Twitter, long before the internet, there existed a publicly available, worldwide network of transient conversation between people around the world. These former day "tweeters" were Amateur Radio (sometimes called ham radio) enthusiasts, or radio amateurs as they're known.

During my childhood my dad was (and still is) a radio amateur and this played no small part in forging my interest in communications and techno geekery. As a kid, I spent time with my dad in a room not dissimilar to the picture above, listening to crackly voices being broadcast through the ether.

In these pre-internet days there was something incredible about being able to listen to radio broadcasts or even better, strangers talk…