Sunday, 15 February 2015

Local government should... (Part Two)

In Part One I offered a rough guide to local government. A quick explanation of how complex this bit of the public sector is compared central government.

In this part I'll discuss how we can move things forward, not by amending existing practices but by taking a new approach. I'm going to use the contentious issue of "one website to rule them all", that is, a single website to publish information from all 6,500ish local government departments that some have proposed.

Local government websites are a good example of change by consensus. Even as little as ten years ago, not every UK council had a website. There's no general legislation to ensure that councils have websites (though there is some around specific content provision), it's just by consensus of user need that they've been created.

They're also a good example of the speed of change. Local politicians have been told by professionals of the need for bigger, better websites for years. This is starting to change, and in 2013 I wrote "How to reduce visits to your website" about how councils will eventually be looking to cut down the number of user journeys to their website. The ultimate outcome of this is that councils don't have individual websites at all. Imagine how confusing this must be to some local politicians, being told the exact opposite of what they've heard for the last fifteen years.

So back to the single website. Many are against this idea, including the Society of Information Technology Managers, I am too, but for different reasons, it's not forward thinking enough and is the wrong model given what's achievable now. Simply amending where local government website content is presented is unlikely to work, changing the model the sector uses to publish content just might.

Back in 2011 I wrote about treating content as a data object rather than a page of text and followed this up with a different look at Twitter in 2012. When you start to break things down to this level, more becomes possible.

Rather than trying to force councils to use a single website and content management system (CMS) , a better approach would be to create a central repository for content with a publicly readable API. This isn't a new idea, nor is it mine. Saul Cozens has talked about "local government as a service" since 2012.

An open service of council content would enable authorities to continue to create local websites should they wish to. Yes, some might see this as continuing to be wasteful but it negates the argument that as independent organisations, councils should have their own web presence, because they still can should they wish.

Another argument against a one website for councils is that it would only need a single CMS and therefore is anti-competitive. With the model I'm proposing, existing management systems could be configured to use the API, allowing councils to still use the CMS of their choice, should they wish to.

This model breaks down the artificial barriers that some have put in place to achieving something new.

Sure you'd need to agree the range of content types but this has already been documented in the LocalGov Digital Content Standards. You'd also need to agree what's stored against each record, but to a large extent this has been done by schema.org and LocalGov Digital project Localo is starting to define some of the standards that are individual to local government.

An additional benefit is hyperlocals could create community websites, national websites on a particular topic could be developed (similar to Tell Me Scotland). Put simply, local government content would not be confined to a single website that provides information about services in one geographic boundary, but set free for use by whoever wishes to create something with it.

This approach fits with the idea of government as a platform and is far more versatile than a single website. It means that those that want to get on with doing something new can do so, but allows those who don't to, to migrate across when they're ready, because without legislation this can't be mandated and will only be achieved by consensus.

In Part One I talked about doing things differently rather than trying to re-invent what already exists. Starting to create a local government content API rather than a single website is just one example. I've added this idea to LocalGov Digital's collaboration platform Pipeline, I'm sure other can think of many more, so why not post them on Pipeline too.
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.