16/07/2010 by Jos Creese
……..was subject of my opening address to Building Perfect Council Websites '10 - the 5th running of the annual Socitm/Headstar event, which was busier than ever this year.
You can view the event microsite and presentations at www.bpcw10.co.uk.
There were lots of excellent questions fired at me afterwards - perhaps you'd like to add your comments using the comment facility. And someone tweeted their amazement that a CIO (me presumably) knew about Twitter! Here goes with the speech (its quite long for a blog post):
I have to say that in any walk of life, building perfection is rarely the 'name of the game'. 'Fit for purpose' would be a more justifiable (and affordable) aspiration. However, in the case of public sector websites, pressure is growing for a step change.
We must remember that websites are still relatively new - 10 years ago, a significant proportion of local authorities did not have a web site and those who did it was just an electronic library of information. Ten years before that few of us had a home PC.
Over time, largely as a result of customer demand, rather than efficiency measures, websites have improved their look and feel and their information content. But we have yet to make the leap of faith for them becoming the default delivery channel. I believe that is now happening.
Many of you will remember the Best Value Performance Indicator 157 - putting every transaction on line whatever the business value. For all the criticism the 'e-Government' programme of 2002-2005, it did at least result in a growing interest in and focus on web transactions. It feels to me as though we are at a similar turning point, and that's what this conference is about.
So 'perfection' is as much about improving the way in which we design and deliver public services and deliver efficiency at levels not previously thought possible.
Actually it's odd that we have not pushed the efficiency 'button' much harder until now. The cost of a web transaction is a fraction of face-to-face or even dealing with a telephone call, and yet most public service organisations have preferred to choose web self-service as an additional channel, rather than 'channel shift' and replace traditional service delivery. That is the 'leap of faith' which must now happen.
The public sector now has little choice but to stop doing things and to get rid of the majority of overheads associated with the traditional means of delivery. Socitm have been advocating this for the best part of a decade, and the Better Connected service was set up specifically to give the examples of 'the best' and 'the rest' on this journey.
Despite some criticism of Better Connected from some web developers who don't necessarily share the same views, and from some Councils who feel they have been ranked too low, the Better Connected service has created an indisputably wide and deep impact in driving up public service website quality. And it will continue to do so, even if it challenges us and creates some contentious debate. To do otherwise would dilute value and influence.
What you will see today will be examples of best practice. Not from the point of view of technologists. Not from the point of view of policy designers and strategists. But from the point of view of citizens. And it is fair to say that we haven't always served their interests well enough web design.
Doing this now is not optional, and in that sense driving for perfection matters:
- Websites which are designed around the interests of individuals and communities.
- Content and electronic services which put the citizen in control.
- Automated and straight forward end-to-end transactions.
- Personalisation of websites, rather than the vanilla 'one size fits all'.
This also accords with the Martha Lane Fox drive to get all Britain on line. It will not be good enough for Digital Inclusion to be a top priority for public service organisations if our websites are not up to scratch and providing easy access, effective support and useful services as people become more digitally active.
Being able to get the information that you want quickly or to complete a transaction simply is the priority for a citizen who rarely wants to read minutes of committees, detailed policies and long PDF files describing Council successes over the last 12 months, with photos of chief officers and politicians at harmonious gatherings.
And raw data for developers matters - much can be left to them which traditionally we would have done.
There are, of course, many good examples as well, and we should learn from these, and the pressure on a payback makes the choice of search engines, web publishing tools, and design aids essential to get right. But it often does not take lots of money. Some of the best websites that I have seen, for example, those that win the annual Hantsweb Awards event, are built on a shoestring by amateurs with nothing more than rudimentary knowledge and a great deal of hard work.
Despite the investments, it is actually still rare to find a really good website in the public or private sectors. Some web design clearly show that people still believe that consumers on average are impressed by 'clever' technology such as 'flash media'- sports and leisure retailers are amongst the worse. Some designers think web self-service is only about 'avoidable contact costs'.
The 'best' examples are simple, quick, and intuitive to use. These are I suspect not designed by:
- the head of marketing ("isn't this pretty, you'll remember our logo")
- the web designer ("You won't find another web site using so many features")
- the policy manager ("I'm going to tell you how great we are and all about our history and philosophy")
- the IT department ("our technology is seriously clever and high performing")
The very best are single purpose - eg. Google, 'Nickys Seeds'. So it's hard for complex public service organisations, but there are some golden rules in my view.
- Really, truly easy end-to-end transactions - "one and done", integrated not bolted on.
- Contact details and simple information - not reports and policy documents.
- Keep the format web based -avoid PDF.
- Up-to-date - spend enough time getting rid of old, out-of-date stuff.
- Customer driven - be a 'mystery shopper', and be surprised
- Don't rely on IT experts or marketing 'experts', use crowd sourcing.
The debate about 'too many web sites' is, in my view, a distraction. You can't even count them if they are well integrated. And why would you bother? The 'too many website' angst is an issue because:
- So many of them are pointless or badly designed.
- They are symptomatic of layers of public sector quangos which get in the way of public administration and service delivery.
- The effect of preservation of unique 'brand' which is driven by self-justification and is confusing, unnecessary and counter to joined up government.
This last point is a growing concern. Partnership services need a hosted web presence, and an identity but they don't necessarily need to run a completely separate web presence. For example, Hampshire hosts over 1000 websites. It is the busiest local authority website as a result, moving traffic between services, whether delivered by the County or not. Yet we have not got it right. We still debate about new websites paid for (at least in part) by the County, delivered by the County, but yet are told that they must be separate from any County brand. As a result, their visibility is lower, costs are higher and integration is diluted.
So what does the future hold?
Clearly technology will continue to develop, irrespective of whether the public sector can afford to be at the leading edge. As Bill Gates said, "if you can imagine something being possible by technology, it will be delivered within five years. The things you can't imagine will simply take a little longer."
There are some particular trends, which you are quite likely to be factoring into your thinking and your plans:
- Re-purposing content for mobile devices.
- Providing data and information to fulfil the government's and the public's priority for transparency.
- Integrating transactions into services and related information, rather than a 'bolt-on' catalogue.
- 'Personalisation' with secure authentication to deliver content and information (both 'push' and 'pull') to individuals, under their control.
- Web self-service, with no intervention and complete automation from request to fulfilment, with invisible boundaries between public and private service delivery.
Fears of unfettered of demand will have to be dealt with - choking back public demand through deliberately bad design sometimes (often!) seen in the private sector just won't do. There must be integration of contact centres, customer service strategy and web development.
As web services delivered through various access channels naturally become the default for delivery, they will also be the measurement of public service quality.
All of this means radical change. Web services are no longer the domain of IT, 'Marketing' or a few specialists in individual departments. Web services are a vital channel for all service managers who need to understand intimately the potential of the technology and the risks, benefits and change management implications.
These changes are arguably as big a step as the original adoption of the Web itself represented. Lack of resources will both be an inhibitor but also a driver for creativity and change. The launch of Socitm's Web Professionals' framework is also a significant step designed to support web and digital professionals. This framework has been developed by practitioners working with Socitm and reflects the skills and expertise inherent in these roles. By the end of the Summer, Socitm will be inviting web professionals to take up membership and apply for an accredited designation. I strongly welcome this initiative.
Whatever happens, Socitm will be there, measuring performance and helping promote best practice, as well as encouraging citizen-focus adoption of web technology and design for service transformation and efficiency.