Wednesday, 14 April 2010

How about a national system of council websites?

I was at a meeting this afternoon with people involved in building council websites. I walked home in the sunshine after the meeting finished abruptly when the fire alarm sounded just as I was about to share a few interesting bits of my world with the others. One the way I started to think about the 480 plus council websites there are in the UK and how the public purse may be better spent by developing services in a completely different way.

What if there were no council websites?

What if there were just places where you can find relevant stuff about where you live via postcodes and map searches which brings together all the things you need into one place. Present it by services and not by service providers.

So, a national site with a map of the UK on the home page and a postcode/placename search. That would filter information just to the place you live, work or are just interested in. At this stage, lets add a function to save that place as a favourite so you can easily get back to it on another visit. As you may work in one place and live in another place, lets allow unlimited favourites but list them in order of use so the one you use most often comes up first. This is a bit like the Google Chrome homepage.

As well as a location, we need a service. Services should be brought in from a wide range of existing organisations - national government, local government, police, fire, NHS. We also need to link into charities, local societies like neighbourhood watch, parish councils, residents associations and individual sites like blogs, facebook and twitter.

Services can be offered on the top level site based on popularity, alphabetically, most recently used. The user can favourite services they want to come back to.

At this stage, the national web page can automatically reflect local content based on previous visits and present it alongside the national shop window (Amazon).

Councils who have traditional websites stop making sites and start contributing their content dynamically as XML. Generic services like waste collection, recycling, libraries and planning can have some generic content which shouldn't need repeating. Each council can then provide content to add to this which gives specific information for that local area. As often as possible, content should be broken down into schemas so similar content across the country can be mashed to produce cross-border results according to location and topic rather than by council.

An example would be refuse tips. Each council would be responsible for entering information about each tip according to a central schema. This one would include the location as X/Y map reference, the name, the council in charge, types of recycling services offered, parking, opening times etc. A customer can search for all the tips near his home, perhaps within a 50 mile radius. Traditional publication would stop at borough boundaries but this system wouldn't see a boundary. It would simply list the tips within the area set. If someone wanted a very specialised service only offered at a few tips, they could widen the radius but filter by the specialised service. This delivers the required tip with the correct specialism closest to where the person lives. It doesn't stop at boundaries.

The same principle can be set for events, news, meetings and many other services. It is the service people need, not the council who is delivering it which is important. Of course, more often than not, the service provider will be the local council.

There are about 40 people who are employed in Essex to manage web sites for councils. If there are 40 counties in the UK, each with about 40 people, that is 1600 staff nationwide. At £25,000 each, that is £40 million per year.

If there are 480 councils all hosting websites at £2,000 per year, that is another £1 million.

If they all run a content management system to run their sites, the annual support and maintenance cost is approximately £2,000 per year - another £1 million.

Their CMSs probably cost about £50K to buy and if one is bought every 5 years, thats another £5 million annually.

Then there is the ongoing development, additional services to check links, accessibility and code quality, online banking services to process payments, mapping services to process postcodes. This list goes on but assuming an average annual running costs budget of £5,000 per year, that adds another £2 million per year.

So far we have spent £50 million per year producing 480 individual sites which all provide basically the same service to local people. Surely we can share resources, implement best practice, do it once and produce far more for significantly less money.

It goes further . . .

These services are usually produced by councils for the public based on what they think the public need. I would suggest that ongoing development of this service should be driven by only two factors:

1. Public need
2. Legislation

If it is a legal requirement, then it must be done BUT

Apart from this, all other content should be an on-demand service based on public need.

The service should be based on user feedback. Development teams react to daily posts to the service by the public asking for refinements to existing services and additional new services.

Using this model, development teams can very quickly improve the site and develop new services which the public demand and for the benefit of all, not just one council area.

A project on this scale doesn't require a huge and expensive CMS, database, support contract form a huge company, endless payments for licences, software upgrades and everything else. With a national network of programmers, project managers, IT specialists and designers, this project can support enough specialised staff to provide a larger operation than any existing private sector company which is dedicated to a specific public service. There would be no pressures to maximise profits, sell more products please directors and stakeholders. The entire operation would be focused on providing a public service.

This should make use of available tools which can provide a service as cheaply as possible. Open source server software, databases, programming languages are proved to work. Existing sites can provide additional services - Google, Twitter, Facebook, OS and many others provide first class, free tools.

In addition, we have to remember that the UK has many capable designers and web programmers. The many existing open source products which have only been developed because of dedicated and talented people who wanted to make things better for free. This project will offer opportunities to these people and invite them to take part and actively assist their community. Work by individuals can be acknowledged and the results can contribute to a CV in living format.

I think I have all my initial thoughts down now - time to have a break and think where to go next.

No comments: