Central? Local? Usable.

One of the discussions we keep having in the office is about the idea of repeatability, especially outside of central government. How often are the user needs so different that each circumstance needs a different system? How often is it actually just bad IT and empire building that gets in the way of unified user experience?

The biggest challenge for the public sector is not ‘what next’ (more digital, more assisted digital, user-led design). It’s really ‘how next’.

With local government, health and housing online services as variable as mayonnaise in a petrol station sandwich, and an election coming up –

Only 308 days until the 2015 General Election! Days to the Election (@DaysToElection) July 3, 2014

– the dividing lines are being drawn up and there are some really interesting ideas that I want to explore briefly.

First, we have Socitm. According to Digital by Default News:

Socitm rejected the notion of a single local government website in a chapter in Better connected 2014, this year’s report on its annual survey of local government websites. It said that the case for a single local government website:

‘..ignores the independence of local authorities as organisations that have different democratic mandates and priorities… local government is exactly that. Local requirements, whether of geography, size, demographics or politics, must continue to drive council websites.’

Then Ben Welby’s frankly marvellous series of posts on the matter (which if you haven’t read you should go and do IMMEDIATELY) who counters by saying:

Yes, councils are democratically elected by local citizens. Yes, councils make decisions about budgets and where money is spent. Yes, councils have local priorities and focus on local needs. Yes, councils are held responsible and accountable for service failure.

But my needs of local government as a resident in Lambeth are the same as my needs were as a resident in York. The numbers involved, the processes, the locations and the dates are different but paying council tax, finding out when my bins need to be collected or getting permission to host a street party aren’t so different as to require entirely different design patterns, user experiences and underlying technology.

Phil Rumens looks at narrowing the terms of what’s being talked about to exclude content:

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.

GOV.UK has lots of separate pages of content that are managed by lots of editors too. Having many CMS users isn’t necessarily an inefficiency. The issue is that different platforms to put text on a screen costs a lot of money because the same systems are built again and again and again, to meet no discernible separate user need.

So how do we address the future of local government online (and offline)? Is Local Government just a provider of utility services or is it an example of near anarcho-syndicalism and direct community responsibility for services?

Probably nothing so clear cut and certainly nothing so homogeneous.

Someone needs to take the lead

The lines seem to be drawn between people arguing for the status quo with some improvements, and others saying that radical change is important. I have a few worries about the uneasy compromise that seems to be forming: of a shared API and encouraging use of GOV.UK assets and technology. It doesn’t seem to go far enough to put the user first. It doesn’t meet the Design Principles. It doesn’t allow for a discovery phase that could go anywhere.

In this day and age, websites are like paper and ink. So why on earth does each authority need its own printing press, paper, wood forest and ink factory? Local government has as much gubbins as central (probably more) so similar opportunities to improve the mechanics (and the services, and the user experience) must exist. Local authorities have statutory duties to deliver services to their citizens. Surely these services – online and off – should meet high standards. But is that practical for all authorities?

Every council needs to provide similar levels of accountability, service and accessibility, but not every council can provide that equally. Not every council can afford the standards that web users have grown to expect. Neither can they afford to build services that are as robust and secure as we deserve.

Can we reasonably expect small parish councils under the yoke of austerity to have top-notch web security teams? If they are able to find the resources necessary to fund the protection of their digital assets, that’s great – but it’s highly unlikely.Terence Eden

I think it is hard to argue that local government, Parliament, the NHS and housing are much further along than where central government was in 2011: small pockets of excellence in a sea of business as usual. Small incremental changes are just that: small and incremental. As the user experience of these parts of a citizen’s online life falls behind the rest of the internet, can anything less than a complete revolution in approach be appropriate?

Sometimes in this sector, the only way to change things is with primary legislation and a big stick. It’s important to bring everyone along on the journey, but without a few bruised egos, the journey is unlikely even to begin. This has to be an inclusive, grassroots effort. But without a mandate, no one is likely to be able to make much of a difference. So let’s get the political will to give someone enough clout to get on with it: starting with users and a comprehensive, nuanced vision of how people want local services to work.

We have nothing to lose but our assumptions.