I have been spending some time recently looking at different council websites and the differences between them from the very good to the not so good.
I asked Twitter for examples of good council websites and got:
Beta 1.0 makes good use of pop up menus so you are not clicking through endless links to get to the information you want and a really nice menu of quick links for Pay Apply Book Locate & Request.
Has a fantastic interactive map of services locations & transport on the front page.
Nice layout big images and a tabbed menu that allows lots of information to be easily accessible.
Next-door neighbor to Gateshead and again a very good site, the first one I have seen that has a very clear Accessibility link on the front page. I particularly liked this http://www.newcastle.gov.uk/core.nsf/a/worldrecordmattresses story, normally this would be reserved for the local paper, but the council have bought in to the idea and are promoting it.
Nicely laid out site again and has the best accessibility options of all of the above. From a very plain link at the top of the home page you are taken to a settings page where you can alter the site to suit your individual needs. I also like the Fickr stream on the front page, this gives people a sense of belonging when they see their own images on the council website.
Another excellent site, what is really nice about this is the fact that you can add content to the site.
I asked Twitter the same question about bad council websites and didn’t get much of a response, in retrospect I think it is fair to say that there are a lot of bad council sites out there and do we really need to be naming them and upsetting people?
The Need To Improve
Because Eric Pickles MP has told local councils that they should publish all spending over £500, more people are visiting the council sites as they crave the data, it is also making councils look at their own sites and some are realising how woefully inadequate they are, then remembering that they now have no money to create a new site.
I have been speaking to different people in councils and I have heard statements like, ‘we need to invest in new hardware at a cost of £150,000 before we can procure an new website and that will cost 100s of £1000s on top of that’
Most normal people with even a modicum of technical knowledge go WTF! at this point, what website needs hardware costing £150k? More importantly why do you want the hardware? Rent a server let someone else worry about managing it.
Do you really need to spend in the 100s of £1000s on council sites? BCCDIY cost £zero to create. Paul Hadley did some rough calculations that indicated BCCCDIY would have cost around £32,000 with an ongoing £500 per month cost. BCCDIY was created by people who had civic pride, skills and were thoroughly hacked off that Birmingham City Council had been promising a wondersite for years. When the ‘wondersite’ appeared it was massively over budget (final cost was quoted as £2.8m!) and to be honest was a bit crap. So Stef and friends created a new and far better (IMO) site to show what could be done. This was done without the support of the council and without funding.
What would happen if a visionary council said, ‘OK we want a new site, we can’t afford to pay inflated market rates and get somewhat fleeced by the big development companies, how about we work with some local developers.’?
If this were ever to happen there need to be some ground rules around this for it to work.
- The council must support the developers, pay, desk / working space, food, beer.
- The council should (although not required) provide a development environment.
- The council must give the developers access to some information & data
- The council must not specify what they want
- The council must not take the proverbial
1 There are developers out there who code for fun, or for not a lot of money, coders know coders, coders like safety in number if they go out in daylight. If you get one you will more than likely find they will bring others with them. Offer some desk space and internet connectivity in return for them working on your social enterprise.
Give them food, £250 buys an awful lot of pizza and pop each week. offer to pay, not a salary but initially what about travel costs? Lets face it councils waste sums of money on some really strange things, so would an investment of £10,000 in a project like this really be that difficult if it gets you on the road to a new site?
2 If you could set up a development environment it would be really cool. You are a council, the chances are you have tons of unused IT kit lying around that could be utilised. It may not be easy to find but I bet it is there.
3 Ask the coders what they want data wise. Coders are geeks, if you offer parking data to a geek they will probably fall to the ground in a faint that would make Jane Austin proud. I’m not suggesting that you give total un restricted access to all council data. But give raw data sets out to people who want it, let them do ‘stuff’ with it, you may be surprised. If you are struggling on getting the data out of the system due to reticence of your staff, get the geeks to advise you. (I’ll let you in to a secret, we don’t really believe you when you say it will cost over £1000 to extract details of how many parking fines you have issued.)
4 You can’t specify what you want!* Counter intuitive I know but if you start off going down the whole LG procurement route you will not get anywhere because this project will more than likely fail at the first hurdle of not being part of your ‘Approved Supplier’ list. Or for that matter the second hurdle of your IT manager having (perceived) control of his empire prized from his cold dead hands. Or for that matter the legal services team, or pretty ,much anyone in local council who have been bred over many years to be risk averse.
*The only caveat to you can’t specify what you want is: the platform used by your now tame coders must be open source and not restricted by licenses and cost.
5 Be fair, you will be getting a good job done at better than market rates, don’t lose your new found credibility and kudos by taking the work and passing it off as your own or worse still giving it to a overpriced development company.
Now let the coders have at it.