Power to the People (reprise)

I first blogged asking for people to share their experience of devolving authorship responsibility back in June. From the response I had then and since it seems that this is a thorny issue that many of us (as local government web people) are grappling with.

As a theory, creating content for an organisation’s website and sharing responsibility for its maintenance by devolving the authorship (allowing many to write and publish) is a pretty fine idea. However, for it to work well the authorship  needs to be given to the right people otherwise you end up with no content, bad content, unhappy authors, an unhappy central team and a spiral of training-correcting-retraining which means the model may as well not be in place.

There are lots of reasons why this theory shouldn’t be written off merely because it is hard to implement and maintain. The main one is probably this: councils have hundreds of services they could or should publish information about online and the staff in those services are the ones with the knowledge about how they work. They are in a good position to know what information they are commonly asked for or what a citizen needs to know in order to access that service or carry out a transaction.

What they don’t have (in most cases) is the specialist knowledge and experience of presenting that information to meet a variety of online targets or the time / interest / empowerment to add online publishing as a task on top of their unrelated workload. This means a central team either ends up re-writing the content to make is meet accessibility, usability and house style; there is a long cycle of training where neither the trainer or the trainee end up happy; content gets stuck in a workflow because the central team aren’t happy to publish and the author can’t or won’t make changes. In other words the model stops being efficient and starts evolving into a beast.

Of course those issues could be dealt with by taking away any involvement by a central team. In essence this means deciding to no longer manage the content of your website and in the end this will lead to the citizen and the organisation losing out. The citizen may lose out due to poor or out of date information or no information at all and through a lack of consistency and therefore confidence in the brand. The organisation will find itself failing to work to optimum efficiency with duplicated information, some services not represented at all, reputation issues and (probably) breaches of accessibility guidelines.

So, what to do? We discussed this at length in the small session I ran at LocalGovCamp Lincoln. It was interesting to hear views from North Devon, Coventry City and East Lindsay councils on the models they had in place and how they were working. We all seemed to be struggling to get the right people into the author roles and therefore be able to balance efficiently with central editorial control.

I don’t think we came to any firm conclusions about how to tackle changing an existing model or how to engage stakeholders in the importance of this issue to the success of the website / online channel. What did come out of it, for me,  was:

  • What works for one organisation probably won’t work for another. In fact, in big organisations what works for one department may not work for another.
  • In the same vein, I’ve come to the conclusion that what works for your external site in terms of authorship may not work for your intranet or smaller sites. Some of the success may depend on the workflow here and that should be considered as a vital ingredient in implementing a devolved authorship, not a separate decision.
  • I’m not aware of any way of trialing or testing to find out what is an appropriate author model for a department, organisation or site. If anyone knows of a way of analysing before implementing I would be really pleased to hear about it!
  • I’m also not aware of anyone who thinks they have successfully devolved authorship. If anyone would like to share an example of an organisation in which the model is working well from all view points I would also be happy to hear about this – especially if you want to share the secret of the success!
  • It is easy to get carried away talking about the newer channels of the digital stream but if we can’t produce the right content in the right way at the right time either through devolved or centralised authoring we won’t have anything worth publishing to the wider social web.

I’m still interested to hear others experience or view of devolved authorship so please join the discussion through the comments section. Thanks!

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9 thoughts on “Power to the People (reprise)

  1. Hi Sarah.
    Our authority has devolved content creation with the approval process ending up at the web team to meet accessibility / house styles, similarly to how you and others have described.
    All our authors receive initial basic training in use of the CMS prior to being released in their service area as a web author. As you have said, the standards of content does vary although I have found that, in most cases, the only way to get good content which utilises the power of the CMS beyond using it as a replacement for Word, is 1-2-1 time once they have created/edited a few pages as this helps them expand on their initial knowledge and also allows us to teach them a few tricks which makes their life easier and therefore they buy into the concept of being willing and able to use the CMS to get the content out in a way that best suits the recipients (residents) and the requirements of the organisation. This approach may seem very time intensive and yet, in my experience, I have found it produces some great web authors who then produce great content and also (because we have so many authors across the organization) can act to assist other new authors in other services, thus saving our team time. I regard it as time well invested.
    This is a very interesting subject and I am keen to see what others have to say about their ideas and what works and does not for their organization.
    Sarah Gray
    Twitter: @sarahjaneuk

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for sharing your model and experience with me.
    It sounds as if you have a very similar model to us – we provide Writing for the Web (course developed in-house) and training to use our CMS – this has been done both classroom style and 1-2-1. I found the same varying success you describe and feel that at this point it comes down to the individual – what is their position, how big and ‘official’ part of their job is the web author role, how empowered are they, how interested are they in publishing to the web?
    We have 300 authors listed to publish, variously, to 12 sites at the moment. Due to work on our CMS we are in a position where all authors need retraining hence the reason I am so interested in hearing what models people have! It took me two years to get to the point where maybe 25 out of 200 were working without much interjection through workflow or re-training and although there are now two additional officers in my post it’s a commitment the authority wants to make sure is the right one in terms of working in the most efficient way as a whole organisation publishing to the web and using the resources from our team.
    It’s really interesting to hear how people are getting on – seems most of us have started from the same basic model and have tweaked or abandoned depending on resources and the people selected to be authors. Anyone agree? Disagree?
    Sarah

  3. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. It has been our experience doing the Better Connected reviews that over the years as council sites have become so much bigger, they have also become much more patchy in the quality of the content – I am sure that devolved authorship must be at the root of this! From a user perspective, consistency in the style of writing and the ‘voice’ used is obviously helpful. Some councils do largely manage this, but I have noticed that they are often small district councils where perhaps the smaller size of the site has allowed one person or a small team to carry out more of the authoring. The larger the organisation, the harder it is to achieve the consistency that makes for a good user experience. I think this goes some way to explaining why sometimes smaller councils with fewer resources still manage to do very well in Better connected.

  4. Thanks Helen.
    I can see this would be true – especially given that in most cases the size of the web team doesn’t grow in tandem with the size of the website.
    This is one of the possible topics for my dissertation next year (MA eCommunications) and the more people I speak to, comment or blog in response the more interested I become in the issue. Talking about using other online channels is exciting and important but we need to remember we do have a website to maintain to excellent standards and if we haven’t got the authorship model right we’re in danger of undermining all our online publishing efforts.
    I’m sure this won’t be the last time I blog about this!

  5. Hi Helen,
    I have seen this comment and had a quick skim of the discussion. I haven’t had time to read the posts fully but once I have I will join the dicussion!

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