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 The citizen may lose out due to poor or out of date information or no information at all and through a lack of consistency and therefore confidence in the brand.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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