This was the question posed by Peter McClymont for his LocalGovCamp Lincoln session and the answer may not be as easy to come by as you think, even when presented to a room of council webbies.

In fact it isn’t even quite the question which needs answering. A more appropriate way of phrasing it, as quickly became apparent in the session, is Do Councils Need the Website They Have Right Now?

Councils have huge amounts of services and information which they need to get to residents. They also have tight budgets to meet, lots of requirements from central Government, limited resources but in most cases a big desire to do things right. Having a website helps to meet lots of these requirements with the limitations in place. Or they would, if they were done well.

Lots of people in this session felt that council websites had in lots of cases got a little bit out of control. A sometimes bloated beast hard to control with only the whip of a malfunctioning devolved authorship model. We agreed in the group that an online channel or mix of channels would meet the efficiency savings head on while fulfilling an increasing demand from residents to communicate in this space – if only we could get it working right.

So, councils need websites but how do we build and run the website a council needs?

We discussed a whole range of things but most of the sharing focused on:

  • Devolved authorship – a really nice theory but almost no-one has got it working right. I blogged about this separately as it was also the theme of the session I ran later in the day.
  • Respect for web teams – the need for organisations to recognise that online is a channel which needs to be run with the same respect as traditional channels, and that respect should also be given to those employed to be experts on how to do that.
  • Definition of boundaries – how much of what is online is within the remit of the web team to either run or advise on?

All three of these issues could come under one broad heading – respect and understanding. Where many websites and web teams are struggling is that there are two many cooks for the broth. In most councils at the moment there are a lot of people who have a say in what goes on the website and in what format. Some web teams have more control than others in terms of approving or improving this content before it is published but in some cases there is little control at all.

Compare this to the way that information is published through traditional channels and the service areas have to pass several gate keepers and abide by the advice of the communication professionals in order to get messages out. This allows them to reap the success and benefit from the experience of those professionals.

Online is a different matter though. Vanity publishing and ‘just in case’ publishing (there is no real drive to get this online now but one day someone might want this so I’ll publish it anyway) abound. And while there are lots of good reasons to devolve authorship if it isn’t implemented properly and backed with a workflow approval process it causes more problems than it solves. This can lead to poor content (in terms of accessibility, usability, relevance and currency) and too much of it.

Then there are the bits which aren’t directly part of the website itself – the bolt-ons, the dreaded applications. In one of those moments so typical of a LocalGovCamp that I felt simultaneously glad not to be the only one struggling with this problem and disheartened that the issue was so all-encompassing. Council websites are let down by the applications which make them interactive and transactional. Why? Partly because web teams have no seat at the table when applications are procured and no jurisdiction to have them removed if not improved.

What can be done then? Well, there is the Web Professionals group for a start. Paul Canning did a great job of introducing this to us all and it is a good step toward building that respect for communications and technical professionals specialising in the online space.

Each council also needs to work out how to publish information to the online space (across an increasing number of channels rather than just a website) tapping the knowledge of the service from that area while also utilising the skill of the web team in writing content which is accessible and usable.

Councils do need websites, the cost not to is too great (as Peter Barton explored in his blog a while back), but they need to improve the way they run them and part of that may be admitting there is specialist knowledge involved.

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