Content strategy in local government

There is nothing more powerful than a bad idea that’s time has come, to paraphrase author Robert Rankin, and so it was that I found myself launching into a part-time Masters just a few days after my eldest son’s first birthday.

Now I’m out the other side I’d have to say perhaps bad idea is a bit strong, naive may be nearer the mark but boy, part-time postgraduate study, a full time job, two kids under 5, plus, you know, life – that’s a surefire way to learn the art of time management!

But nearly four years down the line I am out the other side and I can finally say I hold an MA in Online Communications. Go me! Go Derbyshire County Council for supporting me through it and being my case study! Go family for being patient and kind!

Enough of that though. What did I actually learn? Well, as you’d probably hope, I learnt LOADS. A lot of it built on the knowledge and skills I got from my undergraduate degree and 10 years of working as an online content monkey of one breed or other. But I also learnt lots of new stuff – some of it directly relating to the subject and other bits general study skills and improved critical thinking.

Let’s get to the bit that you’re really interested in (and I think if you’ve read this far you must be at least a little interested) – the dissertation.

“How does evaluating web content and creating web content strategy help local government to meet the principles of eGovernment and achieve organisational goals? A case study of Derbyshire County Council’s website ‘derbyshire.gov.uk‘”

I think there is bit much for one blog post so I’m going to round-up what I did and what I found in this one. I’ll follow up with a post about where I’ve ended up and what my feeling about next steps are.

So…what did I do (and what did I want to do if I’d had more time / a bigger brain)?

  • I did a sort of hybrid content audit / heuristic evaluation of a content sample of the website. This was about 350 page in total. Three hundred made up one complete section (Your Council) and the others related to the top tasks (most visited areas) of the site.
    I audited against ten heuristics and the Your Council section I did on my own, while I enlisted the help of a few kind localgov peers to review the top tasks alongside me to increase the validity and reliability of the study. Ideally I would have had three reviewers take on the whole site.
  • The heuristics analysed the content against three eGovernment principles – access to information (how easy was it to find); transparency (how easy was it to understand or use); and efficiency (does it support channel shift and efficiency in terms of cost and resource). I heartily recommend Jakob Nielsen as a starting point if you’re not familiar with heuristics.
  • The heuristics also looked at elements of user-experience and usability (hello Neilsen again) and standards the council already had in place such as a style guide.
  • Ideally I’d have collected other data during the audit so a content gap analysis could be carried out and in some sort of time-rich brainiac utopia I would have pulled other data in such as that from our contact centre, the user feedback we gather, results of usability testing labs etc
  • I looked at what strategies the council already had in place and what their own objectives were. The council plan objectives broadly matched the three themes of eGovernment and added detail at a local level.
  • I threw it all together and with a lot of inspiration from people forging ahead with content strategy (hat tip Kristina Halvorson here) came up with a draft web content strategy for Derbyshire County Council.

This is something we’ve started to tweak within my team and use as a working document (I’m sure my long-suffering tutor Anne-Florence DuJardin will be pleased to know the action research paradigm paid off). We’ve added detail to the strategy in terms of documenting governance of the web content and setting a roadmap with SMART objectives.

And as my findings coincided with a refresh of derbyshire.gov.uk we were able to use the issues uncovered in the audit / heuristic evaluation, alongside usability testing and other research, to really tighten up great swathes of the content so it was more UX / customer focused (and we also had a clear view of some areas which needed ditching entirely).

I think that gives a very brief summary of what was done and what was found. I think the what it means is best left for another day but my conversations with Devon County Council’s Carl Haggerty (although they came after my dissertation submission date) summed up how local gov is (or needs) to move away from thinking about web as a platform and toward letting the content and customer access be at the forefront. You can read his excellent blog post on his thoughts here.

I’ll finish with a few thank yous to people who really deserve it for either putting up with me studying, actively helping with the research or just giving me some encouragement when I whined on Twitter about how hard I was finding things. In no particular order:

My husband and our two wonderful little boys; Derbyshire County Council but particularly my team (eContent, yeah!) and the rest of Public Relations; local government epic visionaries Al Smith, Ally Hook, John Fox, Carl Haggerty, Martin Black and Charlotte Stamper; Anne-Florence DuJardin; the Thumbs Up Girls (and Take That); Janet Davis; Nick Hill; pretty much my whole Twitter timeline; and fellow local gov academic types Michele Ide-Smith, Liz Azyan and Simon Whitehouse.

*dragged crying from the podium Oscars acceptance speech style*

I’m really excited about developing the content strategy further alongside other existing and new strategies for the council and making the derbyshire.gov.uk content really hit the mark for visitors. Two years of hard study and I feel like I’m only just starting to scratch the surface…and that is *really* exciting!

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2 thoughts on “Content strategy in local government

  1. Sarah,

    Excellent post and i’m looking forward to reading more. I have a couple of questions, which may come in later posts of course…

    – did you still find traditional statistics around volumes of traffic useful?

    – what kind of objectives do you around your actual content and have you shifted focus in anyway?

    – if giving general advice to other councils where do you think the biggest issues with local gov websites is?

    – finally did you find the traditional benchmarking reports such as socitm better connected useful and valuable in your process?

    Sorry for the questions and feel free to reply privately if you need to 🙂
    Carl

  2. Hi Carl,

    I’ll try and answer these more fully in a subsequent post but briefly (well, sort of briefly):

    – did you still find traditional statistics around volumes of traffic useful? Yes, I think this is part of the mix. I’m not comfortable with purely using traffic stats to decide the fate of content because, as the saying goes, a number has no value except that which you place upon it ie it’s only part of the story! There may be a number of factors for web pages getting a low volume of traffic (badly written with lack of keywords, wrongly placed in IA, not being picked up by internal or external search etc etc etc) but the people who are visiting it may have had successful visits. So, yes, part of the picture which for me is usefully included in the content audit alongside any visitor feedback (we have a ‘rate this page’ and comment function on each page for example).

    – what kind of objectives do you have around your actual content and have you shifted focus in any way? The objectives we’ve set in this draft version of the content strategy are pretty high level although still SMART. They are around raising visitor satisfaction and journey success and are based on web survey, stats and feedback. This includes not just web stats but also customer access channel stats for the contact centre, for example. I think this is a shift toward greater UX in order to support aims around customer access and channel shift. We also have some objectives about governance and lifecycle and these aim to increase the overall quality of content on the website.

    – if giving general advice to other council where do you think the biggest issues with local government websites are? Well, I’m not for a second going to claim to be an expert or have all the answers. I think in a lot of ways, although we’re all working toward similar goals with similar content each council is very different because of variations due to the tiered system, location, demographic of citizen and council’s own goals. But I think there are some comment mistakes at a high level which inhibit success. The biggest? The legacy (and ongoing in some councils I perhaps) approach of just-in-case publishing with little governance. I think the common governance and publishing models we all went for in 2004/2005 were to get a CMS which would support loads of authors and devolve the publishing to them. Great in theory but in my experience this model has a number of flaws – quality of content can slip (good UX needs a more customer-focused approach than government traditionally has taken); the type of information published isn’t always relevant (let’s publish this just in case someone sometime wants to see it); little understanding of the complexity of web content (search, journeys, accessibility etc); and the amount of training and support an authorship of hundreds takes from a central team. I think this all adds up to organisation’s underestimating the power of their online content and respecting what they need to do to tap into that power.

    – benchmarking reports useful? I didn’t look at benchmarking reports directly as part of my dissertation but obviously I’m more than familiar with them in working life. I think they do have their place but I have a number of concerns about the ones available to us at the moment – these have probably been antagonised by having a greater understanding of methodologies, validity and reliability thanks to my uni studies! For me the use of these reports is not the benchmarking aspect though – I think there is too much variation between councils. Derbyshire and Devon for example are both large rural county councils with (I’m guessing now) a pretty similar population, demographic and political make-up so benchmarking between the two could be useful – however, is benchmarking against a London unitary as useful? Probably not as priorities will differ so much. The good practice and case study elements though are great and it’s easier to see from this how / if you could localise something which has been done elsewhere.

    Hope that helps – I’ll try and get a post out in the next couple of days which add some more info but anymore questions don’t hesitate to ask!
    Sarah 🙂

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