Today the new LocalGov Digital website has been launched in beta and I’m really pleased to see both the site, and the refreshed branding, live.

You can see the new website at  localgovdigital.info.

We’ve been working on an update to our main online space since the end of last year, mainly because as a network we’d outgrown the site and creative we initially launched the group with back in February 2013. As we worked out what the network was and where we were headed we’ve gained a more solid idea of how that should look online and, more crucially, what it should do.

Like with other work from LocalGov Digital, getting the new site to this point has been a collaborative effort – Phil Rumens took on the build in Umbraco, Carl Bembridge (Carl works at Derbyshire County Council but is also creative director at Include Creative) has tackled the design and I’ve been co-ordinating and creating content around the two of them. Other members of the steering group have chipped in with bits here and there too.

We’ve had ups and downs with the project – having time to do it on top of day jobs, other LocalGov Digital commitments and family etc has been the major hurdle to overcome – but overall the collaboration has worked well (for me anyway).

As we enter the beta phase (as all good digital services should) I thought I would just reflect on the bits of this project I’ve been particularly involved in and some things I learnt in the process.

Creating a brand (or, if LocalGov Digital was an animal we would be a hippo)

I’ve become quite protective of the LocalGov Digital brand over the last couple of months. It was probably the bit of our identity which was most JFDI when the network was formed in 2013 and as we grew we felt it hadn’t grown with us very well.

We wanted something that reflected our ethos and spirit – practical, creative, informal and flexible. And to top it off we want something that reflects how we’re different as a network. In an already busy space there’s a number of groups with similar names *bites tongue in frustration* which is leading to confusion over who’s doing what. We’ve felt the need to flex our independence and focus on delivery so we wanted our logo and creative to include this aspect too. In other words exactly the kind of vast woolly brief that sets a designers teeth on edge.

There’s been two designers that have helped form the new logos  – Marcus Galley at Mammoth Creative Works helped us with some early concepts while we were still working out what we wanted (big thanks to him not just for the creative but for his patience too) and Carl Bembridge, who’s developed the final set and will continue to work on the site design.

I keep referring to this as the re-branding but really it’s about the visual design at the moment. I’m a firm believer that brand isn’t your logo, it’s what you do and what people think of you. Hopefully this new visual identity fits with how we’re perceived and takes on advice that GDS gave us on consistent language with what we do.

And the hippo? When first trying to form a brief for the designers Al Smith (jokingly, I think) asked me what animal LocalGov Digital would be. Initially I wanted to say something fierce and good looking like a tiger but actually I think we’re more like a hippo – a sometimes murky environment, swimming below the surface and underestimated as a deadly force! Hippopotamus is LocalGov Digital’s power animal.

Hearing the Voice of LocalGov Digital

One of the bits of functionality I was most keen to get on the new site was some curation of blog posts and conversations happening elsewhere between those in and around the sector talking about local government and digital. This fits with the ethos of the network as one for digital practitioners and begins to signal a move toward that wider choir of voices beyond the current steering group.

I’ve created LocalGov Digital Voice as the umbrella for a few bits of activity around this wider group of practitioners. The main new functionality is an aggregated blog roll. This brings together posts from people and teams across the network and will hopefully encourage conversation as well as more people to start their own blogs, growing it as a resource over time.

I also made a couple of changes to the way we handle communications in the group. The first was to start curating a set of daily links from across the sector and wider digital industries that would be useful, interesting or inspiring to practitioners. At the moment these go out via our Twitter account but the plan is to expand it to our other profiles (G+ and KHub) in the future. A big thanks to Karen Jeal for getting involved in this task and sharing the load as well as helping to expand the range of links we find and post!

And the other bit is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while but (again thanks to Karen) have actually been making the effort to start getting on with – commissioning (sounds grander than it is) blog posts or case studies from the network. There’s an extra benefit to this that it gives a space to those who don’t want to blog directly while linking back to one of the original aims of LocalGov Digital – recognising the talent and work happening in the sector.

There’s a couple of bits we’ll be working on more significantly in the beta phase as well – the addition of an events listing and having another look at the community mapping exercise we’d begun to scope with Public-i last year. If you’re interested in getting involved with this work then let me know.

Trying new platforms and collaboration tools

This is probably more Phil’s area than mine but building the site has been a good opportunity to get hand’s on with a new (to me) platform – the open source Umbraco.

The previous version of the site – which we remain grateful to the LGA for providing to us in our first year – was on WordPress, which most of us were very familiar with. And when we started talking about the new site it wasn’t that we felt WordPress wasn’t up to it or that we definitely wanted to move away from it. We did see it as an opportunity for us to explore a new system and so Phil and I have been using it as a development opportunity for our own skills.

From a content manager point of view I’ve been really pleased with Umbraco – the interface is really clear and intuitive and it’s been easy to build in the flexibility and functionality we wanted.

It’s also been a focus to use some other collaborative tools – things the group uses regularly anyway like Google Drive and email, but things we’re trying to train ourselves to use more, like Trello.

Agreeing a set of project support tools and spaces is vital to the smooth running of a collaborative project so I’d recommend you go and explore and try them out in your own work.

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As we’ve launched in beta we’d love to hear what you think about the new website so far and your ideas on how we can improve it further so it’s a beneficial resource for the sector. Leave us a comment here or on the website or tweet me or LocalGov Digital.