Peter Barton, who heads up UK council Lincolnshire's web team, is one of the most experienced local government (LG) webbies around and also a great thinker. We have chimed very often on his usual hang-out, the UK's Public Sector Forums Bulletin Board.
A new post of his hits all my sweet spots by describing the issues with where web teams currently sit in local government - either under Communications or IT. He wants them sitting out on their own, as 'digital stream' managers.
Managing LG web sites has developed into a specialism in itself requiring a varied set of skills not singularly found within either of the web’s conventional current homes in the Comms or IT teams of a council.
What's interesting is that at a Better Connected event in Birmingham two months ago, where myself and Vicky Sergeant of Socitm held a well-attended discussion about the forming Public Sectors Web Professionals body, this came up in a lighthearted way, because it seemed, I think, a radical wish to the webbies there, but got nodding acceptance in the room.
As Peter points out, good LG webbies draw on skills found in the commercial sector (many actually originate from web experience there) in particular from Sales and Marketing.
In order for there to be a good local government website experience and for users to take-up online services in a big way those commercial skills are exactly the sort you need. Plus, as he argues, you need a customer focused perspective which understands that this user experience needs to match that found on successful commercial websites to have any hope of achieving 'transformation' of service delivery.
The print media publishing industry in this country has huge web sites compared to LG so where are they going? Some years ago it became clear where the management of web sites should sit within their organisational structure. Publishing web sites are not run by IT departments nor are they generally run by journalists, the sector’s equivalent of our Comms departments. They are run by dedicated digital publishers who utilise platforms and services from IT and content provided by the journalists. Furthermore the web sits front and centre within their business. It is the first, and sometimes only, port of call for a large and growing proportion of their customers. And of course the publishing web sites are about making money from their expensively sourced and produced content.
The role of managing the ever changing and volatile, digital stream is best served by having an independent view; a view where the customer is king; a view not hampered by the old, over-simplistic and clumsy, shorthand labels of “Comms or IT”.
The plain fact is that within current LG structures 'webbies' do not have clout. This is why a lot of debate is about how to win arguments, make cases, get champions, struggle for resources - because 'webbies' don't actually run web (or digital) in the final analysis.
Peter's argument, which I completely agree with, is:
So what is this Digital Stream Manager? It’s a new, or perhaps evolved, role for a new age.
- An age in which the majority of contacts[if measured by number count of clients served] made to a local government organisation are made through a web site or service.
- An age in which the “on-line” is becoming the norm.
- An age in which immediacy is key.
- An age in which clients “expect”
- An age in which we are being compared to sites which are commercially driven.
- And especially an age in which satisfying the customer is king.
It’s a multi-faceted role that requires the ability to pull together all the diverse resources required to populate a content-rich site; to manage the application of technology to efficiently deliver that content; to act as the intermediary between the various sources of content; to ensure quality across the output and user experience; and - critically in a world of user-generated content - to manage the delicate and increasingly complex balance between ALL the stakeholders.
So which council is going to be first?