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Wednesday, September 2

Local government 'needs Digital Stream Managers'


Peter Barton, who heads up 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 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.

Peter draws on the same print media analogy I made in a debate with then SOCITM president Richard Steel last year.
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.
Thus:
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?

25 comments:

  1. At least the sterile 'comms or IT debate' has been moved on. We can now have the sterile 'independent web team or comms or IT' debate instead.

    The reason why the comms/IT debate was sterile was that it missed the fact that a successful website needed the cooperation of every bit of the council. It didn't matter who signed the webbies' leave cards- it mattered that they could work well across the council. Web teams are, after all, like comms teams and IT teams, enabling services, supporting the various bits of the council to deliver services.

    So the debate about an independent team is just another debate about line management, another bunfight that detracts from the actual business of delivering services and information.

    Have web professionals outgrown their parents? No. They've matured enough to play the same childish local government games of empire building, land grabbing and self aggrandisement.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think Pauls point about the web teams having no clout is central to the discussion.
    Without some strength in their position web teams are simply pulled around by those very forces which Tom seems to dislike. And of course without “clout” as Paul calls it, how are you going to get information/transactions out of the service areas? That is, and has always been, a large problem for LG web managers.
    I believe Tom’s view is over simplistic, even dismissive, in his argument that it is all about power. I believe it is more about direction and about who steers the web site to deliver what the client wants. And that requires a customer focused view. Not typically shown by either IT or Comms, both of which have different agendas.
    The argument is not sterile either. Go tell that to Publishers who went through this a while back in order to get to the customer focused and money making position they are now. Agreed we are not here to make money but to steer the web site to a more customer focused position, a position from which we can deliver more cost effective services, has got to be right.

    ReplyDelete
  3. As I've stated on PSF - but not quite a severe response as Tom's - whilst I have a great deal of respect for Peter (and Paul) and many web managers, I tend to disagree with giving so much emphasis to the digital stream.

    Lets start looking from the outside in. Web is one channel amongst a number. OK, its the latest sexiest one, especially when one appends the joys of Web too, Twitter or other features. When the telegraph and telephone came aong there was a lot of fuss about them changing the world, too.

    What needs to happen is that all channels need to be managed in a reciprocal manner. Citizens use multiples not singles to deal with us. They use some pick 'n' mix to transact or just to find out information.

    The service and information needs to be consistent across them all...

    If we start giving emphasis to web, or contact centre or whatever, we are just recreating the back-office silos in the front-office.

    Lets join them up and look outside in! It's the citizen that matters not the silos.

    Mick http://greatemancipator.com ...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Mick, I don’t think I am arguing isolationism. I am all for the dealing with the customer as one, through various channels so to speak.
    I am also not for silos. So in many ways I agree. My thrust is the management of the digital stream, how that is done and where that sits.
    The current position is akin to the BBC’s TV and Audio content being controlled by the technical department because that is how it is delivered.
    What I am arguing is the people responsible for pulling all of the content – and electronic delivery- together need to be focused on giving the customer what they want. And to use my BBC analogy again, not give them what the latest bell or whistle can provide or what the latest message is. I am aware this is a simplified view of the current position.

    The digital stream coming into and going out of our organisations is growing at an alarming rate. And with our drive ( or should that be being driven) to save money it is obvious that much of what we do will further move towards the cheaper electronic delivery.

    What I am saying therefore relates to the management of this medium which has for too long been the cuckoo in the nest of either comms or IT. Something that sort of sat there but didn’t, with only scant regard paid to the importance of the issues surrounding it because people had their “day job” to do and their own agendas to follow.

    Back to Pauls point about clout I suppose…without the elevating of importance of the digital stream that my argument adopts, web teams will forever be seen as something somehow lacking in importance as opposed to being ancillary, perhaps fundamental even, to service provision.

    Lastly using your analogy of the telephone; Look how we centralise, manage and receive telephone calls through some form of Contact Centre. Contact centres are totally based upon customer service and, in our case, are independent and do not sit in either IT or Comms. My point exactly.

    ReplyDelete
  5. To go back to Peter's original quote I don't think its a Digital Stream Manager that's needed it's a true Citizen Service Manager and it doesn't matter whether it's digital or analogue...

    The channels need to be managed jointly if quality of service across them is maintained whilst observing cross-channel traffic.

    My own experience with the BBC is something we've all fallen foul of with putting maintenance out to the users without supervision is that the quality drops off -e.g. spelling, vocabulary, grammar etc -but this also needs to be observed on any channel.

    I'm aghast with the approach many authorities have to the web as a secondary add-on but somehow the approach has to come through taking over communications whether face2face, telephone or whatever and engaging in a meaningful, consistent manner across them all.

    It can't be done by empowering the digital one along a route of its own!

    Mick http://greatemancipator.com

    PS - I think we all agree that digital is underexploited but so is all citizen communications.

    ReplyDelete
  6. One of my core points with this is that web professionals are a new breed of professional but they do not have professional status.

    This is one very big reason why they are so easily and so often 'over ruled' in local government.

    If you speak to webbies in councils - and by this I don't just mean web team members but others with skills specific to the web like content or technical - the one running theme is frustration at their professionalism being ignored or undermined by people who, simply put, don't know what the heck they are talking about.

    How exactly you alter structures to deal with this issue is up for grabs but this is what lies behind the lack of 'clout'.

    ReplyDelete
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