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Tuesday, May 5

Why .gov webbies need professional status

Neil Williams published a great post: Beyond cut and paste: the professional skills every government web publisher should have.

As a man who hires webbies for government, and who deals with lots of devolved publishers, Neil's skills list comes from a truly knowledgeable source. I had one addition: marketing.

What his list shows is that to be a good government webbie, a professional government webbie, someone who knows how this stuff works within government, you need to have a wide breadth of skills. Only some of those skills could be argued as being particular to government.

The trouble is that Neil is fairly rare in recognising this wide breadth and those who actually run government appear to have no sense of the range of web skills required to do these jobs well and tend to assume that they're all government-specific and definitely not web-specific.

Last year I got into a debate with then SOCITM president Richard Steel, about this very issue.

At the PSF event in June last year he had presented 'Why we should no longer distinguish web from ICT'.

His argument was that web should be 'run by IT, not communications departments'. Some of what he said I liked:

What made me applaud was his line that, basically, senior managers who don't understand the basics with IT no longer have the requisite skills to do the job, they should go. He, like me, is sick of senior people who wear their ignorance 'like a badge of honour'. I also liked that he was arguing that services must take more day-to-day responsibility for what they do online and that government gains from being subject to the same forces as business.
In response to his quite inspiring (he has done some great work in Newham) talk about the future, I also pointed out that there still many things we, government, don't do:
I don't see anything suggesting that in another ten years either of these factors will change, that we will be doing the things we don't or that we will be absorbing the right influences. However we will probably be in a more competitive environment simply because many more businesses will be in our territory - people selling recycling bins, people promising to better handle your passport enquiries, people trying to make money from your health enquiry, other services like charities. When this is happening, how do customers find you and steer past the commercial providers?
That Richard could make the argument that web equals ICT comes entirely from how government websites have grown up. In other sectors they've had other drivers, editors or the sales department for example. Only recently has there been a shift within government to move control of websites away from ICT and to communications because that's, in government, where they tended to start from.

The problem is - citing Neil's skills list - neither of these parts of government tend to be run by people with any web skills (or, at best, only some of them), this leads to massive distortions in priorities.

This is why this particular skill is cited by Neil:

Negotiation, explanation and persuasion. See writing for the web, accessibility, information architecture above - all of these things need explaining to people who don’t see why they should care. And often it means persuading senior people (often in both senses) that they can’t have a PDF of a scanned letter on official headed paper on the homepage. Enthusiasm and advocacy helps too, for talking to those customers who don’t think they need to put information on the website at all.
Another problem is that skills development within egov is patchy to none existent. This also leads to distortions such as a failure to take usability seriously or the infamous 'build it and they will come' mentality. I blame this on the 'walled garden', where government people only meet and learn from other government people and don't tend to learn from and apply lessons from the rest of the web.

You could argue that webbies outside government also experience similar problems but the key difference is how they are judged by non-webby bosses - I would say the bar is both set higher and made clearer. In order to deliver, commercial webbies can't afford, or not for long, to not have that breadth of skills. Whereas within government I rarely come across people like Neil.

One solution to the myriad of problems I see in how government webbies operate and the environment in which they operate, on which I have been working, is to establish professional status through a new organisation.

My main argument with Richard Steel was that web skills are both new and unique. IT doesn't have them, Comms don't have them - only webbies do but they are unrecognised. Raising recognition must happen alongside raising standards. Simply put, a way must be found for webbies who know what they are talking about to have a real voice.

In the United States such an organisation exists. The Federal Web Managers Council has existed for some years but has achieved much prominence with its advice to the incoming administration and it's extremely sucessful conference (see the tweets) which included input from such people as Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Gerry McGovern and media guru Jeff Jarvis. It also runs a Web Manager University Training Program and serves as the steering committee for the Web Content Managers Forum, a group of nearly 1,500 government web managers across the USA.

Says Candi Harrison about the Web Managers Conference:
When web managers start thinking and acting collectively, their power – and their results – increases exponentially.

So there is a model. There's also the beginnings of a dialogue, as in conversations of mine and others with US colleagues the Americans have expressed interest in a two-way learning process.

The problem has been how to sustain such a new organisation. Volunteerism is not enough when you are dealing with busy people, it can only last so long. It can also lead to the sort of distortions in direction and activity which I pointed to as a general issue.

This is why I organised a meeting of key people earlier this year with Socitm to explore what such a organisation could do and how it could be made sustainable, and I'm pleased to say that the process begun at that meeting is bearing fruit.

If you are interested in hearing more and contributing to these plans, there will be opportunities to do so at meetings arranged at the end of the Socitm Insight web events on May 19 (in Birmingham) and 2 June (London), starting from around 4pm.

They will be open to people at any level of seniority or career stage who are employed or freelancing in the public or third sectors, or in any organisation working with them.

If you are not attending these events as a delegate you are welcome to join the meetings at the times advertised. Let Socitm know of your intention to attend by emailing (say which meeting you're coming to).

Looking back on Richard Steel's presentation for this post it's a good feeling to know that the same body is now positively encouraging egov web professionalism and our presence within its ranks. Who knows, maybe they'll live to regret letting us in!


  1. Anonymous14.5.09

    Strange this! If I recall, I suggested the same solution before and since the original PSF event. I suggested it to Martin Greenwood, I raised it at the Government IT Profession Working Group and the Local CIO Council.

    I remember the same distinctions between systems analysts, programmers and systems programmers years ago - they're now skills with the ICT profession. We bring in the network and voice people, what's wrong with some web skills. In these days we also have customer service skills and marketing, promotion and god-knows what else?!!
    Lets not build toooo many 'chinese' walls around the place!


  2. Hi Mick

    great to hear others thinking along same lines.

    The concept is very much not about Chinese walls - we would obviously collaborate with Socitm and other existing groups - and the new skills you mention are part and parcel of the skilling up we hope to promote.

    hope to see you at either of the discussions coming up?