Pretty Simple: web, digital, social



When I hear people in my organisation talk about starting an official blog, I am split in two. Half of me is excited by the prospect, whilst the other half cringes at the risks.

Headstar’s E-Government Bulletin has an interesting report on the recent E-Democracy 2008 conference, addressing the issue of blogging and digital dialogues. This got me thinking about the subject (you’ll see my initial thoughts at the end of that very article), and I’ve since been looking further into the world of public sector (and more specifically, local government) blogs.

Some examples

Technorati reports that it is tracking the existence of 112 million blogs. Surprisingly, then, it was a little difficult to find really good examples of well-executed local government blogs. Here are some examples, though, listing the good and the bad points of each:

Kent County Council Leader’s Blog

Plus points:

  • Last post just 9 days old at the time of writing, with 3 or 4 posts a months on average
  • The posts seem to relate well to current events
  • The post titles are brief but descriptive
  • The posts offer relevant hyperlinks
  • Commenting not available, but an e-mail link offered
  • Some honest and personal views

Minus points

  • A very obvious political agenda
  • The only image is one of the blogger himself
  • No RSS feed available

London Borough of Lambeth Leader’s Blog

Plus points

  • Well established blog – archive going back to October 2006
  • Good range of topic covered

Minus points

  • Erratic frequency – some months have 5+ posts, other months have none
  • The more recent posts appear at the bottom – big mistake!
  • Lack of images makes the pages very samey and uninspiring
  • No RSS feed available

Wiltshire Extranet Blog

Plus points

  • One post each and every week
  • All the trappings of a proper blog – archives, calendar, feeds, feedback

Minus points

  • Bizarrely, each post is a report of what the blogger will be doing, with no obvious follow-ups
  • An internal blog, meant for internal readers, available externally
  • No information about the blog or blogger (presumably due to its internal nature)

Durham County Council Leader’s blog

Plus points

  • Blog is combined with a diary to view upcoming appointments
  • Option to add comments, and the blogger has even responded to one
  • Fairly regular posts (although only been running less than 2 months)

Minus point

  • The blog launched in October, yet the ‘archive’ looks like it goes back to January. You can’t click on any of the months prior to October, adding to the confusion.
  • Again, lack of images makes for dull pages.
  • Not only a lack of corporate branding, but also a horrendous pink theme (OK, that one is subjective)

Pseudo-blogs

One issue which arose during my search related to the design and functionality of the blogs I encountered. Many blogs seemed to have been integrated into the main corporate website, and in fact in many cases were not technically blogs in the typical sense, but rather normal static web pages presenting chronological articles. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it does rather stretch the blog metaphor. A typical blog has features such as categories and labels for filtering articles; the ability to comment on posts; RSS feeds or subscriptions to easily access new posts; automatically generated archives; and all manner of other widgets including polls, related links and tagclouds. These are important elements which define a blog as a Web 2.0 technology.

Lessons learned

The Durham blog is a great example of understanding the blog metaphor and adapting it to the interests of the users. By incorporating a diary, and then blogging about the events afterwards, you have a great premise for generating interest and engagement.

Lack of images was a big problem across the board, and is in fact an issue common with many blogs worldwide. A local gov organisation should have access to a wealth of stock photos which could be thrown in, where relevant, to liven up the pages. A crucial element of engaging the public is to make your channels of communication interesting, and the use of images seems like an essential ingredient in this.

The regularity of posts seemed to vary wildly, but a key point is the importance of consistency. One post per week is fine if that offers a summary of the week’s events. Any less than that and the blog risks looking sparse and unresponsive to events. A greater frequency might be appropriate but it has to be sustainable. Probably far better to stick to the weekly format unless urgent issues arise.

Although many of the features of the traditional blog are perhaps overkill, some key functions should remain. Allowing comments makes perfect sense – after all, the point of the blog is to create a dialogue. Archiving is obviously a must – that’s one of the things that makes it a blog. Promotion is a key issue, as the blog must be easy to find. RSS feeds will then make it easy for people to follow.

Conclusion

Blogs provide an excellent channel of communication with your citizens, and can very easily fit in with your other comms strategies. They are incredibly easy to set up, but far from easy to maintain to a high quality. They’ll demand lots of time, thought, creativity and buy-in. Because of this, the failure rate is likely to be high, but the rewards are there for the successful few.

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