Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

Fire Exit signAfter a decade working in local government, I’m off to pastures new. Tomorrow I leave the City of Edinburgh Council to join NHS Health Scotland, the national agency for reducing health inequalities and improving health. I’ll be managing their web content, with a strong focus on the user experience.

I thought I’d take the chance to say a few things which hopefully carry more weight now that I’m leaving, free from any suspicion of bias or self-interest…

Localgov is brilliant

Firstly, let me say that local government is brilliant. I don’t think that’s said as often as it should be. Whether directly or indirectly, everyone working in local government is serving their local community. This is something of which I hope all council workers are proud.

Councils take a regular kicking in local and national media and, in the minds of many cynics, are synonymous with corruption and inefficiency. Obviously the sector is not immune to these perils, but in 10 years of working alongside countless council staff I can honestly say I have mostly only ever seen dedication, compassion and commitment.

It’s hard to say what local government will look like in 20, 10 or even 5 years time. Radically different, I suspect. I just hope that the spirit of community and common good in those who serve their local authority can survive the changes to come.

The future of localgov websites

Localgov websites have come a very long way in the decade I’ve been working on them. There’s been some interesting discussion recently about their future, and whether they even have a future as distinct entities. Some have called for a GOV.UK approach to centralising council websites onto one platform.

I’m in two minds about this – one the one hand, I do think there is tremendous potential for collaboration and sharing. After all, councils are generally tackling the same problems and facing the same financial challenges. This is especially evident when it comes to third-party systems such as planning portals, library catalogues and online payment solutions. The procurement and implementation of such systems varies wildly from one council to the next (as has become painfully evident to me in my capacity as a Better connected reviewer). Surely there is huge potential for councils to get together and develop a few brilliant services rather than have dozens (or even hundreds) of often inadequate variations.

However, I’m also convinced that a council’s web presence should not purely be a cold, clinical, homogeneous portal for paying council tax, parking fines and the like. It should be vibrant, approachable and engaging collection of spaces where citizens can interact with their local authority in a variety of ways.

Social media has transformed attitudes and expectations in relation to digital engagement and most councils have warmed to the idea of the web being a crucial channel for communication as well as transaction.

Of course, every local authority is different – demographically, geographically and politically. There can be no “one-size fits all” approach but we’ve definitely got to be better at sharing and seeking best practice, especially as more and more organisations wake up to the huge advantages of being truly digital (as well as the increasing cost and pain of NOT being digital).

Some parting advice for localgov digital teams

1. Be social

I won’t repeat the mountains of commentary on this subject, except to say that citizens’ expectations have shifted, and organisations need to respond. Social media is no longer a niche channel to be played with when you have some spare time on your hands. It’s time to start taking digital engagement seriously. Expect more on this in Socitm’s Better connected report, due out in March.

2. Go mobile

Trust me – it won’t be long before more of your website visitors are using mobile devices than PCs. If your web offering isn’t mobile friendly, that’s going to be a huge problem. Start thinking mobile now! See some of my previous posts on that subject.

3. Involve your users

Councils have the wonderful and rare luxury of being in the same place as the bulk of their website’s target audience. Maximise on this – enlist your citizens to help you improve your web presence. Constantly test with real users and make it easy for them to give you their feedback. Adapt, improve and then test again! This is especially crucial when designing for users with specific needs, such as those with disabilities, low literacy or limited experience of using the web.

4. Share, share and share some more

I’ve already mentioned the need for more collaboration. We’re not lacking the tools, and I don’t think we’re lacking the will. Perhaps we just need a bit more direction. As I’m staying within the public sector, this is one of the areas I hope to still be very active in. I’m working on some ideas for improving digital collaboration in the public sector, and have a solid network of folk willing to help take things forward. So whether it’s the Knowledge Hub, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn or somewhere else, I’ll see you around!

5. Open up your organisation

Local government holds some of the most valuable data going – data which could offer huge benefits to local businesses, citizens and service delivery. A lot of councils are talking about Data (Open, Big, Linked etc) but I suspect few truly understand it and even less are really doing it well. Check out the brilliant Open Knowledge Foundation for some tips on getting started.


I have loved (almost) every minute of working in local government – every challenge, every setback and every triumph. With support from a cast of hundreds, I’m proud to have achieved some good things and am looking forward to taking those experiences and ideas to a new setting. NHS Health Scotland plays a vital role in improving the health of the nation and I’m excited to be a part of that.

As a Socitm Better connected reviewer, I’ll still be heavily involved in the world of local government digital and web, and will continue to share my insights into that here and elsewhere online. I’m sure that many of the key themes and lessons from my ongoing work will be relevant to other sectors. But I now welcome the chance of making new contacts in the health sector and sharing my experiences and insights into my work there too.

Stay tuned.

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6 Responses to Local Government – I love you, but I’m leaving

  1. Good luck in your new post, James. And well done for all your work in local government – I hope you’ll keep blogging on your reflections from your new NHS role.

  2. Ben Matthews says:

    Great piece, James!

    Am speaking at a conference soon on the challenges of social media in local government. This has been a great help!

    Feel free to share other thoughts too – still a few more slides to write ;)

  3. Gary Miller says:

    Good luck in the new job James!

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