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Saturday 12 September 2009

Postscript: Lessons from the great 2009 Birmingham City Council website disaster

The fallout from the relaunch of Birmingham City council's website (#bccwebsite) has continued, not just online but in the local press as well thanks to the strong interest of Birmingham Post Editor Marc Reeves.

It's not a coincidence that the Post has a 'web 2.0' site and in its reporting about #bccwebsite has even included comments left on its news stories as well as comment sourced from online feedback - including mine.

But by far the most interesting developing is the first step in the concretisation of webbie attempts to influence the council's web development in the shape of a wiki (capture above).

This echoes some of the major developments bringing together webbie citizens and government around the world, such as the just launched Code For America who say "we believe there is a wealth of talent in the web industry eager to contribute to the rebuilding of America."

It seems there's also a wealth of talent wanting to contribute in Birmingham as well. Whether they will be heard depends as much on their own abilities at lobbying as creating useful stuff online, alongside the council's abilities at listening of course. Let's not start off being cynical!

Socitm's Helen Williams noted on the Communities of Practice public sector social network my main point, that - from this disaster (and acknowledging it as a disaster) - Things Must Change:
I think there are some specific reasons for the level of interest (reaction to the high cost, perceptions of the third party contractor, the size of the council / city and the fact that it has many digitally active citizens). However, I also believe we have entered an era where councils can expect their websites and any re-launches to receive a whole new level of public scrutiny and comment (and not just in the Web Improvement and Usage Community!)

Let down by Comms, and politicians?

As I noted before, part of the disaster has been a PR one.

In private conversation I have expressed my sorrow for the staff member forced to step up to be the fallguy. Glyn Evans, Birmingham City Council's Corporate Director of Business Change, responses have been unfortunate but betray a lack of help from the Council's PR department.

Even more unfortunately why is he the fallguy and not a local politician? Doesn't it say something for the political leadership's attitude to their website - and possibly explaining why they got in this mess in the first place - that they can watch it be trashed in the press and online and say nothing?

Birmingham Post Editor Marc Reeves agrees with this analysis in a comment on my blog post:
I don’t know Glyn Evans very well, but I do know he’s an effective and passionate public servant who cares deeply about doing the best for the city of Birmingham and its citizens. Much of the opprobrium has centred on him, which I think is a little unfair, although no-one should shirk from holding him up to the ‘cabinet responsibility’ principle.

However, he has been let down by the absence of a cohesive, proactive strategic comms process which – if it existed – would have spared the council some devastating reputational damage, and Glyn this undeserved personal and professional embarrassment.

A well thought-out public affairs / public relations approach to this simply wouldn’t have let the website ‘launch’ proceed. The simple expedient of quietly announcing that the first ‘below the line’ phase of the web overhaul was complete, with functionality to follow, would have avoided this mess. If, as Glyn says, there are major improvements on the way, then simply wait for them to be up ad running, then unveil all in a hail of publicity.

The website scandal just illustrates a much larger problem at the heart of BCC, I fear.
The non-reaction from local politicians (bar Sion Simon MP's retweet of my post) shows why the effects of the Birmingham digerati (aka 'twitterati') need to be as much political as they are digital.

Amongst other developments
  • It has been suggested that the task of transferring content fell to council staff rather than the contractor. Also that the statement '17,000 pages' actually means 17,000 content items.

  • An old post by Charles Arthur in The Guardian has surfaced which contains the claim that the project was "essentially trying to knit 35 sites operating under the council's umbrella into a single one. "

  • Reviewers have noted that the forms system, at the heart of any possible cost-savings and 'service transformation, is extremely outdated with "a bewildering array of options?" and has bits which simply don't work.

  • Reviewers have also noted that there are payment forms with no encryption.

  • Questions have been asked about whether there was any public consultation as well as pre-launch testing/breaking and fixing (including usability testing), partly as comments by Evans have suggested this is happening post-launch - "there is little point in assessing our residents' perspective – the view we value most – at this stage".

  • The exact role of the council's web team in the exercise remains a mystery.
  • The CMS wasn't built by Capita, it was a commercial java-based CMS called FatWire (source: Stef Lewandowski).

Going over the top (in another sense)

In a great post about the website, local web business owner Jake Grimley has bravely nailed his colours to the mast (more people with potential business to lose will have to follow Jake if efforts like that started by the Wiki are to succeed) and made concrete suggestions from his own experience of developing large and mission-critical websites. He also goes with my guess on what £2.8m actually bought.

He says:
For me, it’s not really the lack of RSS Feeds (inexplicable as that is) or the failure of the CSS to validate, or the difficulties keeping the site up on its launch day that really bother me. It’s the complete lack of attention to detail or quality in the content, design and information architecture that I find astounding. For those that need examples, there is a log of snarky highlights, but you just need to spend five minutes clicking around the site to see what I mean. It’s the equivalent of re-launching the Town Hall with bits of plaster falling off, missing roof-tiles, and sign-posts to facilities that never got built.
Another great follow-up post by Pesky People details the accessibility issues and comes out fighting:
At the moment they are saying Disabled residents in Birmingham are not important enough as Gly Evans was quoted in the Birmingham Post
All the signs are that this one will not go away, for the reasons Helen Williams outlines. But it remains to be seen if the 'Lessons from the great 2009 Birmingham City Council website disaster' will actually be learned any time soon. That's down to all of us, including you, the reader of this blog post.


One other consequence

As I endeavored to make clear in my previous post, none of this should be taken as a criticism of the City Council's Web Team. It is unfortunate that it appears that this may not be the case. It would be more than good to hear from them as developments continue - it would be invaluable.

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