Monday, April 18, 2005

Why public sector websites are so dreadful (vol 1)

There are over 400 Councils in England and Wales alone. Almost all of them have built their own websites. They are mostly built from scratch, using a range of different Content Management System (CMS) products, though there is one national open-source project that some Councils have collaborated on as far as I know.

Yet the vast majority of these Councils largely use the same functionality. If they could work effectively together, they could save a fortune in scripts, hosting and software and concentrate on the things that they currently all do appallingly – content, marketing, usability etc.

But because their IT departments are in charge of this, for the most part, effective co-operation would be a bit like turkeys voting for Xmas. Why concentrate on soft non-techie skills when the finance department (who don’t understand how websites are built or how they work) will allocate 99% of the ‘new media’ budget to the techies?

So, they all go off and “procure a content management system” (code, “buy software that our own techies have to implement”) and host it themselves (code: “buy a couple of servers and manage them themselves.”) Result? Expensive clunky websites that are badly designed, hard to find anything on, have poor quality copy, are expensive to host and are more likely to be unavailable at weekends.

And ones that have little by way of an upgrade path that isn’t costly.Whereas, they could have got together, developed a shared hosted solution and concentrated their budget on usability and copy etc.

I worked on a big project for the local government association last year. We noticed that NO councillors were getting any help to develop their own websites from their Council (despite £millions spent on e-democracy projects). We worked out that there were a dozen reasons why this was happening (11 of them had nothing to do with the technology and only one of them was the lack of training / manuals) and we came up with a prototype hosted solution.

As a result, the government then made it a condition of getting the 2005 funding that every Council should give their Councillors their own sites. Result? – surprise surprise! they’re all doing it themselves!

We worked out that 80% of the project was about doing this in a way that Councillors are all motivated to update their sites, peer groups, advice on content, marketing etc. But the government only said that they have to develop them. And because they cost their time differently (we have to charge a figure significantly higher than £100 per day (sic) that we cover our costs, but because of the miraculous way that the public sector are allowed to budget (apparently they can do days of development for the cost that we rack up to do one day’s work – even though they pay their staff the same), they will develop it for ‘less’ than we would charge them to buy into the scheme.

So, the taxpayer pays more, the result is something that is less useable / used, and we wonder why e-government take-up (as opposed to implementation) is so much lower than expected.

*calming down now*


Anonymous said...

There's one other reason. They're technically incompetent.

This is a true story. Norfolk County Council (my Council) decided to build a new bit of their website to help parents find out when schools were closed due to the weather (normally snow)

They did this, believe it or not, by wiring Filemaker Pro into their Webserver, then sticking a database of schools in the county which was queried via POST/GET stuff. FMPro apparently has a bodge which allows you to access queries via HTTP.

When it snowed it worked ... for about 10 minutes. Then it collapsed as large numbers of parents tried to access it.

What's laughable about this is that it's so obvious what's going to happen. I saw the ?FMP3 (or similar) in the URL but discarded it as I thought no-one could be that stupid, later to have it confirmed that it was indeed FMPRO.

I wrote a better one in 20 lines of Perl :)

Paulie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paulie said...

But why should you even need to dust off your Perl skills Anon?

Every County Council - and every District / Met etc have a database of schools - one that should interface with their website and be easy to manage.

Why has no-one developed one good robust one that every Council has to use?

It would be a better app, it would have plenty of money invested in it's usability, accessibility, the quality of coding, an upgrade path, tech support, maintenance etc. And it would cost a fraction of whatever every Council is spending.

And it will never be built because local government IT managers would never countenance such a development - and their Chief Execs think that its not possible.