Digital – the next frontier?

It all feels a bit like Star Trek’s famous split infinitive but we now need to push on into new digital territories!

We have successfully built the digital foundations that can deliver transformation across the Council – a new, vastly improved website, redesigned microsites, a refreshed schools portal and implemented a social media strategy. A beta version of our new intranet is also being built and should go live in the next few weeks. So what is the next frontier?

While we have undoubtedly improved the customer experience, regained control and visibility of our social media and established a solid platform, we have still not fully delivered the much-heralded savings that are often attached to digital transformation.

This is a point in the development that many others have reached; it is also a point that many get stuck due to the different challenges the next phase brings.

What makes me hopeful that we will make the necessary progress is the fact that all the achievements to date have been delivered by an excellent in-house digital team that we have built that has worked closely with ICT and Customer Service teams. If we had gone external in terms of delivery, I don’t think we would have developed the skills, knowledge or relationships that would all us to get us to the next level.

That said, while all the existing skills remain relevant and needed, I think that the next phase will also involve a different set of skills. This is because we will now need to push into territory that is normally fiercely protected – the area of service redesign. Anyone who has ever worked in local authorities will know that this is a step not taken lightly but there is no choice if we are to start seeing the true potential of digital. It is not about putting the existing process online, nor is it about optimising the current process and then putting it online. It is about designing a journey from scratch with a digital mind-set from the outset. That is not to say that offline elements of the journey don’t need to be considered – they absolutely do, but they can’t be the driving force. Also an offline option needs to be integrated into any design to make sure that those unable to use the online solution are not left behind.

The culture and management structure means that to get into this area – the heart of the Council – will take political manoeuvring, the leveraging of influence, keen project management skills and a dollop of luck for good measure. Oh, and if I am going to continue the Star Trek theme, a fully loaded space-age taser set to stun!

Taking this blog back to reality, I am fortunate enough to have a place on our Corporate Leadership Team which provides the perfect platform to help navigate through the many challenges and natural resistance. Anyone setting out on a Phase II digital project that involves going into service areas will need a sponsor at the highest level – preferably the Chief Executive – if they are going to succeed.

We are identifying all of those customer journeys that would deliver savings by being optimised for a self-service, online delivery. This will often mean replacing a labour intensive process with an automated process. It will meet resistance. (Note to Editor: resist using the Star Trek phrase “resistance is futile”) The first journeys are likely to be the most difficult. Early wins will be critical.

Where’s Captain Kirk when you need him!

Posted by Martin Done, Communications and Marketing Director

Digital Champions

As Member Digital Champion, I know the amount of hard work that the digital team and colleagues from ICT and customer teams have put in to reach the goal of having one of the best websites in local government.

That is why it is particularly pleasing for Nottinghamshire to be honoured for a string of well-deserved national awards.

We won Digital Team of the Year in the UK Digital Experience Awards and an Excellence in User Experience win in the 2015 UXUK Awards – both of these were for the website development. In the UXUK Awards our new site was praised for being “exceptional” and a “benchmark for local government”.

Also, I am particularly pleased that our digital team leader, Sarah Lay, has won the Lifetime Achievement Award in the  Comms2point0 Unawards. I have to say she seems far too young to be picking up a lifetime achievement award! But, seriously, well done Sarah and well deserved!

We have also been shortlisted for Digital Council of the Year in the prestigious LGC Awards 2016.

While I it would be easy to see this as the end of the journey, I think we are at the start. Martin Done, our communication director who has overseen this digital transformation, is now looking how to take it to the next level which is really exciting and encouraging.

So watch this space!

Councillor Darren Langton
Member Digital Champion

Avoiding the fate of Sisyphus

When we made our new website www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk live, we announced that we had finally got to the start line – this was the beginning of the journey not the end of one.

Rather than being a moment to sit back and relax in the smug afterglow of go-live, it was time to roll up the sleeves (not that they had not already been well and truly rolled up!) and start improving the customer-centric site based on lots of live data that was flowing in from real users.

The fact that the site had been in public Beta for about four months meant that the issues were relatively few. Having developed the site entirely using an in-house team meant that any problems could be fixed cheaply within hours or days (I doubt this would have been the case if we had procured a digital solution from an external provider).

But the point about this blog post is to describe how we got to the start line.

It seems that many local authorities end up feeling like Sisyphus – the king who, according to Greek mythology, was condemned to push a huge boulder up to the top of the hill for eternity. Each time he nearly got there it would roll back over him and he would have to start again from the bottom.

But what makes local authority digital progress feel so sticky?

As the Digital First sponsor, which is the programme that is seeking to deliver multiple digital transformation strands, I have learnt a lot since I joined the authority from the private sector about five years ago. I have to admit, I never appreciated the amount of behind-the-scenes work and corridor conversations that would be needed before we truly got going.

  1. Get senior management buy-in – this is easier said than done. The directors need to believe in your abilities to transform the website. A lot of this is about changing the culture – websites are seen as bits of technology and therefor sitting firmly in the lap of ICT. Until the directors can see that the customer is the driver, not the technology, progress will be slow.
  2. Political backing – as with the senior management, elected Members need to understand the benefits of pursuing a customer-centric approach to the website design. Regular meetings with senior members helped to change the paradigm. This was followed by establishing a Digital Member Champion and regular reports to Committee with show and tells incorporated
  3. Consistent Messaging – as professional communicators we can sometimes forget the basics for our own business. We developed a set of messages that we repeated often until they became almost a mantra within the organisation. These included it being about the users not technology and how it would unlock savings for services
  4. Internal territorial battles – sort them out beforehand! Some authorities have seen digital as a battleground for territory with lots of areas staking a claim. The reality is that all have a case and need to be involved – roles and responsibilities need to be clarified at the outset to stop this becoming a distraction to the main objective
  5. Engage with services but place customers at the heart – positioning this is critical in terms of success. Services have often produced content from their perspective using language that they would use rather than the customer. To move from this position requires an evidence-based approach that presents real feedback from real users
  6. Build momentum – promote small wins. It is not just good enough to deliver. You need to spend time building the narrative, using infographics to show the result in easy-to-understand ways.
  7. Establish team credibility – build up your team, recruit the best that are available, make them believe in their own professionalism. Move from a “generalist” digital tag to ones with deeper specialisms around SEO, UX and data analysis
  8. Project manager – get a good one! Resolving conflict along the way is critical. There will be issues that need to be addressed and you need someone that is bold enough and politically astute enough to know when and how to get things unstuck.
  9. Cultural issues – as everyone knows, culture takes an age to change and the only way to do it is by lots of small steps with constant repetition of what you are doing and why. Don’t think that because you have said it once, that that is enough
  10. Never give up believing that, one day, you will roll that boulder up that hill!

While it would be easy to brag that we have delivered a new website, developed a new social media strategy, built a new schools portal and reviewed 50 microsites in the space of just over a year, the reality is different.

Getting to the point when we had the go-ahead to build a specialised digital team that would deliver such an important transformation programme has taken considerably longer. It is hard to pinpoint the exact point it started but ever since I joined the authority five years ago  it has been my ambition to deliver a website that would take us from the back of the middle of the pack to near or at the front.

And, while we are not there yet, we are certainly on the way thanks to one of the strongest and most talented digital teams in local government.

We are finally starting to push the boulder up the hill – let’s just hope the fate of Sisyphus does not repeat itself!

Posted by Martin Done, Communications and Marketing Director

100 days of beta

On Tuesday 22 September we transitioned the new nottinghamshire.gov.uk website from beta to live, making it the official online channel of Nottinghamshire County Council.

This followed around 100 days in the public beta phase where we built, tested and refined content and website structure. It was a really useful process to go through and meant that we’d tackled a lot of issues and questions – both big and small – before making it the official website and redirecting our customers to it.

But in truth this is where some really interesting work begins. Now our customers are arriving at the new website from search engines (and other starting points) we can see, with significant volume, how they are using the website and begin to understand more about how we can continue to make things better for them. We’re excited to move more services online through the website, improve more customer journeys (with end-to-end process design) and test the details of the design and content with some multi-variant and further usability testing.

Moving to live wasn’t done with a perfect site, but with a site where more content was improved than not. It was done in a way where we tried to cause minimum disruption to our customers but rather provide a smooth transition from our old site to the new. And it was done at point where we’d learnt a lot from beta testing and iterating but in many areas would get real value from seeing real customers carrying out genuine transactions.

There is a still a lot to deliver on the website and through Digital First (we’re still working on our social media, mircrosite and intranet workstreams too) but having moved between phases it is a good time to reflect a little on what we learnt over the summer.

Going into beta early is good

There’s a balance to be found on when to go into a public beta but we found that having some, not all, of our content in place and having the beta running parallel to the existing website worked for us. We were able to continue with our development while gathering feedback, we were able to drive traffic to it when we needed more information about work we were doing and it really helped with having conversations with services and customers as we were able to show, rather than tell them about, the thing we were building.

Doing the hard work to make things simple

There have been some problems that have challenged the delivery team but were vital to tackle, problems that are perennial across digital delivery in local government. From the information architecture to legacy systems, as a project and as a Council we weren’t satisfied with recognising these as complicated but rather wanted to really grasp them and try to find the solution. This is hard work by the team in order to make things simple for our customers. We’ve made progress but we’ve a long way to go.

Leave no link behind

We did a huge amount of work to put in place redirects so that the transition between beta and live was as seamless as possible for our customers. Did this work perfectly? No. Did it work perfectly in the majority of cases? Yes. We can count on one hand the number of pages which 404’d accidentally rather than on purpose. Despite reducing our site by around 20,000 pages we tried to make sure that each old page pointed at something relevant wherever possible. We think this will pay off with Google but more importantly we hope it will pay off with our customers too.

The team is important

Building an in-house team has been important to delivering at this speed and scale. Being able to mobilise the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience as well as having hands-on control of our technology has made a huge difference to our ability to deliver. It’s also given the benefit of supporting the culture change in the organisation, enthusing services about the possibilities of digital and sharing skills to improve the digital capabilities across the workforce.

Keep kicking at the walls

Customer needs first; functional design can be beautiful; content is important; the whole customer journey in all its wibbly-wobblyness between channels is vital to understand and deliver for. These are some of the truths we’ve stuck to in the delivery of Digital First so far and form the foundation for the project moving forward. The way it has always been done in the past doesn’t have to be the road map for our future.

Live is just the starting line

For many web projects putting a site live is an end point and despite best efforts the site depreciates in value from there as development slows or stops and governance (often) is too flimsy for the content it manages. That’s the old way, the usual way but it isn’t ours.

Now we have real people using our site for real transactions we’re prioritising the small iterations that will make that easier for them, the things that could be presented better. We’re also getting to work on development sprints for areas of content or functionality we want to push further.

Moving to live is a big step, but it’s just another in a longer journey.

Posted by Sarah Lay, Senior Digital Officer (Digital Team Leader)

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You can find our website at www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk and if you’d like to leave feedback you can do so through this survey.

To keep up to date with Digital First work and find out about opportunities to get involved in usability testing sign up to bulletins from emailme.

Making nottinghamshire.gov.uk live

Our new website www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk went live yesterday after 18 months of hard work that was focused on making sure that it was a site built around the needs of users.

All through this project, we have been keen to push the message that this is about people not the technology and that what we were seeking to achieve first and foremost was a highly functional site that meant as many people as possible would choose to carry out transactions online.

The fact that we were able to have the site in Beta for four months before launch meant that many of the improvements had already been made and when we switched sites there was not the usual dramas or nervousness around many web launches.

The fact that we used an in-house team to develop the whole site means that we can continually improve the site as we monitor usage and feedback – this is the main advantage over using a third party to develop your site which often makes the improvement cycle slow and costly.

We are now able to promote a Council website that is fit for the modern age and will support the move of many of our services as possible to an online delivery. It is a proud moment.

Councillor Darren Langton, Digital Champion

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You can find our website at nottinghamshire.gov.uk and if you’d like to leave feedback you can do so through this survey.

To keep up to date with Digital First work and to find out about opportunities to get involved in usability testing, sign up to emailme.

Championing digital opportunities

I’m lucky that my passion for representing the interests of local people and for digital technology are the perfect combination for my job as Councillor and Digital First champion.

As a lead Councillor I help raise awareness about digital opportunities with both local people and County Councillors. During the life of our Digital First project, I will be ensuring that the voice of local people – both those who are technology-savvy and those who are not – is at the heart of digital improvements.

I’ve realised myself that technology is only an enabler – the key thing is to ensure that people have a positive experience of online information and transactions provided by our Council, so that digital services enhance and improve people’s lives. It’s about making things easier!

Perhaps councils and councillors are not best known for an amazing use of digital technology and we do have a lot to prove here in Nottinghamshire , so you will need to bear with us until we have transformed the foundations of all our digital services – our main website.

This work is well underway and it’s been fascinating to see the feedback we’ve received, and the results of testing, put into practice on our Beta website. Feedback and testing shapes everything from the structure, navigation, content and design and building openly allows us to work out how best to deliver our online digital services for our customers .

Keep checking this blog to see how we are doing. In the meantime, if you have a thoughts about our Digital First project then don’t hesitate contact me or email me at Darren.langton@nottscc.gov.uk.

Posted by Councillor Darren Langton

Moving to beta

Screenshot of beta website homepageOur work to move to a new nottinghamshire.gov.uk is at an exciting stage – we’re going into public beta.

We’ve been working on understanding user and organisational needs, and whether the content we have on the current site meets these. And we’ve been prototyping and testing (interaction and visual) design. Behind all this we’ve been learning to live our Digital First principles and ethos and preparing the technology we need to move the site forward.

Moving to public beta means we’re now ready to share this work – still at an early stage – more widely so we can begin to gather feedback and iterate as we continue with the build over the next few months.

What do we mean by beta?

We’ve defined what we mean when we say beta along the lines of the Government Digital Service definition. We’re using it to mean: “a web page, service or site is still in a testing phase and is a developing prototype going through testing and rapid iterations.”

The beta we’re putting public now is still very much a prototype and we’ll be aiming to, in the words of the Government Digital Service,  “build a fully working prototype which you test with users. (…) continuously improve on the prototype until it’s ready to go live, replacing or integrating with any existing services.” In our case this means preparing content and improved (appropriate) transactional capability across the Council’s 500 services.

Our beta is very small right now – the start of a structure, a few areas of content, little integration with other systems – but we’ll be building on this over the next couple of months. It will run in parallel with our current website (this remains the official digital channel of the Council for now) as we transition services over during the summer ahead of a full go live with the new site in September.

Why make it public?

Both our digital design philosophy and principles describe how we want to work openly and with our customers.

Putting the beta live now may well show up things that don’t work or could work better – and that’s great! We’d rather know about that stuff and work on it more before the beta transitions to be the official website of the Council.

How long did it take?

We moved into private alpha at the start of the year after implementing Umbraco and completing initial work on our content inventory.

Much of the work on beta has happened in a couple of sprints over the last month. The first covered the usability testing on the three design concepts and analysing the results while the second covered a fast build based on what we learnt.

Last week we went into private beta, sharing the site with stakeholders and Council staff.

The site will remain in public beta until September when it becomes the official Council website.

What’s different from the current site?

Lots!

The beta site is responsive and optimised for use on different devices. We’ve thought not only about how the site displays and the priority of content on devices but also about user behaviour on these devices (touch navigation, for example) and the context of visits.

Our design prototype testing explored what sort of information architecture works best for our customers and we’re building a mixed navigation of both container and tagged content (hat tip to GOV.UK here for inspiration on designing this interaction).

We’ve kept the ‘top tasks’ style prioritisation on the homepage but in order to move people more quickly to the right content and this will work dynamically in time to reflect activity on the site at a given time. But recognising that most of our visitors come straight to a deeper content page from an external search engine we’ve designed a path through the hierarchy that makes the least stops on the way to where people need to be, while still signposting clearly. You can check this out through the ‘browse this website’ tab on the tasks box on the beta homepage.

We’ve prioritised the customer need on each of the page by getting site furniture out of the way as much as possible and making content as focused as possible by telling people what they want to know as clearly and concisely as we can (still lots of work to do on content though!).

But we’ve also recognised there is organisation needs to be met, and that the Council isn’t only a service provider but a part of the local community. This means we’re trying out a chunky footer on each page that brings in news, events and social content. Common ‘homepage’ features that people don’t see when they land deeper in the site by using ‘Google as the homepage’. We need to explore this idea further to see if the chunky footer works for user and organisation but we’d like this to be contextual in the future – so the news, events, social and democratic content you see is directly related to the service content above.

These are just a few of the changes we’ve made so far but there’s lots more to come. We’re all really excited to learn more about how people use the site and what works (and what doesn’t)!

What happens next?

We’re encouraging people to try out the beta and provide feedback. To help with this we’re using Google Analytics but also Hotjar – capturing mouse patters and generating heatmaps as well as gathering qualitative data through a short survey. The survey appears shortly after you land on our site or you can find it here.

We’ll be taking what we learn from this and over the next few months we’ll be transitioning from the current site to the beta being the official channel so we’ll be signposting from one to the other in preparation for that. We’ll also be continuing to work with customers, services and our other access channels as part of this work.

There is a lot more work to do to add in functionality that will allow the site to work in the ways our customers expect, integrate with our transactional services and get the content to the standard we’re looking for.

We don’t expect the new nottinghamshire.gov.uk will look exactly like our beta does currently when it goes live in September – visual design, interaction design and content will all change over the summer with more work by the team based on evidence of usage patterns and usability testing.

For now – we’re just asking you to give it a go and we looking forward to hearing what you think!

Some things to try on the beta:

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Posted by Sarah Lay, Senior Digital Officer (Digital Team Leader)