What are words worth?

Those of a certain age may recall the song ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ by American new wave band Tom Tom Club. Although I’ve defined Tom Tom Club as new wave, the track itself was less genre specific, challenging the perceptions of its early ’80’s audience with a heavy rap and funky disco influence.

Lyrically it also presents a challenge, especially if you overlook the rhyme and dexterity of Tina Weymouth’s vocal and actually begin to think about what she’s saying:
“What are words worth?” is the oft-repeated refrain. As a line in a song it’s easily overlooked but taken in context with the rest of the lyric and given some real thought you’re left thinking, well, what are words worth? What are words really worth?

It’s a question we in the digital team at Nottinghamshire County Council are continually asking ourselves as we develop content in the new website and it’s a thought process that, as I found the other day, can get the grey cells ticking over at the most unexpected of times.

Out for a lunchtime walk in the sunshine, I passed a cake shop (yes, colleagues, you read that right, I passed a cake shop!) with a small notice pinned in the window ‘Back in 30 minutes. Out on a delivery.’

My immediate thought was that the two sentences were the wrong way round. In my head the natural order began with the ‘where’ rather than the ‘when.’ But my digitised self then took over and quickly rationalised the thought process. What is it that the consumer (user) wants to know? The shop is closed, so what is most important to them? Is it the fact that the owner is out on a delivery, or is it the knowledge that the shop will be open again in 30 minutes?

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the proprietor’s efforts to be helpful where immediately undone by the lack of an indicated start time to the 30 minute timeframe, the realisation was that the wording on the note, or in this case, more specifically, the order of the wording, was correct. Had I been visiting the shop, I would have wanted to know when it was reopening. I didn’t really care why it was closed. So, the order was right, but the ‘Missing words’ (“It just don’t make sense, the way you did the things you did” – there I go again, showing my age with musical references from my childhood) meant that unfortunately the shop ultimately failed its user test.

And it’s that way of thinking we’re continually engaged in as we review and rewrite content. We’re questioning each and every word, the way in which the words are phrased, the order in which they’re written, what’s needed and what’s not, all with the ultimate aim of enhancing the user experience and making the site as easy to use as possible. Is there a value to using the word? Is it the right word? Does including it make the overall content easier to understand?

“Hurried words, sensible words, words that tell the truth, cursed words, lying words, words that are missing the fruit of the mind”, sings Ms Weymouth (in French – more creativity in word usage!) as the song continues to provide the English semantics students amongst us with much to ponder.

Our aim at Nottinghamshire County Council is to build a website which provides that fruit and feeds the mind, leaving the user with a nutritional experience. That, to us, is what words are worth.

Posted by Andy Lowe, Senior Digital Officer.

The GIF that keeps on giving

When people ask me “What’s a GIF?” I often end up shouting/singing “It’s Peanut Butter Jelly TIME!”

Geeks like me will remember this adored GIF from about a hundred years ago, it did the rounds on sites like MySpace (ask your parents kids), Reddit and Tumblr.

Peanut butter gif

GIFs are a series of still images compressed into a single file. The file then plays as a short animation made up of those single, still images. Think of a GIF as a high tech flip book.

The GIF format has been around since 1987, early users of the World Wide Web used the format to add movement and interest to web pages. GIFs were often used on pages to display errors, buttons or if a page was under construction.

Under Construction gif

As technology, web design and the internet evolved GIFs soon fell out of fashion, the use of GIFs on webpages soon became outdated. Social media would be the only saviour for this format. The GIF had to evolve from just a moving image to a medium for communicating feelings, moods and movements.

The Rebirth of the GIF Format

Users of Myspace and Tumblr started to use GIFs to reflect moods or make statements. GIFs were soon paired with everyday statements, questions and funny sayings. This type of post was often relatable and sharable.

Loki reaction gif

GIFs are now used on nearly all social media platforms and are commonly used by marketers to help add a bit of humour and personality to campaigns. GIFs aren’t just for fun though; they can be used to promote products, increase brand awareness, as tutorials or to show your company’s culture.

Emoji gif

Using GIFs at Nottinghamshire County Council

I decided to make a GIF to promote a children’s pop-up theatre play showing in Nottinghamshire libraries, ‘The Boy and a Bear in a Boat’.

The microsite we created for this play features a moving image. I wanted to recreate this in GIF format for our social media channels.

I used Photoshop Elements to create the GIF. First I created a new image, ensuring that the canvas was transparent. I then added the waves and the image of the boy and the bear. I wanted the GIF to move, so it looked like the characters were out at sea.

To do this I created multiple layers of the same image and moved each layer in a different direction. The end result was a single Photoshop file with multiple layers; each layer contained a slightly different image – like a flip book!

I then saved the file as a GIF and the result was a moving image – Success! The whole process took about 1 hour but with practice I could halve this.

Here is the result:

Boy Bear Boat gif

I used this GIF on Twitter and Facebook to help promote the upcoming play. A GIF works perfectly with this campaign as the whole idea of a children’s pop-up theatre is fun!

I have used the GIF twice on Twitter with good results. We gained more retweets when using this GIF compared to previous tweets using just an image.

Yesterday Twitter also introduced a new auto-play feature, this means GIFs and videos now play automatically when a user scrolls through their feed. This means more users should now see moving GIFs increasing the chance of improving engagement.

Twitter autoplay video

We are planning to continue creating and using GIFs on our social media channels. It can be a great way to use a backlog of images and can help add personality to campaigns.

Posted by Yasmin Newell, Digital Content Officer

A problem with behaviour OR Usability informing your content

Post-It notes on piece of paperWe blogged back in April about our work in usability testing which helped to shape the design of our beta site that you can see here: beta.nottinghamshire.gov.uk.

Our testing hasn’t stopped. We’re collecting user feedback which we’re implementing into future iterations of the site. The site is being developed for the people of Nottinghamshire and this blog post shows how their views are shaping the site in terms of usability and testing. Sometimes we think we know the correct label due to gut feeling. However, as we found out recently, you can’t beat a bit of good old fashioned consensus and testing.

As a Senior Digital Officer at the Council (and having worked across many different websites) I tend to think that I know what people want or expect to find behind a link, a button or a title on a page.

We were working on the Adoption content and were looking at what you might title the page on the process of adoption. ‘Adoption Process was my first instinct. Next I asked my peers what they thought it should be – and from there we formed a clear opinion of what it should be titled. This, however, is not the ending.

We have a clear process for these things within the Digital First team and that is why we always test assumptions. Sometimes assumptions on how people will navigate a site can be right, but it is often valuable to remove yourself from the process and find out what real users think. The website is after all being built for the people of Nottingham and not just the Council.

We decided to test out our assumption about the page title through a simple process, but one that was invaluable and has informed some of our user testing and decision making on additional elements of the website content.

We simply wrote down three choices on a post it note and sat in an area of the Council with high footfall. Post it notes in hand, I asked people under which heading they would expect to find out about the process of adopting. The three choices were:

  • Steps to adoption
  • How to adopt
  • I want to adopt.

Sitting there, I thought I knew that everyone would choose the right one in ‘How to adopt’ which of course is the best heading for this type of content. Wrong!

Out of all the people surveyed, they picked the heading that I thought no-one would choose which was ‘I want to adopt’. Not only this, but they also gave informed reasons without prompting as to why they would choose this heading to find the information provided. The distilling of this feedback was down to people having considered all of the information prior to adoption and now they want to physically go through the process of adoption and would expect to find the information on what to do next within this area.

Additionally, and most interestingly, one of the people I surveyed had previous experience of our adoption process having already adopted a child in Nottinghamshire (I didn’t know this until after I had surveyed them) and they chose the header of ‘I want to adopt’ also.

It just goes to show that you can sometimes rely too heavily on your opinion and experience, but it’s the people who use these tools that can surprise you with the answers they give and how they use the tools you’ve provided them.

Posted by Paul Roper, Senior Digital Officer

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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Sign up for the latest updates on our Digital First progress through emailme.

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

First steps in design

We blogged recently about the usability testing we’d undertaken on three design concepts with The Insight Lab detailing the methodology and headline results. Here’s some more detail about the three prototypes we put to the test.

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An integral part of Digital first involves developing a new nottinghamshire.gov.uk. With this new version of our website we want to design something that looks good, works well across a range of devices and most importantly, is incredibly simple to use.

A local authority website is a container for a vast amount of information about diverse services which often have little relation to each other aside from the organisation delivering them. With more content and transactions moving to digital services, we set out to design an experience that lets the user concentrate on the task at hand, and giving them access to other content when relevant while getting everything else out of their way.

A website with so many pages needs many interface elements in order to help the user navigate round it all. Things like a main menu, a breadcrumb trail, a list of pages related to the content you’re looking at, a list of pages that are commonly accessed across the site, and many more!

We wanted to ensure our new website had everything the user needed, but remained simple and didn’t become overly complex, so we set about discovering which of these interface elements and design features our users found more useful and which ones were cluttering their experience.

Designing three concepts

We decided to develop three initial concept designs, all which could be used for the new nottinghamshire.gov.uk, but all were different in particular ways.

Each design had similar interface elements, but they would be shown in different places or interacted with in different ways. This was so that we could begin to understand what was so simple to a user it could be used without them having to think about it, what was too complex, or in the worst case scenario, prevented the user from completing their task.

We also wanted to design a site that was engaging, pleasing on the eye and conveyed not just our Digital Design Philosophy, but the character and feel of Nottinghamshire as a county.

We could then test how people interacted with each site, and discover how they used (or didn’t use) certain interface elements to navigate the site and complete the task they had come to do.

Design One – The “Contemporary” design

Screenshot of design concept homepage

This design was influenced by current local authority websites, and built to emulate the type of interface people would expect to see when arriving on a council website.

This included interface elements such as top tasks, search box, a top level navigation menu and positioning content in a traditional, vertically stacked page.

We included additional information about events and news in a big, clear way in an attempt to showcase content the user may not have intended to view when they first arrived, but may find useful (but still doing this without getting in their way!).

We positioned these elements in the lower half of the screen, “below the fold”, so that they could access it if they came across it, but so that it didn’t interfere with the task they had come to complete.

This concept was designed to look colourful, big and bold, with clear, large typography used to group related links.

We saw this design as an evolution of our existing site in terms of look, feel and user experience.

Design Two – The “Modern” design

Design concept screenshotThis design took on a slightly more modern interface and used horizontal columns to showcase different types of content simultaneously.

This design was built to fill the screen of the visitor’s browser, abandoning the traditional fixed width centre column design, allowing visitors on high resolution/large devices to have a more optimal experience.

As the screen width decreases, the columns can slide and expand horizontally, similar to how modern smartphone applications (for example Twitter) work, reducing the need for users to scroll down the page to consume content.

The two right hand columns serve secondary and tertiary content across all pages, so no matter where the visitor arrives on the website, they will always have access to over-arching elements.

This was an interesting point with this design – keeping a similarity between content pages and the homepage. We often found council websites had a homepage with lots of engaging and useful content, but that moving onto a specific page would remove those broader elements (such as news and events). And with more and more of our visitors arriving directly on content pages from Google, we wanted to explore the opportunity of showcasing this content from all pages, regardless of where they started their journey.

This design also explored moving the footer to the right hand side of the screen, again, using sliding panels to expose the content. We initially set this element to be a thin border, which would expand when interacted with by the user.

We also used icons to symbolise links to our social media channels, as well as contact details and address information.  We wanted to test whether icons alone would be enough of a prompt for users to find information, for example, an envelope to signify contact us, or the letter I to signify information.

Interestingly, icons that represented brands that visitors were very familiar with, for example Facebook, worked on their own but icons we had used exclusively, such as the envelope did not successfully prompt the user to interact with that element when looking to contact us.

Design Three – The “Clean” design

Design concept homepage screenshotThis design was the most simplistic of them all. We wanted to explore just how simple we could make our website before it started to have a negative impact on the visitor.

In this design, we removed all additional content from the interface, such as news and events and focused purely on the task the user had come to complete.

The homepage lists popular tasks and online services, alongside a navigational structure that lets the visitor browse the site from left to right (again using horizontal columns) in a directory structure similar to GOV.UK.

Content pages were also very simple, and only showed visitor content relevant to that section rather than content from a broader section of our website.

This particular design didn’t allow for much opportunity to engage with the user, in terms of broader Council content and while we recognised that this was not ideal from a business perspective, it would be useful to see if this approach significantly improved the user experience for the visitor.

What we found

The findings from the user testing of these design concepts were very interesting, and confirmed some of our assumptions while completely disproving others.

The testing experience provided us with a wealth of data, helping us identify the key interface elements that we would put into the beta design and also helping us get a feel for what level of complexity users were most comfortable with.

The general findings showed us that users found design two to be too complex. While they did find it useful having access to broader content across all pages, they did get lost on the page, spending a longer amount of time looking around the page to find the next step in their journey.

Designs one and three were scored fairly similar, although the simplistic nature of the design three did require visitors to return to the homepage to start a new task, as there was no links between different types of content.

Subjective questioning also found design three to be too simple, and that people preferred the look and feel of the first design, perhaps because this had a more familiar feel to it compared to the current website.

We also found that when performing a specific task, providing relevant links to other content significantly helped users browse the site and complete further tasks, for example having a link to ‘events in half term’ on the school term time page.

Certain interface elements, such as popular links and related pages were used very frequently, whereas elements such as the search box and main menu were, surprisingly, used much less frequently.

What’s next?

The next step was to take what we had learnt from both the practical experience of designing these concepts and the user testing results to design the first version of our beta site.

This design is almost an amalgamation of the three design concepts, borrowing the strongest elements (and most successful as determined in the user testing) from each design, and rebuilding them into one design that will go live in our public beta test very soon.

Once this is live, we will continue to monitor user behaviour and iterate the design to continuously improve it, so that we can move closer to the version we replace our current website with later in the year.

The design process is allowing us to discover what really works, very quickly. With constant feedback and iterations, we are able to test ideas and challenge our own assumptions very quickly, helping us get closer to a site the residents of Nottinghamshire find highly usable and (perhaps!) enjoyable too.

Posted by Carl Bembridge, Digital Design Officer

Testing our design concepts

Web cam on screenWe’ve just completed the next step in our journey toward the new nottinghamshire.gov.uk website – usability testing of our initial three design concepts.

The three design prototypes challenged our assumptions about user behaviour and sought to discover which elements really help them complete visits to our site efficiently and satisfactorily.

Dr. Emily Webber and Dr. Vicky Shipp of The Insight Lab provide this detailed post on how we approached this phase of the build and testing.

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Why do user testing?

When designing a website it is important to consider the different types of people who will be visiting it, and the type of experience they will have. A really effective way to do this is through user testing, where we can observe people carrying out set tasks on a website or prototype to understand what they do, and what they think. This will help to assess their reactions to the website and anything that they find particularly difficult to use, which will in turn help us to see how it could be improved.

User testing can be carried out on just one design, but the benefit of comparing different designs is that people will be able to notice which features they like or find easiest to use across a range of options, and we can observe which elements work well and those that don’t. This will help to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the different designs so that we can make a more informed decision about future designs.

To help with the development of the new Nottinghamshire County Council (NCC) website, The Insight Lab were asked to run user testing to evaluate three prototype interface designs.

These three in-browser prototypes were created especially for the testing, and included a range of different aesthetic and functional elements to allow for a rich experience, which aimed to mirror the use of a fully functional site. Subtle differences across the designs, such as the location and function of menus, the placement of key pieces of content, and the colours used, would allow us to see how this impacted on people’s performance and experiences and understand which elements allowed for more efficient and effective task completion.

Who did the testing and what did it involve?

Lab-based usability testingUsing the previously identified personas as a starting point, we recruited participants across a range of age groups, locations, and with different levels of computing experience. This ensured that the sample of people who took part in the study, and their feedback and performance, were representative of the actual users of the NCC website.

The individual testing sessions lasted just under an hour and participants were asked to use all three of the interfaces to complete a series of common tasks, such as finding out about school term dates, viewing local events, and reporting a pot hole. We made sure that the order in which people completed the tasks and used each interface were randomised so that the results wouldn’t be affected by people becoming familiar with them (we call these practice effects). In this way we could be sure that the results we got were as non-biased and as accurate as possible.

To allow us to understand exactly what people did, we used software to record what was happening on the screen – where people were clicking, hovering, and the route they took to complete each task. This software also captured a video of people’s reactions to the tasks via a webcam mounted on the monitor so that we could record when people were particularly confused or confident, and map these reactions to use of particular interface elements. We also recorded a variety of metrics such as how long it took people to complete the tasks, how many times they needed to click, and which navigation elements they used.

At the end of the testing sessions we asked participants to talk about their experiences, identify their preferred elements across the three designs, and fill in a quick survey that measured how usable they found each interface. By capturing this wide variety of data it would ensure rich and insightful results.

Making sense of the data

The sessions generated a lot of data, and we needed to spend time analysing it to make sense of it. This is one of the most enjoyable parts of our job as we begin to explore and uncover meaningful insights.

In this scenario we looked at the average task completion times across the interfaces, the usability score of each interface, and the different ways that people completed the tasks.

This not only allowed us to see which design performed the best overall, but also the different design components that people used and/or struggled with and any tasks that were more challenging than they should be.

What did we find out?

Usability testingThrough our analysis we found that although all three interfaces designs were rated as having above average usability, opinions about the preferred interface were varied. We were able to identify the elements that were frequently used and allowed for efficient task completion, or those that were particularly well received, and these should remain in the future design.

However, it does not mean that other interface elements should not be included, as these were still important to some of the users. What is key is combining these in ways that do not inhibit or distract other site visitors.

Our findings have produced a set of recommendations that NCC can use to ensure that future designs meet the various needs of people using the website. As the aim of the testing was not to choose one interface, but to understand the way people used different features of the designs, future designs are likely to involve incorporating aesthetic and navigational elements from each of the three prototypes.

The Insight Lab is an expert-led consultancy, implementing user-focused research methods to drive the design of digital products and services that are simple, efficient and a pleasure to use. Find out more about them on their website.

Moving to Umbraco

Our first workstream in the Digital First Project, to ‘review technical infrastructure, systems and support’, has now completed and we’re making the move to Umbraco as our main content management system.

Having considered the options for the Content Management System (CMS), it was agreed that an open source solution was the most appropriate choice and several possible CMS solutions were considered and evaluated.

Criteria ranged from compatibility with the existing technical platforms and technical strategy of the Council and ease of integration to back-end systems, through to the related active user group community, ease of product use, and the responsive capability of the product. Key was also that the CMS was  “device agnostic”, key in order to deliver the corporate priorities deliverables, channel shift and workforce mobilisation.

We looked also at how flexible a CMS could be around design and both the front-end and content authoring user experience.

Umbraco was selected from this process which is an open-source CMS and will be the tool with which to base the development of the content of the new public website and related microsites and extranets. As other workstreams in Digital First move on we’ll look at whether Umbraco plays a part in other sites as well.

Alongside using Umbraco as the content management system the Council is looking at systems to support transactional delivery. These include products from the Firmstep suite:

  • AchieveForms – an e-forms solution
  • AchieveSelf – for customer accounts
  • AchieveService – customer relationship management module.

The Umbraco CMS is hosted on a new dedicated VMware server based ICT platform situated at both Nottinghamshire County Council data centres.

The Umbraco ICT platform design utilises the VMware technology to ensure service continuity / high availability by constantly replicating the content of the web servers across both sites so that they are always synchronised. They are accessed through a load balancer so that each is accessible and without the need to resort to complex configuration changes should either become inaccessible for any reason.

Service continuity / high availability is further enhanced through SolarWinds monitoring which will automatically notify our support teams of any outages or actions which VMware will have taken to maintain the service thus enabling a quick and appropriate response.

The new platform has both test and production environments and our content authors can draft and publish directly to the web by through status control in the production environment.

Additionally there is a development environment on which to develop and test more major / high impact system changes such as overall the structure of the website.

While workstream one will now be closed down within the project ICT involvement will remain high across the other areas.

Posted by Toni Tedder, Senior Project Manager in ICT Business Change and Engagement.

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We’re pleased to be involved in the Umbraco in Local Government User Group and to be hosting the next meeting of the group. Dates to be confirmed so keep an eye on the blog!

You can find a group on KHub to discuss the use of this CMS in local government (log in required).

LocalGov Digital gathered some comparison information about different CMS in use in local government and you can find this, or add your comments, here.