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