Handwriting is on the wall for government content?

I got the predictable responses from my article in Computing last week – the ones offering me a tool to catalog this, automate that or publish the other all whilst singing “God Save the Queen” or otherwise relaxing somehow. Predictable that is except for one – a handwritten letter. It’s not often that I see such a thing – even my 13 year old goddaughter writes to me on her PC these days. The letter was from someone who used to head the communications team of a big government department. She said some nice things about me and then went for the killer blow – that “Government content is seriously flawed”, all written in caps. Maybe there’s a point there.

I certainly didn’t want to make anyone think it would be easy to move ahead – you wouldn’t start from where we are if we wanted to get where we want to be, for instance. But, this letter made me think a bit. It’s true that our content is flawed – the letter-writer didn’t elaborate (I’m going to try and engage in some email dialogue to see if I can draw out the point). It’s flawed for lots of reasons:

– There’s too much of it. Last week (I think in the FT IT supplement), I saw a quote from someone that said “we need to decelerate the rate at which we acquire data”. Even though I laughed about that at first, there’s some truth in it. What we need to do is make sure that data (“content”) that we are putting on the web is worthwhile, is tagged correctly and that it fits in the information architecture that we have. Most importantly perhaps, we need to have an expiry date on it – so that, if we don’t need it anymore, we can mark it as such and move it elsewhere (instead of keeping it on an expensive, content managed front end).

– It’s not easy to find. Apart from it always being hard to find something small (how to apply for a grant) in something big (the myriad of government content), it doesn’t help if you have to search in a lot of places. 1,800 websites or more. Umpteen search engines. So, we need to decelerate the rate at which we acquire domain names. And, as quickly as possible, slam the engine into reverse and start shedding them, merging several together and generally thinking around how the citizen might want to access data rather than how we might want to organise it.

– It’s not tagged correctly. Most content is tagged with the basics of the “dubline core” – i.e. who edited it, when etc. But it’s not tagged with anything that we might recognise as being customer focused. Our metadata standards will need to be expanded to pull this off … in fact, we will need to accelerate the rate at which we develop the standard, so that it quickly becomes sufficient to describe client segments and sub-segments, geographic locations, age groups and so on.

– It’s presented badly. Well, not badly as such. Presented differently every time. Every department has its own look and feel – their own style, navigation, templates and so on. As you move from site to site, you have to look for how to do things; not for what to do. That’s not an easy thing to address because …

– It’s static. Last of all, none of this can be easily done if most websites are managed using static HTML files. This was fine to begin with but has become hugely unwieldy – and, in fact, is accelerating in the rate at which it becomes even more unwieldy. A move to content management (remember, something you do, not something you buy) is overdue for the big departments – for it is they that have the biggest problems (and, I suspect) the same holds true for most goverment sites around the world. I don’t see much evidence yet of dynamic content management, although I do see a lot of procurement requests for them coming out.

So, yes, Government content is flawed. These issues, as far as I can tell, apply pretty much globally – most governments have 100s if not 1000s of websites; few orient their content to “needs” and fewer still do anything more than aggregate lots of links to point to the variety of content. Guilty as charged.

So we have to do something about it. Something soon. And it’s going to take a lot of work. Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without as I believe Confucius said a long time ago. What we have has the potential to be enormously powerful in helping people get the benefits that they deserve, the services that they need and the information that holds it all together. Time now to start surfacing that content, looking for the gems that are just right and throwing away the pebbles. Maybe our content “beach” looks a bit like Brighton beach right now – but that can be changed.

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