This blog post is part of a series on online content strategies developed in cooperation between the Europa.eu web team and web consultant Sue Davis. We will look at key resources, the relationship between content strategy and other tasks like Information Architecture (IA) and some essential tools and processes.
Photo from the EC Audiovisual Service
This article is part two of our three-part series on content strategy and government websites. This week we are looking at how web teams have used content strategy to redesign government websites.
Rahel Anne Bailie says a content strategy can enable us to focus on what would work for both our audience and our organisation: “The primary importance of developing a content strategy is to analyse the various audiences, the information, service, and engagement needs of those audiences, and balance that with similar needs of the organisation.”
2. …but give priority to user needs
Gerry McGovern says: “The best way governments can succeed on the web is to stop talking about government and relentlessly focus on the needs of citizens and business.”
Sometimes it is hard to see past our wants and what those above us want through to what our readers actually need. Many government sites have been through a phases of development that haven’t always put user needs first. ”Just in case” publishing has been the most destructive form of this tendency. This risk-averse strategy puts content online not so people could use it, but because of a perceived need that it had to be there.
The UK’s Freedom of Information Act may ironically have meant that really useful government information was actually harder to find. Newham Council’s freedom of information page states “To try to ensure information is available to you we publish as much as we can on our website.”
But now there seems to be a change, much of which is being inspired by the work of government’s digital service (GDS).
Tools such as personas and scenarios are being used to get closer to our readers and what they really need. The City of Vancouver gathered 5,000 user interviews and surveys to understand the needs of their readers. From these they built seven personas and devised typical scenarios.
Five personas developed by the UK’s Environment Agency are used daily to keep their website content focused on their users’ needs. For example, Ajay is “at risk” from flooding and wants to know if it’s safe to stay where he lives, and what he can do to make it safer. They are constantly updating the personas to ensure they remain relevant. This approach was so successful that prior to using personas only 60% of people could do what they wanted on the site, but afterwards 85% could.
Another tool that looks at user needs is internal site search analysis. Liverpool looked at page views and internal search to help cull irrelevant pages. The team at Gov.uk have used Direct.gov’s internal search analytics to pinpoint 950 user needs and tasks. They then created a software tool, the ‘needatron’, to assess these user needs and how they could best be satisfied.
3. Investing in long-term specialist content skills
Around 7 years ago more usable content management systems (CMSs) meant many government sites devolved publishing to individual departments, to subject specialists who were not necessarily content specialists. However these people, though they knew about their services and departments, often lack the other elements their content needs: editorial, strategic and technical skills such as being able to understand the complexity of search, user journeys, accessibility, web writing and structure.
Content strategy has come to the rescue ensuring that there are processes, standards and a long-term plan for quality content to be produced and continually improved. Often this will mean content creation is centralised, but not always.
Liverpool City Council’s website had 300 writers around their departments providing content. But now only three people have access to the CMS. They had thought they would be inundated by requests from departments for site updates to be made, but they have found that their content is remarkably stable.
4. Saving time and money
Diana Railton says of the opportunities: “Content strategy is essential to provide the right focus, objectives and metrics – and a cost-effective framework for everyone to keep to.”
Gerry McGovern sees government websites as an important way for people to be able to help themselves: “The best thing government can do is get out of the way. Stop annoying citizens and businesses… Nobody likes paying taxes so make the process of paying taxes as simple and fast as possible. The problem with EU government is that it lives in a bubble full of bureaucracy and good intentions. Consensus is great but it often results in websites that are impossible to do anything useful on.”
Building self-service websites that save readers time can cut costs considerably. Mike Bracken of the UK’s GDS is quoted by the Financial Times as saying: “Hundreds of millions of pounds could be saved if the new gov.uk can cut the 150m calls to government contact centres annually from people who fail to complete a transaction online, at an average cost of £6.28 (€8) each.”
Liverpool City Council has already been able to make call centre savings due to their streamlined user-focused website.
Caring for your content people can mean money is saved way down the line. GDS usability-tested their new CMS, asking writers which of them was easiest to use for creating pages, editing, archiving, deleting etc. Building a back-end system that is so easy to use means that more departments will use it.
According to the Financial Times, the beta version of the new government website is currently running within its projected budget of £1.7m (€2.2m). When complete, the common digital platform is expected to save £50m (€64m) a year in software licensing and other infrastructure costs when every Whitehall department begins using it.”
The UK’s single government domain aims to publish less – only about what government can do, leaving advice such as how to with cope with death to specialist non-government organisations. Here’s a recent tweet from Tom Loosemore, part of the gov.uk team: “’Every superfluous page we create is one more dead end for an angry, frustrated, confused user – GovUK team seeking the irreducible core.”
Scott Abel, an expert in publishing standards, sees standards as a way of introducing efficiency savings: “Content standards like Universal Business Language (UBL) may prove to be one viable way to derive value from e-government web initiatives by turning government websites into business document exchanges. The Danish government, for instance, started down this path by using UBL to facilitate the exchange of procurement information in a standardised way, reducing the amount of manual paper-shuffling and increasing the automated exchange of information through the web. The lack of standardised, automated exchange of content makes e-government inefficient and costly. Automation and standardised processes and content and document schemas are critical to long-term success. Anything else isn’t scalable.”
I haven’t even begun to look at the cost savings that can be made with these standard content strategy practices:
- spending resources on the content that most people want
- better workflows
- better understanding of government goals leading to quick decisions
- better content organization and content management
- doing more with less: structured, intelligent and nimble content
- cutting duplication
- fewer rounds of revision as information architects, designers and writers share and understand each others tools and processes.
5. Changing government processes
Rahel says that to deliver on the strategy, the nature of government itself will need to change: “Then, the challenge is to deliver on that strategy. It often means stretching into unfamiliar territory, setting up stringent standards for how content is created, managed, and delivered, reworking existing content, and reaching back into the organisation to update business processes in order to deliver the content to the right audience at the right time, in the right format and medium, in the right version, in the right language.”
Next week we’ll cover the best books, blogs and articles on government and content strategy.
Use the comments below if you want to suggest a specific subject we should cover in this blog series.Tags:content, content management system, strategy