Small team, big ideas
As you may know, the membership of Project WIP encompasses Shropshire Council staff from a number of different teams within Shared Services, all of whom contribute to the creation of the various web services that Shropshire Council develop and maintain.
However, this post is going to focus on the Web Services team, whose strikingly beautiful visages you can see on our Christmas post (Ho Ho Ho!).
As you may have noticed, there are only five of us – Chris Jones, Lewis Moorcroft, Louise Tierney, Sophie Ewan-Roberts & myself – yet over the last few years we we have managed to produce a wide variety of websites, some of which have been receiving praise from a lot of highly respectable people in the Public Sector and the web industry itself.
Although part of the usual bureaucracy that inevitably comes with Local Government, being a small team means our own processes of planning, developing and testing can run pretty quickly. This is due to knowing each others strengths and weaknesses, meaning we are able to work more efficiently together. A smaller, close-knit group also allows for a greater degree of trust, whether it be for relying on someone to deliver their work on time so that another member of the team can complete their bit, or for supplying new ideas or honest opinions, even when it may initially go against the original plan for a project or an idea from another member of the team.
Open communication is also beneficial when it comes to making the most of our time. Knowing what each member of the team is up to means that we are able to use the lulls in one project (normally when we are waiting on others to supply information or write content) to work on other projects, help out another team member, or do some prep work for work yet to start.
Of course, in order for us to deliver the work we do, we are heavily reliant on other teams within the council, such as the GIS team, the Integration team, the Network and the Server Support teams and, last but not least, the CCI team, who include the Web Manager (Lorna Perry) and Web Officer (Mark Jones), both ever-busy people in charge of our content.
We try to work as informally as possible, treating each of these other teams the same way we treat our own team members, that is, in a friendly, honest and open manner. We are lucky enough to have this working relationship, and extremely thankful for what these other teams do for us considering their own heavy workloads and busy schedules. We always try to repay this in kind – helping out when they have requests of their own – or, failing that, providing assorted biscuits or cakes!
Yes, we still have to go through some formal processes in our day-to-day work, however, we unofficially work to the ethos of “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission” when it comes to trying something new. This approach allowed us to try out Umbraco as a potential CMS for our website via a beta site, and, despite an initial hiccup, it is the platform that is being used to deliver new.shropshire.gov.uk, which will eventually take over as the main council website.
We aren’t saying we are the perfect team – far from it in fact. We are still actively working out our own working practices, evaluating what approaches worked, what didn’t go so well, etc. We are still fairly new to developing with .NET, so some of the things we want to do with that (extending Umbraco for instance) can sometimes be slow going, although we are getting better!
Like most workplaces, the benefit and praise received from one team or from external sources may not be noticed by the rest of the organisation. It’s the same for us – we’ve received a lot of attention from the wider web community for what we’ve accomplished through this blog and with new.shropshire.gov.uk (for instance being name-checked as an inspiration for gov.uk), but it is still hard to convince other service areas that we know what we are doing. We’ve taken a few steps to promote ourselves a bit more, such as taking part in a recent meeting of our web editors and explaining all the good things that are coming their way, but we still have a long way to go to build up our reputation within the council.
Perhaps this lack of a good reputation has led to our own timescales for rolling out new services areas to new.shropshire.gov.uk to be repeatedly hit by forces outside our control. If we were to be honest, even with our current status we could have mitigated a lot of these problems with clearer communication of our aims, coupled with some terms & conditions to clarify the scope of the work and responsibilities of every party involved.
All of these things aren’t excuses, they aren’t insurmountable barriers – these are the things that we learn from and use to improve ourselves. The trick is that we try to concentrate on the good that can be done rather than the trouble we go through to build and deliver those good things! And yes, a couple of extra developers would be helpful too, but for now it’s just us…
Hopefully I’ve been able to provide some answers to the surprised comments of “but how do you manage!??!”. If it doesn’t answer your particular question, then you can always rely on our willingness to help, either through putting your thoughts into words on our contact form, or by emailing us, phoning us or tweeting us! If you are reading this before the 21st February 2013, you could always get a ticket for the Shropgeek Rebellion event & talk to us in person!
EDIT – the Rebellion event is sold out, but you can sign up for the waiting list.