Project WIP

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2018 – well that went quickly!

In time-honoured tradition (a tradition we only really started a couple of years back), it’s time to review what we’ve got up to, and what we’ve got planned for the coming year.

So sit back, relax and read on…

2018 recap

As you may have noticed, we’ve been very lax in posting in 2018 – in fact the only post was the round-up for 2017 – and this has once again been down to a quite hectic workload, including a number of projects which are now coming to fruition.

MyShropshire

This part of the CRM project (itself part of the council-wide Digital Transformation Programme) has progressed rapidly over the last 12 months, with Hitachi, our implementation partner, working closely with a dedicated project team on our side to get the new Microsoft Dynamics CRM designed and built.

The original plan had the MyShropshire service (the online account and eforms that will tie into the CRM) chalked up to be a bespoke service built within Umbraco, and this was the part of the project our team would have been heavily involved in delivering.

However, as part of the scoping and planning phase, a review of a newer version of the Microsoft Portal product showed that the concerns and issues we’d flagged previously had been addressed, and this meant that it was actually now a viable option. With this in mind, the plan was re-evaluated by Hitachi and the project team (with input from us), and the benefits of using the off-the-shelf Portal product was found to be more sustainable than a bespoke version.

This also meant that a number of other products we’ve already invested in could also be used, and as such save additional time and effort. As a result, our involvement in the development of the new MyShropshire service was scaled back, freeing us up to tackle some more commercial work…

Going commercial

Those working in the public sector are acutely aware of the shrinking budgets and increased scrutiny on spending that affect all aspects of our jobs. Shropshire Council is no exception to this, and all services have been encouraged to find ways to make savings, to be more ‘commercial’, and to find ways to reinvest public sector funds within the sector (making taxpayers’ money go much further).

As mentioned in the last round-up, we took our first shaky steps into this brave new world with some internal sites and a couple of paid-for sites for other organisations. In 2018 we followed up on this by completing a full rebuild of the Shropshire CCG website, starting a pilot project with a few local schools to build new websites for them, and a rebuild and redesign of the Shropshire County Pension Fund website.

The schools pilot project has been an interesting one, as schools in general are faced with even tighter budgets than ourselves, and the drive for them to become academies (funded directly from central government rather than through their local authority). The problem for them lies in the fact that they require visually appealing websites to promote their school and what it offers, as well as ensuring that the information provided meets their legal requirements for content and accessibility. However, they don’t always have the funds to commission professionally-built websites that can meet all of these criteria. What we plan to offer will tie into the support service ICT already provides, offering our services at a discounted rate with extra perks for those signed up.

Although this type of project was a refreshing change of tack from our usual work, we did come to realise that we  have to be careful in managing demand for our commercial offer so that it isn’t to the detriment of our ability to continue to keep standards high in ‘the day job’.

The day job

shropshire.gov.uk

For the most part, the main Shropshire Council website hasn’t seen too much in the way of functional and design improvements, although we’ve taken the opportunity to work with a few services to review and update their content. We also saw the move of Shropshire Choices back into the main council website, which allowed for a number of tweaks to improve its SEO and links with support provided by other council services.

We’ve also been using SiteImprove to provide an additional level of data and insight to our reviews and everyday tasks. The tools and reports available are helping us to understand our user journeys better, and to detect and fix broken links and other content issues quickly.

One of our biggest challenges has been to drive down the amount of unnecessary PDFs on our site. While these can be useful for very long documents, or where a particular format is legally required, quite often the ones we come across are simply there because they were designed for print first, and could quite easily be converted into a standard HTML page.

We do sometimes get pushback from service areas that want to keep their PDFs because they feel they’re more aesthetically pleasing than a webpage, when the reality is that PDFs are more of a hindrance than a help for accessibility and SEO, not to mention a pain for those using mobile devices.

It was reassuring that our views were echoed by the GDS team in one of their blog posts, and using this and other stats we’ve been able to whittle away PDFs as much as possible.

Social media

The demand for social media channels is increasing, and there are now a lot more ways for the public to interact with the council.

Whilst this is a good thing, the governance side of it all is quite demanding. Keeping an eye on over 100 accounts does take a lot of time, and, while the majority of the services are doing an excellent job with the channels they have, there are a few occasions where we’ve had to prompt some to “use it or lose it”.

Amusingly, we had to flag our own ProjectWIP Twitter account and this blog owing to the lack of updates. This has led to a bit of a rethink, but more on that later…

Accessibility

With the introduction of “The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018” law in September, our own internal benchmark of developing websites to WCAG 2.0 AA level is now actually a mandatory requirement for all the online services the public sector has.

Fortunately, the local agencies we work with to produce some of the service-specific websites are very understanding and helpful, and have worked with us to ensure that these standards are met prior to anything going live.

With the law fully coming into effect from September 2019, we will need to have clear plan to make all our online services compliant. This will mean a review of our other web-facing systems, and having conversations with the suppliers about their plans to resdesign their interfaces to meet accessibility needs.

Bigger team

To meet demand, we were allowed to temporarily expand our development team and create a Lead Web Developer role as a fixed-term position to help coordinate workloads more effectively. Our very own Luca took the opportunity to step up to the lead role, and we hired a new starter (Jamie – more from him soon) to fill the gap.

Although we had the opportunity to hire an additional developer, recruitment for that role turned out to be harder than expected. Speaking to friends and colleagues in local web agencies, it is clear that everyone is struggling to recruit at the moment owing to a skills shortages in our sector. With that in mind, we will be looking at different approaches to promote the vacancy when we put it back out to advert in the next few months.

2019, bring it on!

This year will see another set of brand new opportunities and challenges heading our way, some of which we know are coming while others will sneak up with little to no warning. For those who are interested, here’s what we do know about…

MyShropshire launch

As mentioned previously, the CRM project proceeded at pace in 2018, and, at the time of writing, we’re on track for the initial launch of MyShropshire at the end of Feburary 2019.

The initial launch will concentrate on a few key services, providing forms to raise requests or report issues, and, most importantly, allowing the customer to track the status of each one.

New website design and navigation

When new.shropshire.gov.uk took over as the main council website, our intention was for the homepage and navigation to act as a temporary transition point between the old and the new.

We always had a plan that we would then iterate the design into something that was built around user needs, feedback and analytics on how our site is actually used by visitors, and, with over a year of data now under our belt, we’ll be taking time this year to plan exactly what that “something” will be, and what we need to do to get there.

Digital Services, ICT and Project WIP

This year will also see a restructure, which will move Digital Services back into the ICT department, along with colleagues currently forming a key part of the CRM project (both teams were previously under Customer Involvement, alongside Communications and Customer Services).

This move has been triggered by a number of factors, all of them resulting in changes that will help us to work more efficiently, using ITIL as best practice, and to support our commercial ambitions. One such benefit is making our current temporary roles permanent, as this arrangement of the team has shown clear results over the last year.

Although this doesn’t change what we do as the Digital Services team, it does give us an opportunity to go back to the roots of Project WIP. This blog was originally set up to chronicle the work of the teams that came under IT Development, although a series of restructures saw those teams spun out or merged into others, leaving us to carry the torch on our own for nearly seven years.

Now that we’ll be alongside our ICT colleagues again it seems right that this blog be used to shed some light on our collective trials and tribulations in the hopes that what we post may be of use to others.

To sum up

We’ve done a lot, and have a lot more lined up in 2019, so watch this space!

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