New website – reflecting on responses

By on 09/09/2009 in Blog

Glyn Evans, Birmingham City Council’s Corporate Director of Business Change, reflects on the response to the council’s revamped website www.birmingham.gov.uk

There is interesting coverage on the Birmingham Post website following the launch of our new website.

Let's be clear. I'm not claiming that the new website is the finished article. Indeed, I don't think a website is ever the finished article - it needs to evolve and develop continuously. As I said in my blog yesterday (http://tinyurl.com/lclbu8), the new website is a huge improvement - faster, more searchable and easier to navigate, amongst others.

But all we've taken so far is the first step - albeit a large and hugely significant one - in developing what I believe will be a truly world-class website.

Turning to the comments, one of the most frustrating aspects is that much of it follows from something I said being taken out of context and only partially quoted.

I did not query how many of our residents are interested in council meetings. In response to being told of a broken link to the Democracy pages on our site, I commented that we would need to fix the link (which was done within a couple of hours) but that most people who visited our site are not doing so to look at the Democracy pages.

This is fact - the most popular pages after the homepage are for jobs available within the council, followed by libraries and then thirdly leisure and tourism.

I would never suggest that the Democracy pages are unimportant, nor would anyone else involved in the website. Indeed, their importance is demonstrated by being linked from the home page.

A more substantial criticism is that much of the content is unchanged. Yes it is, but how else do you deal with the switchover of a website containing approaching 17,000 pages?

 We have tried as far as possible to check the content for accuracy and, of course, every one of those pages has links that needed to be edited to point to a new location.

Does anyone seriously think it would have been sensible to attempt to rewrite every page in its entirety, given that most of the content is satisfactory? However, to give some idea of what the new site makes possible, and what we'll be able to do more of in the future, it's worth looking at the revamped pages for the Brasshouse language centre (http://tinyurl.com/l7w47w).

These include audio recordings for blind users, British Sign Language videos for deaf users and multi-lingual facilities, including Arabic scripts.

I think there is a serious underestimation in some of the comments about the complexity of the task we faced. Perhaps not surprising; we initially did the same.

We have a large, complex website with responsibility for authoring and editing devolved to directorates.

We required a robust, secure content management system to deal with this, including sophisticated workflow. We also had to cope with moving the content from the previous platform to the new.

Debate is good and everyone is entitled to their opinion; not everybody is going to like the design, for example.

I thought it important to get a truly independent view. Leigh Evans is an International Web Strategy Consultant who adopted the Internet from its earliest beginnings in the UK.

He owned a leading UK web design/ development agency for many years, working for clients such as Netgear and AXA and continues to own, amongst others, a global No.1 website. 

He now advises selective global corporate clients on their internet strategy. I sought his views:

“My initial independent opinion is that BCC’s new internet presence is impressive.  Building a 17,000 page site in a completely new format is a massive undertaking.

“Having to incorporate a secure content management system to devolve ownership down through the organisation will certainly have made this even more of a challenge.

“However, this should result in substantial ongoing cost savings.  I’ve never known a project of this size to come in on time and budget and naturally this was no exception. However, the end result is a very significant step forward and something of which the council and people of Birmingham can be proud.

“It will no doubt continue to develop and grow in the coming months, as all websites do.

“Every page of the new site loads much faster than I would have expected, making it a pleasure to use. Critically, navigation is clear and simple and the content is well thought-out.

“In just a couple of clicks you can find what you’re looking for without being overloaded with irrelevant information.

“If he or she wants, the visitor can then drill down for more information on that subject by following on-page links to pages with gradually more and more detail. This makes your site one of the most intuitive public sector sites I’ve used.”

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  1. Jon Bounds says:

    “A more substantial criticism is that much of the content is unchanged. Yes it is, but how else do you deal with the switchover of a website containing approaching 17,000 pages?”

    Indeed, a massive undertaking and one that no-one would have expected to go without any glitch.

    I would however question the wisdom of such a huge undertaking without thinking about how the site is structured, how much of the information is probably not best served by hand written static pages.

    It seems to me an opportunity missed — for now — for a rethink of what the site is for, how people interact with it and navigate and how content is generated and served. Dynamically structuring the vast array of information — and allowing people to access it in different ways — may have taken a little longer at this stage, but it would be a lot easier to keep “up to date”, and to make sure that BCC’s web presence stays relevant in the future.

  2. Carl Timms says:

    What Glyn seems to be dancing around and has yet to address is how on earth £2.8m was spent on delivering a site which on launch had very few page templates, clearly very minimal designer input, recycled badly formatted static page content, apparently no quality control or browser compatability testing, next to useless navigation and hopeless URL structures (amongst many other things).

    The issue was never about a few pages being missing or a few broken links (which on a site this big might be excusable on its first day)- its about the fact that any decent CMS-development company could have delivered this site for a fraction of the budget they have spent, made it look and navigate in a sensible, modern fashion and incorporated many of the interactive features that people actually need.

    I fear for the fact he thinks £2.8m should only get you a work in progress! How much more taxpayer money will be poured into this money pit before they admit defeat and organise web redesign 2.0 using a company who actually know what a UI review is?

    A complete shambles it remains- Mr Evans you are kidding no-one.

  3. Matthew says:

    “We have tried as far as possible to check the content for accuracy and, of course, every one of those pages has links that needed to be edited to point to a new location.”

    This statement sounds like people have gone through manually and updated a countless number of links in a format that means next time, this exercise will have to be repeated all over again.

    Modern web frameworks, such as Django, separate things such as URLs from page templates, meaning that if URLs have to be changed, only one central repository has to be updated and templates continue to work flawlessly. I fully accept the old site would not have done this, but was that sort of innovative modern thinking brought into this process so that it never needs to be done again?

    And when discussing migrating the content, why did no-one consider the fact that lots of existing links no longer work? It is that sort of strategic thinking that appears to be lacking, and of most disappointment to me, not missing links, or pixel artifacts.

    “it’s worth looking at the revamped pages for the Brasshouse language centre” – have these pages actually been tested with blind users? Why would you put the Introduction Audio for a blind person at the end of a page, when they presumably will have listened to the whole page in their screenreader in order to get to it?

    “A more substantial criticism is that much of the content is unchanged. Yes it is, but how else do you deal with the switchover of a website containing approaching 17,000 pages?” – http://www.TheyWorkForYou.com recently launched a total redesign; it has upwards of 1,000,000 pages, and is run by a charity with about half a dozen people. I fully accept the background CMS does not have to be anywhere near as complicated as the City Council, and TheyWorkForYou’s initial structure (from 2004) was presumably better set up than the Council’s old website, but I sincerely hope that the new council website means that any future site-wide changes are much easier to perform, and that we won’t be in the same situation again in a few years.

  4. Barnard says:

    I must have been one of the first to report the broken link to the Democracy
    Pages at 3:44 am on Tuesday 8th September.

    Based on the Birmingham Post article these
    are my views on what is reported to have
    been said by Glyn Evans

    The clue surely must be in the sections name of “Democracy in Birmingham”.

    I am fully aware that Birmingham City Council only gives lip service to being
    democratic hence the very poor way these pages are maintained and kept up to date in the first place but to claim that there are not important is naive
    to say the very least.

    To assert that the citizens right to be aware of the actions and scrutinise what Birmingham City Council is doing in their name is of little importance is very arrogant and foolish.

    Further from trying to hide all that goes on behind closed doors of the Council House I for one would like to see a more open and transparent reporting of what is discussed and decided in Council Meetings.

    Might I suggest that you first ensure that all reports before meetings that
    are on the agenda are published on the website before meetings take place and that after each meeting the Minutes or at least a report of what was discussed and agreed be published on the website within 24 hours of the meeting taking place.

    At present it is imposable to find out what took place at meetings and what decisions were made unless you attend
    the meeting or are reported in the press.

    Minutes are not published until the next
    meetings is due that usually means two months or more after the event and even then they are at a very summary level.

    I would then expect the city to move on and like the Houses of Parliament and most other local authorities in the UK have podcast available for all council meetings if not in real time at least within 24 hours of the meeting.

    From there you could go on and have real time streaming of meetings in both video and sound with play again facilitates so that Birmingham City Council can at last leave the nineteenth century behind.

    These “Democracy in Action” broadcasts could be via you lovely new multi million pound website or even on the Cities own Freeview Channel.

    So to answers you question who is interested in what the Council is getting
    up to behind close doors I and certainly many many others are.

    So lets try and give “Open Local Government a Chance” and enter the Digital Age.

    Barnard

  5. Will says:

    I’m new to the website debate but Brum is close to my heart – I lived in the area until I was 17.

    So I know the Central Library well and was interested in today’s story about the proposed revamp:

    http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/palibrary

    Click through and you get one pic, a bit of copy and a few links to the architect’s elevations. Very disappointing.

    For £2.8m you would expect the ability to leave a comment, perhaps see a few more pics of the project or a video – at the very least.

    If the council is at all serious about consultation then major planning apps is a good place to start.

  6. Free PS3 says:

    Cheers for the useful page – I enjoyed reading it!

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