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Open Government: Westminster City Council’s Internet Strategy

By: NMK Created on: March 17th, 2009
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The UK Government has made the creation of Digital Britain as a key element to its strategy going forward. New Media Knowledge spoke to the firm behind Westminster City Council’s web strategy to see the impact and opportunity presented by open source technology.

The UK Government appears to be catching on to the potential benefits offered by open source technology. One major local council which is particularly progressive in this field is Westminster City Council, which recently adopted an open source approach to further improve its service to its 220,000 constituents and 47,000 businesses.

NMK caught up with Joseph Denne, technical director of Airlock, the creative agency behind the project, to learn more.

In a nutshell, what has Airlock provided for Westminster City Council?

We've worked with them to define their approach to channel management - how they talk to their constituents - redesigned westminster.gov.uk and provided a complete content management platform (Symphony) for the maintenance and upkeep of the site.

We are currently 18 months ahead of schedule and expect to launch to May 2009.

What's the background to this project?

Westminster City Council’s site - while comparing well to websites of other local authorities - aspires to be a leader in its class, comparable with the best in the private sector, and one that offers better value to Westminster City Council and to its users.

joseph-airlock

How much did it cost and how will it pay back?

This phase is a six-figure project. The work being carried out on the site is designed to support the council's channel switch strategy, which centres on getting the users of key council services off of the phone and online instead.  A successful site will mean a reduction in call centre usage which will lead to significant savings for the tax payer. In addition the content management platform being introduced is tailored specifically to support the workflow of the production teams within Westminster and is expected to significantly reduce the time and resources required to maintain the site.

What are the benefits of open source?

The benefits of open source are manifold, but for me the biggest draws are auditability, support and accountability, cost, flexibility and freedom.

What specific needs did the council have, if any?

Westminster council has a unique constituency made up of a diverse and equally demanding population. It is home to the monarchy, government, 47,000 businesses that collectively generate 2.2 per cent of total GDP, and 220,000 residents. It attracts upwards of one million visitors every single day. Talking to each of these users is a significant challenge; the site must cater for all needs and be capable of expanding to contain the 1,000-plus communication channels that the council maintains.

What examples have you got of Westminster City Council staff customising web pages? What are they doing here that's innovative?

For the first time the council’s publications and contact databases will be aligned with the public site, providing up-to-date information from across the council and allowing the end user to respond directly. The content management platform will be used by 75 departments within the organisation, with each department given the ability to completely customise their content through the use of images, video, audio and enhanced web applications such as Google Maps.

Where do you see the role of open source in digital government?

Open source should be, and will become, the de facto standard in government and the public sector in general - powering everything from customer relationship management (CRM) and content management through to word processing on the desktop.  The long-term commitment of taxes for proprietary software licenses is becoming harder and harder to justify.  But it's not all to do with cost. Open source brings many benefits to the table, most notably increased flexibility during solution delivery, tighter security and vendor independence through adherence to standards.

How progressive is government when it comes to digital?

You're kidding, right?  Central government lags at least four to six years behind the commercial sector, ironically especially in terms of the tools that are available to enable direct democracy. The post-Obama rush to embrace Twitter and the blogosphere has been particularly embarrassing.  Watching our representatives treat these platforms as just another broadcast channel perfectly demonstrates the lack of grasp of all but the most basic of concepts prevalent in government.

There are of course exceptions, most notably Tom Watson, Minister for Digital Engagement, who has been blogging and in direct discussion with his constituents for years and who is leading the fight for open source in central government.  Examples like him, along with progressive thinking in some local government bodies - Westminster, Hackney - give me hope for the sector.

The role of digital in local government has been stagnant for best part of this decade – tied up in long-established relationships and vanity projects for ministers who don't yet use email.  The lack of vision from the top has led to the wasting of vast sums of public money, from the £18 billion ID card scheme to the £20 billion NHS IT system. At the heart of these projects has been a complete disconnect between the direction of government and the public need, compounded by a knowledge gap which was too hastily filled by the private sector.

This is changing in local government where healthy competition is driving the steady improvement of the digital service offering.  A good example of this is the roll out of transactional council sites, whose number has been doubling year on year.

Of course, governments reflect their constituents. From this perspective I expect the pace of change to increase dramatically over the next decade, as the first truly digital generation reaches middle age and starts to engage on the local and national stage.

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