Digital visions

I spend a fair bit of time talking to local councils and the like about taking a strategic approach to digital stuff, although usually it is mostly around engagement, and a bit of communications.

It’s important – simply to know what you want to achieve and why. As soon as you have those things figure out then it’s easy to choose the right tools and channels to help you get there.

Taking a strategic approach though doesn’t necessarily mean you need a bit of paper, with ‘strategy’ written on it. Sometimes just having thought about the issues is all you need to do. A quick look on Twitter or Facebook and it’s pretty straightforward to spot those that haven’t even done that!

However, there are times when a bit more of an in depth look at all things digital are required. After all, the bits of an organisation like a local council that are affected by the internet go way beyond just the communications team.

There’s customer services and all the transactional stuff – what commonly gets referred to as channel shift these days. There’s the democratic element, and the policy development process. The way big projects are managed and communicated can be transformed by the web. Every service delivery team could make use of digital channels to deliver that service, or part of it, or at least communications around it.

Given all of this, and the vital strategic role a council plays within a local area, having a digital vision is pretty important. There are several big agendas connected to technology which need to be considered.

What elements are required?

  • channel shift
  • digital engagement
  • mobile
  • publishing / content strategy
  • digital inclusion and broadband roll out
  • open data

I think these are probably best presented as some form of ven diagram, and there is bound to be plenty of overlap in there.

I’ve always like the phrase that ushered in the Government Digital Service – that of ‘digital by default’. The notion not that digital is the only option – but that it is always an option. Quite often when I have been called in to help out with digital side of a project or campaign, it’s been a bit of an add on. Being digital by default means building the online element from the get go – making it an integral part of a service or project.

It also means getting away from one of the flaws of the e-government era – that (necessary) rush to get government services online – which was to do the wrong thing righter. In other words, not rethinking how a service should be delivered in a networked society but just taking a process and sticking it into an online form.

We’re just taking on a project to deliver a comprehensive high level digital strategy for a county council. I’m delighted – it’s the sort of meaty, wide ranging envisioning work which is pretty scarce these days. It also offers a chance to think about what a truly digital local council might look like, and how it might work.

Part of the project will involve running a crowdsourcing exercise on good practice and what the future may hold for local government digital – rather like the effort I made back in 2009 which focused on websites. That’ll launch in a few weeks. In the meantime I’d love to hear from anyone who has been having digital visions in the comments, or by email.

Reimagining town centres

deserted high street

I’ve been an interested follower of the debate around town centres since the Portas review of last year, not least because I live close by to a small town, and indeed it’s one where a debate is raging about the future and sustainability of the town centre as a place for people to visit, and to buy stuff.

The town in question is Spalding, and right now there is quite a heated debate going on in the local press about two development ideas – one for a regeneration of an in-town-but-exactly-the-town-centre retail area, and the other proposing a big supermarket and retail park on the outskirts of town, but which might generate some section 106 money etc to help with other work.

As you can see from this article on the local newspaper’s website, the topic is one that has inflamed local public opinion and it’s interesting to see people coming together to use an online platform to debate the issues.

I can’t help but feel that the debate here is missing the point. I very much enjoy reading Julian Dobson’s blog, and his group’s submission to the Portas review, The 21st Century Agora (PDF warning) makes some very interesting points that really chime with me.

It reads:

High streets and town centres that are fit for the 21st century need to be multifunctional social centres, not simply competitors for stretched consumers. They must offer irresistible opportunities and experiences that do not exist elsewhere, are rooted in the interests and needs of local people, and will meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.

In other words, the town centre shouldn’t be based just on buying stuff. We need other reasons for people to visit the town.

What sort of things? Julian’s presentation below highlights some of them (apologies if your firewall means you can’t see them):

Town centres ought to be places where people meet, work, consume culture, share ideas, get things done – not just shop!

Whither the internet in all this? It’s a view that the web, and the sheer efficiency of shopping online is one of the things that’s drawing the commercial elements away from the town centre.

The Portas review did mention the use of the web to create an ongoing sense of community and conversation about a town centre. This has been picked up by Sarah Hartley from Talk About Local (she does wear other hats) in a number of posts, including a dead handy list of ways that online communities could help reverse the decline in high streets.

If you’re interested in this stuff, Julian and co have started up an online community, using the Ning platform, and are organising an open space event to discuss the issues. Am hoping to be involved as much as I can.

Picture credit: ambernectar on Flickr

Local TV

I think it’s fair to say that DCMS’s plans for Local TV are mostly terrible.

Luckily, people who know a lot more about it that I do are writing it all up. I enjoyed these three posts on the LSE blog on the subject, all by Sally Broughton Micova.

They are well worth reading for anyone interested in local media.

Local TV Part 1: A Tale of Two Cities

The DCMS’s framework document states that “market experience suggests that small standalone local TV stations can struggle to develop s sustainable business model”. However, the Government’s plan is to issue individual local licenses and then leave it up to the market to determine if local stations give it a go alone or come together in a network. This means anyone interested in opening local television and broadcasting through DTT in Birmingham will have to individually negotiate with whoever might be interested in Hereford, Grimsby, or any of the other 60 plus locations. News Corporation, which owns a large number of local TV stations in the US and controls two of those in Birmingham Alabama, has other problems at the moment, so it seems unlikely it will be interested in applying for a multitude of individual local licenses in the UK. It is not clear how a backbone of sufficient size and capacity to adequately support local TV across the UK will spontaneously emerge from the negotiations of a few enthusiastic local parties.

Local TV Part 2: Great Expectations

One of the ways the Government’s plan intends to provide financial support to local TV is by having the BBC spend up to £5 million annually for 3 years to buy content from local stations. At the local TV summit Hunt also suggested that local TV will be selling content to other national stations. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, £5 million divided among several stations will amount to very little in relation to the budgets required to make high quality content. Secondly, local stations will have to produce content that national stations will want to buy. Consider the plea from Shameless’ Paul Abbott for British producers and commissioners to try making television drama at a cheaper cost of only £500,000 per episode. Or, that national stations in the UK are currently spending their budgets procuring high quality production from independent producers and hit series from the US.

Local TV Part 3: Don’t start linear

The proposal, to use the digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform and create linear television stations across the UK, is already old fashioned enough. It is admirable to invest in local media, but new technology allows more innovative and more sustainable ways of doing it. Putting local TV onto DTT multiplexes (MUXs), even in a first stage as the Government proposes, is an unnecessary investment, and one that sets local television off on the wrong foot in terms of both sustainability and purpose.