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The government is not having the best of weeks, what with all the Hobnobs, moats and dog food controversy, so I decided to give our not-so-esteemed leaders a break and concentrate on what they can sometimes get just right: using the web to communicate with citizens.

Unfortunately, excellence online is not found across the whole of the public sector, in fact, many departments and local government offices are dreadful at this stuff. However, there are some real pockets of superiority, where the private sector could even learn some lessons.
 
I thought I would take a look at some of these today. If you are having a hard time working out how this relates to you, just substitute the word 'consumer' for 'citizen'.
 
Going where the citizens are
 
The public sector was woefully left behind when Web 2.0 first took off. Its static pages left no room for comment, feedback or discussion and citizens naturally set up their own forums and communities where opinions, advice and problems could be shared.
 
The Student Room, Netmums, even the Poultry Keeper website became valuable sources of information for various groups of UK citizens.
 
So, when some public sector departments realised their users were going elsewhere for information, they followed.
 
The NHS made arrangements with Netmums to distribute useful information through the portal, while the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills contacted undergrads through the Student Room.
 
In fact, a number of large government bodies have sought out their users and communicated with them through their platforms of choice. This is clearly challenging in a world where the popularity of a community can change so quickly.
 
Appointing decision-makers
 
Any shift online requires leadership and companies cannot hope to simply move their marketing online without someone giving direction.
 
From appointing a minister for digital engagement (Tom Watson, check him out on Google News for some top expenses scandalage), to a director for the same, Andrew Stott, the government is looking for leadership in this brave new world wide web.
 
Too often have I seen companies decide to embrace online potential, only to fail because it was no one's responsibility. Let's hope this move helps the public sector get it right.
 
Cutting useless content
 
The government has now shut down more than 600 websites and it is pretty pleased with itself for doing so. Oddly enough, this closing down of sites is actually an attempt to free information.
 
Instead of wasting time and money creating specialist sites that pretty much no one uses, such information is now being collated onto more general pages or presented as part of the Directgov offering – a 'supersite' our leaders hope will eventually be a starting point for anyone seeking public sector information.
 
Enabling interaction
 
One thing I hate about government websites is the amount of information stuck in PDFs.
 
Whether it is the minutes of my local council's yearly meeting on egg consumption in schools or the government's new white paper on climate change, I want properly accessible text and the chance to leave my feedback or comments at the bottom, particularly if it is a consultation.
 
Now, the .govs have not yet given me this but at least the public sector recognises the value of content presented this way. Its digital engagement team is now working to end the use of such self-contained content and has expressly criticised such methods.
 
Managing its reputation
 
Proactive press offices, like that of the NHS, are also monitoring the spread of information online and using it to inform campaigns, strategy and content.
 
Sources like Facebook and Twitter can reveal what large portions of the public are getting frustrated with, passionate about or confused by, giving such proactive press officers a real insight into citizens.
 
This then allows them to manage their department or MP's reputation and respond to public criticisms they may previously have been unaware of.
 
And yet…

And yet so many departments, MPs and local services get the web so very, very wrong. Come back next week when I explore some of the more ghastly attempts to galvanise the public online and just why these methods failed.

Kevin Gibbons

Published 20 May, 2009 by Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons is UK Managing Director at digital marketing agency BlueGlass. He is also known as an SEO speaker and can be found on Twitter and Google+.

102 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Alec Cochrane

The government is caught in a bit of a rock and hard place situation.  To be proactive in the digital world you need to be quick to release information, otherwise you are seen as being a dragon.  You also need to be accurate, because the public are going to use you as the definitive source.  You also need to be cheap, otherwise the public will accuse you of wasting their money.

To this end, many social media options aren't very viable.  Whilst being quick, they leave the door open to the government website ruining their brand by not being quite right and they are resource intensive.

Equally commenting systems for articles may not be viable because they may also be misleading to users who don't understand the difference between government information and users comments.  They are also open to spam and spin equally, whereas the government material shouldn't contain either of these.

Whilst you've focused on local government websites and direct.gov.uk, there is also the wider government projects of businesslink.gov.uk and nhs.uk for providing valuable information for people online.

You could argue that they are some way behind bleeding edge sites like this one, but they are also way ahead of many publishing sites that I've seen in the past.  I'm eagerly awaiting the next article to see if there are some recommendations that the government sites could implement at a low cost.  Good work Kevin.

over 7 years ago

David Iwanow

David Iwanow, SEO Product Manager at Marktplaats.nl

A number of government departments still struggle to rank for terms in their industry even with hundreds of edu, .mil and other .gov links...

if a commercial site can outrank them for their own terms that would show that they dont actually get seo... thats just a small part of online marketing but one that they fail at on a spectacular level!

over 7 years ago

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paul canning

It's really great to see this sort of engagement with online marketing issues vis egov. It's something I've been banging on about for ages.

Some of central government is beginning to get it but don't forget that a huge chunk is local government and there there are huge issues with online marketing.

over 7 years ago

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Student Job Descriptions

In the end of the day the government should make sure the  end user is satisfied. Else its just wast of there time and money. 

almost 6 years ago

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Siddika

The government has to keep up with the growing online networks. It is very important to stay in touch with the public, especially the youth, the future of the country. The best way to communicate with the youth in today's world is through the internet.

over 4 years ago

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