As the world knows, these last few years have been anything but ordinary, and has had a lasting impact on things we thought would never change.
For us - all of us in ICT, not just Digital Services - we've spent those years adapting to new ways of working (we mostly work from home now), and figuring out ways to fulfil the needs of services who need new solutions turning round quickly, and often at short notice. All of those changes and demands for our time and expertise have meant that we have done a lot of work over the past 36 months, but some of the things that we really wanted to do had to be put on the back burner.
Some (but not all) of the pressure has now started easing off, and the aims of the council are aligning with some of those back burner projects, so we are looking forward to seeing what we can deliver in 2023.
As it's been a while since we gave an update, the new year is a perfect time for a post to explain what wonderful things we'll be working on in the coming months, which are:
Going back to the carefree days of 2011, we launched an ambitious project to redesign our website around customer needs, rather than sticking to the same old council-esque "death by jargon" content built around an organisation-based navigation structure. We originally went live with beta.shropshire.gov.uk, which then morphed into new.shropshire.gov.uk, and received lots of compliments and helpful feedback that helped develop it further to the point where it took over as the main www.shropshire.gov.uk back in 2017. Since then, we've been very aware that the needs of our council and those of the public we serve have changed, and, fortunately, our skills and the tools available to us are more than adequate to meet those needs.
We've spent the last few months putting those skills and tools to good use, and are hoping to launch our first few test services on next.shropshire.gov.uk - stay tuned for more posts on this subject!
Spinning out of a conversation with a few different councils early in 2022, a very useful unconference session at LocalGovCamp last September, and an initial meeting with a selection of councils, Umbraco HQ and a partner agency, we're now looking to create a complementary version of the LocalGov Drupal project, using Umbraco as the CMS.
With an array of new ICT solutions available for council staff to use, there has also been a corresponding need for support and guidance to be put in place to ensure they are being used correctly. To cater for this, we are looking to change a few things within ICT in order to bolster some teams to ensure they can keep up with demand, and to create new agile ways of working and lines of responsibility. This may see the Digital Services team evolve into something new, or just have a few extra faces join the gang.
Social media review and handover
Across the council, there are over 100 different social media accounts, some of which are being used really well, but others are not. We are working with the Communications team on a review of all of these, looking for ways to bring this number down to help ensure what remains is useful for the public and is being used appropriately.
From the point of view of the wider public, having specific social media accounts for information information on the topics/services they want to hear about is incredibly useful, but only if they are providing regular updates (not just reposting/retweeting or repeating other accounts) and responding to any interactions in a timely manner. Likewise, it's just not feasible for us to have one "Shropshire Council" account on each social media platform, as the messages being sent out would be overwhelming to the public, and would be incredibly hard for staff to monitor and respond to any interactions.
In the long term, the Communications team will be taking over responsibility for the ongoing governance of the council's social media accounts, with our team providing technical support as needed. This approach which will help our Communications team have a better overview of the messages going out to the public, and understand which channels or accounts they can use to target particular target audiences with key messages.
Investigating new Intranet solutions
With the use of SharePoint increasing across the council, a number of services are now using it to store and share their own key documents and information. This has meant that over the years some sections of our current Umbraco-based Intranet have been replaced with links to various SharePoint sites, which has left us with a very uneven user experience for what remains, and a search feature that (currently) can't access all the relevant content.
Our original plan was to start investigating options to upgrade or replace our current Intranet this summer, but we were recently tasked to produce a staff resource to provide advice and guidance on the aims of the Shropshire Plan, and the relevant policies/processes that support it. A lot of this overlaps with existing Intranet content, so we are using this project to trial a potential new design for the next version of the Intranet, and investigate ways round the current issues we have.
Making the best out of MyShropshire
The current MyShropshire account and 'portal' (which is actually the name of the product it is built on, but I still hate that term) was created as part of the Digital Transformation Programme that ran a number of years ago. Since then, there has been very little development - in fact, some of the original functionality has since been removed and replaced with another system owing to some misconceptions on how it worked - and we are aware that the current instance of the 'portal' may not be set up in the best way, so really could do with a review.
As a full review will take some time, not to mention that any subsequent work to update or replace the current 'portal' product would also need additional planning and resources, we are looking at some 'quick wins' with what we've got so far. Some of those would be picking up on the original aims of the project, and seeing how we can use the MyShropshire account to enhance the user experience of next.shropshire.gov.uk and (potentially) replace the need for separate login details on other council systems through single sign-on.
For instance, signed in users will see direct links to forms on bins.shropshire.gov.uk within the relevant pages in a new 'Recycling and rubbish' section as we'd be able to use their data to bypass the need to search for an address. If you aren't signed in, then you would just see the generic link to the bins service and would have to search for your address manually and then find the form you need.
Rolling out a new Shropshire Learning Gateway
Much like the situation with our Intranet, the current Shropshire Learning Gateway (SLG) was built a long time ago, and it was sorely overdue a full review.
There have been a few attempts over the years to kickstart the work, but these have often fallen by the wayside due to combinations of us being given higher priority projects and various team changes in the service area that owns the SLG. Over the last few months, the stars have aligned and Mike & Sophie have managed to work with a member of the education services team to build a new SLG from scratch, building on the knowledge and experience we've gained since the creation of the original, and the new features of the latest version of Umbraco that will give their editors much more flexibility in creating the content they need.
We'll hopefully see this go live soon, with the editors migrating and rewriting the old SLG content in their own time.
Dealing with the expected unexpected requests and demands
Yes, I know that heading really doesn't make sense, but it does explain the situations that we and others in supporting services find ourselves in.
No matter how well planned out our year may be, we can guarantee that there will be a number of times when those plans will have to be changed owing to unforseen circumstances. These could entail members of our team getting dragged into other projects, or helping out when some local emergency situation happens (as I type, various places along the River Severn in Shropshire are dealing with the aftermath of flooding, and I and my team were helping to provide updates on the website when it all started), or we get an 'urgent' request that turns out to be far more complex and time consuming than first thought.
Because of this, I do fully expect that some of the plans in this list may sneak over into 2024's 'to-do' list, but I've got my fingers crossed that we'll get through most of them, and maybe even deliver some extras that we weren't expecting too!