Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Online-first: Building in web at the front-end, rather than the back-end of government processes

One of the largest challenges for all forms of online use by government is how, as a late addition to the communications, engagement and policy stable of tools, web initiatives often get added to the end of processes rather than the beginning.

A good example is in content development of all kinds. Often officers across agencies use desktop publishing packages to create communications materials, briefs, papers and reports, finalise them via publications teams and printers, then send the final 'web-ready' PDF to the online team, to be loaded online - usually within a few hours.

This poses challenges and risks throughout.

The documents may be initially created without effective use of word processor standard styles (with format issues such as the use of spaces or tabs instead of tables or paragraph marks, and poor use of nested lists), the print design process loads them up with print-quality (sometimes inaccessible) images, adds charts and tables without appropriately text alternatives and incorporates formatting that requires substantial time to replicate online or simply doesn't suit screen viewing.

The final PDF may have 'printer's edits' (last minute changes at the printer) which are not replicated in the original final word processor document. This requires the online team to convert the PDF, rather than the faster and easier final word processor document, into the web version. Often the background information for charts or descriptive text for images is unavailable. Images may also not be available as separate files to the document to make them easier to embed online.

Finally, due to approval timeframes or last minute edits to reflect changing events, the online team may receive the final document too close to the go live deadline to do justice to the web publishing. This often results in the PDF version being uploaded with an apology stating that the agency will convert the document to an accessible HTML web page as soon as possible. Depending on priorities this may take months, disadvantaging people who cannot access the printed or online PDF versions.

As sometimes all the budgeted funds for the document are spent on the physical print process, online teams may be left without sufficient budget to do the document justice, time or dollars to convert the document into a fully web-enabled deliverable, which could be higher quality and far more usable and useful than a printable PDF.

A combination of some of all of these issues adds to the cost and stress of government documents. They can put pressure on agency timelines and result in lower community satisfaction and understanding of communicated material. They may also create greater legal risks due to accessibility considerations.

These potential costs could be avoided by embedding an online-first philosophy, policies and mandate throughout an agency. This would recognise at the beginning of document creation processes that content will need to be delivered online and, indeed, this might be the only, or most important, distribution channel.

This approach would, after initial training and support costs, save significant expense and human effort, freeing up agency staff for higher value activities while delivering more effective, and timely, public outcomes.

The shift could begin with appropriate training, support and mandates for public servants creating material which will need to go online. Including websites and intranets this reflects the majority of documentation now created by government agencies.

Online teams would be engaged at the start of document creation processes, advising other staff on how specific materials can be best designed for online representation, whether as 'traditional' documents or as web services, apps, interactive modules, data feeds or in some other format.

Every document would then be created using appropriate formatting in word processing tools or the appropriate alternative, with an express goal of being able to be quickly and easily placed online in an effective manner.

The created documents may be structured and laid out quite differently depending on the eventual form they will take online - representing the range of variation we already see between a video script, report and brochure.

The document creation process would include the steps necessary to deliver a quality accessible product, identifying the text behind every chart and appropriate explanations for every image and diagram.

As documents were created, graphic templates would also be created by graphic designers, both online and print templates which can be executed through online style sheets. Using this approach documents would appear in a web browser as native webpages but, when printed, be automatically reformatted for A4 paper.

This means agencies can deliver online and print versions from a single version of the content, a 'single point of truth' that removes the need to manage multiple versions, such as HTML, RTF and PDF copies. A print-quality template would also be developed at this stage as a shell for any printed copies needed.

The document would be directed loaded into the web template with the metadata and alt tags required and viewed and edited online, or printed in the print template and hand edited, to finalise the document.

Once approved the 'document' can be simultaneously released online and in print format, appropriately formatted for the different mediums, maximising its impact. There would be no time lag for an accessible version.

Sounds too easy? Well yes, there are a number of changes that agencies need to make to implement an online-first philosophy.

The most significant and influential change in agency policies. They would need to be redeveloped for the modern age, a business process improvement step to integrate web as a core platform rather than an afterthought.

While significant, changing these processes is technically quite simple, it just involves adjusting a few words on (ahem) 'paper'. The most difficult change is related to people - changing culture and retraining staff responsible for producing documents (public or internal) to reflect the new capabilities and skills required of a public servant.


I believe it is inevitable that agencies will gradually move in the direction of online-first publishing, for cost and efficiency reasons if not due to legislative and high-level policies (such as the recent FOI changes). However the speed and difficulty of this transition can be influenced by staff.

Senior staff can set policy in their areas and embody the behaviours they support, while middle management can build their own understanding and support and encourage their teams. Those teams responsible for agency document outputs can seek out new skills through training and lobby their management to make their jobs easier, allowing them to be more productive and satisfied with their jobs.

Online teams have a large central role to play, by demonstrating and modelling the behaviour themselves, identifying processes where documents are only published as web pages and piloting improved processes which lead to efficiencies (helping themselves as well as the teams responsible for the content).

Online teams may also to lobby for improved training, so that officials across an agency understand how to use the word processors and other document creation tools they use daily more effectively - this knowledge by itself improves efficiency.

Having a given level of skills with document creation tools, or developing it once in the job, could become a requirement of recruitment processes and performance reporting. It has often surprised me how otherwise highly intelligent and capable people may simply never have had the opportunity to learn how to most effectively use the tools of their 'trade' - document and presentation creation programs - at school, university or in the workforce.


An online-first philosophy isn't native to government agencies, and it will take conscious and directed effort to make it the default approach.

However in today's world, with online increasingly the first and sometimes the only distribution platform for government information, the rising cost of print, falling budgets and the legislative requirements to deliver government content online - shouldn't we be putting in active efforts to change our philosophy and make it so?

1 comment:

  1. What I find interesting is that people will spend months on preparing their printed publication, know when they are going to launch the publication or campaign, only to then turn to the web team a day or 2 before saying we need all this on the web? No matter how many times we ask to be informed and included at the start of the process it seems the web is not on their minds to start with. As so as you say NO, it is not going on the web like that, the attitude will not change. But then management always cave’s in and say, just publish it now and we will work out the details later on.

    Something has to change in government – Culture is the biggest hurdle and more often than not is the cultural blindness at the top of the tree that can not see the issues below on the ground! How do we get them to change?

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