Web consultancy case study: passing the buck

A local authority contacted me with the opportunity to take over the maintenance and ownership of a town’s community web site.  The intention was that they would pay me a token fee of £500 and the site would be mine in perpetuity to host, administer, and stock with content.  Having been down the road of token fees before – and still stinging from the ensuing wounds – I scheduled a web consultancy meeting with representatives of the local authority’s web team to discuss the project.

Their story went as follows: the local authority had received an astonishing amount of grant funding from a well-known foundation to create the community web site in the late 1990s, when for much of Scotland “the internet” was still a distant concept reserved for dial-up connections in libraries, and there was nothing like social networking or the online communities we take for granted today.  At the time, there was a clear need for the site, and it did serve a purpose for a short time. A very short time.

Despite the funny money that funded the site’s creation, the site was a strictly amateur effort built to mid-1990s design standards and organisation.  A pre-meeting scan of the site’s compliance in web standards, coding, and accessibility errors does not bear repeating.

The council ran the site as a community-driven project: by the community, about the community, for the community.  And as those of us living in the real world know, in practice, this means two people contributed a lot to it, three others said they would but never did, and the rest of the community did not give a toss.  12 years after launch, the site was still live on the web, still under the local authority’s roof, and still claiming to speak as a voice of the community.  Yet no new content had been added in almost six years.

In choosing whether to take on a project, client, or relationship, my guiding principle is don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.  If I am being presented with an opportunity, it needs to be something that will bring me up, not drag me down.  I want to build on solid foundations, not wade through rubble.  I want relationships that I can rely on, not run from.  And clearly I was being presented with a problem, not a solution.  So I dug further.

I asked the web team what their analytics said about the site’s visitors.  They had never tracked analytics.
I asked the web team what the business plan was for the site.  They had no business plan.
I asked the web team what the content management plan was for the site.  They had no content management plan.
I asked the web team how they planned to integrate the site into the web sites, social networks, and online communities that have sprung up since the site’s launch in 1999.  Blank faces.

What the web team did show me was an idea for a visual revamp that one of their designers had come up with.  At this point I became angry.  The visual design of a web site comes last.  Without a business plan, site structure, and a trackable understanding of what visitors are coming for and why, a visual revamp is just an academic exercise.  In twelve years the local authority had never thought to ensure the most basic necessities of a web site – analytics, SEO, or accessibility compliance – and yet someone on a public sector pension had been given permission to go off on an artistic whim.

Additionally, the fact that a redesign was in the works was highly suspicious.  Web sites are not like houses – you do not “do them up” when you are trying to offload them.  The only plausible reason they would be working on a visual redesign would be that, despite their intention to pass it into the private sector, they did not intend to relinquish full control of it after all.

At the conclusion of the meeting I advised the local authority’s web team to incorporate the site’s existing content into the numerous other sites the local authority is running in a proper manner, redirect the domain to the council’s main url, and shut down the web site.  They had failed to present me with any sort of business case to justify keeping it alive, much less within or without their remit.

The notion of removing the community web site from the local authority’s remit to a private sector designer – as a fun project, or a hobby, or perhaps the clichéd addition to the portfolio – was a sly attempt to pass the buck for 12 years of project mismanagement.  I do not claim to be privy to the machinations which ruled that it was politically advantageous to wipe their hands of the project and put someone else’s name to it.  I do know that I have no intention of becoming that sucker.

The meeting was also a reminder that regardless of how experienced you are or where you have positioned your web design business, some people will only ever see you as “that kid who knows things about web sites and the Internet”. As if, this far into your professional experience, you still needed castoff projects handed to you as a charitable gesture. The best way to combat this is to stop bothering with locally focussed networking events and procurement workshops and concentrate instead on the targets you want to reach.

The local authority needs to learn that you cannot have it both ways.  You cannot seek column inches and funds for projects only to claim they are “community-driven” when they decline.  You cannot claim to be the voice of a community when the community frankly couldn’t care less.  You cannot neglect sites in your remit simply because they are old.  And if you have made a dog’s dinner out of a project under your own roof, you cannot try to offload it to someone else as a positive opportunity.

The funding the authority received for this site could have paid for two full-time salaries, or a replacement for the town’s shuttered net cafe, or a municipal wi-fi connection, which in 2010 2012 is still a faraway dream for the town.  “Community driven” web site or not, I could not, and still cannot, see where that money went.  It almost merits an apology to the grant funders.

The consultancy session stands as strong proof of why social networking and the wired world have transformed the way we communicate, interact, and ultimately define our communities.  Look what happens when the definition of the “community” is left in the hands of the local authority.

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5 thoughts on “Web consultancy case study: passing the buck

  1. The trouble with so many public projects is that nobody has to ever say how the money was used. The powers that be seem to think that all they have to tell us what it cost.

    P.S. I’m convinced you made the right decision.

  2. I wonder if you are talking about the Barrhead Community Website? It’s always full of out of date information – I use to write in to give updated info, but nothing ever got changed.

    My daughter went to the Log-in cafe on Main Street when she was pre school age. It was certainly a good introduction to computers. It’s now a cafe (no computers). Not sure if the LA are looking to set it up anywhere else in the town?

  3. Hi there Alan,

    I can certainly ask the people I know in the Council if there are any plans to add more public web access. Right now the only public computers are in the library, which is not good. My husband does research there on a weekly basis and sometimes he has to leave because he can’t get peace and quiet sharing the tiny research space with kids surfing Bebo.

  4. Hi!
    Thanks for this very well written article. I am just getting into web design and doing site as voluntary work. Your article will certain stick in my mind on what warning signs to look out for when taking on future work.
    Best regards,
    Zephyr

  5. Great article – you just took the words out of my mouth – like Zephyr , I’m new to website design …esp the type needed for engaging a community …. I have recently been taking on various free/voluntarily jobs and seems CMS is the new prerequisite for web designs. Even if they really don’t need a CMS the acronym has become well known by all seeking a website – even if they don’t know what it stands for , they know to ask…

    I’m currently reading and researching the power behind word press and found the easy of use for the client after the site is complete allows for quick and easy updates and we all know what happens when something isn’t easy – It doesn’t get done!!!! Back to your point and where it stuck the painful truth I can relate too is I have to sit down and train my clients..

    Train them to be as passionate about the success of the site as it means the success of their business – Get them passionate about extending their brand in a consistent and well thought out manner for the world to see. My biggest complaint with clients free and paying is that they don’t care – they just want it done and don’t put any thought into the project … Granted I expect to have to do my fair share of research and inspiration but nothing drains me more working on a project that you know in a matter of a few years will be garbage because you see no future in the company and no plan from the client….

    I have a client now who is very passionate about selling the product and wants a new logo , business identity and website but doesn’t want to pay for anything ” he just needs something to make him look credible” WOW – how about that – free credibility !!! thats all anyone wants nowadys! sorry for my rant – good article.

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