Is there a recipe for the perfect local government intranet?

Apologies if you’ve arrived in search of a recipe for the perfect local government intranet; I don’t think one exists. I’m not saying that intranets don’t have a place in local government or any other type of organisation; but the ones I’ve experienced often fall short of delivering what staff really want or need.

Different Expectations

The key to my statement focuses on ‘delivering what staff really want or need’. That’s my focus when I carry out user research with clients: What do you want the intranet to do? What would make your job easier? What frustrates you about current processes?

I like to ask users to give an ending to this statement: “My ideal intranet…

  • would make my job easier”
  • is a single source of authoritative information regularly used by employees every day”
  • helps me get the best out of the organisation”
  • will inform and engage members of staff”
  • is easy to find things on, is up to date and owned”
  • would centralise useful information, avoid duplication and make savings”
  • would significantly improve communication to, from and between employees”

It’s interesting to hear the various responses. They usually focus on the solution, but also highlight problems that currently exist too; killing two birds with one stone.

I think it’s important to understand that the perceived purpose of an intranet can differ from person to person, from one organisation to another and won’t necessarily meet the expectations of all of your users or stakeholders.

Focus on one or two key issues

An intranet is a platform that can and should be built upon. If you’ve worked in local government for a while you’ll have surely heard some of the following:

“The organisation wants to be more sustainable”, “We need to make efficiency savings” or “We need to increase productivity”

Whilst these are good goals to have, they alone don’t offer a particular problem for which you can create a solution.

Ask your stakeholder to be specific. Are they aware of anything which could produce some savings, such as being able to manage flexitime online, reduce a long paper-based process or to have a central hub for communication that all staff have access too? Buzz words are easy - they also need to put their thinking caps on!

The IT team want to use a particular piece of technology which doesn’t work for your users.

Too often IT software is seen as a solution to organisational problems. Ask whether it solves your users problems? If not, put a case forward as to why it doesn’t fit. Does it come down to cost, time to develop, not having the necessary skill set, or is it too cumbersome?

The communications team want the intranet to be all about corporate messages.

Whilst an intranet can help the communication needs of an organisation, it can soon become overwhelming. The intranet can become a place where corporate spiel becomes the focus, without really achieving efficiency savings or increasing productivity; this can have a negative effect on the user. Take a balanced approach: delivering the corporate message on the intranet but also develop tools that will aid your users in their everyday role.

If your organisation faces a communication issue, consider building user engagement by opening up commenting on a blog or news articles. If a particular topic is of interest to your users, have an ‘expert’ responding to peoples comments on the related topic, or simply allow staff to discuss between themselves.

The council organisation structure has changed again… no one knows where to find anything!

Having audited a number of public sector intranets, I have seen the same patterns: Outdated content, duplication of documents and descriptions of teams that have since been reorganised or disbanded.

Teams and departments get excited by the ability to publish what they do, but often for a limited time. Content eventually becomes stale and no longer serves a purpose.

Its important to consider the content that you are trying to deliver on the intranet before developing a structure. Check out ‘Elements of Content Strategy’ by Erin Kissane for an insightful read on the importance of your content.

You can’t do it all

A common reason why intranets fail is because they try to deliver too many features that simply don’t work well. In return, your users will find an easier way to do or find something; usually using a more costly alternative. It usually comes down to trying to achieve too much in one go.

If you’re about to tackle a new intranet project, consider focusing on one or two ideas and do them really well.

  • Do you already have a successful document management system in place? If so, don’t try to replace it. If it really isn’t working and is something your users have raised as an issue, maybe you can place your focus here.
  • Is your contact directory out of date? Then maybe this is the opportunity to create an up to date telephone directory that can be updated by your users, reducing the frustration of those in switchboard.
  • Do you constantly send out global emails about every event, press release, council meeting, emergency notice and update from the chief executive? There’s a good chance that your users ignore or delete these without a second thought; they simply can’t handle the volume.Your intranet could allow your users to personalise their notifications and see all this in one place, leaving their inboxes more manageable for the intended purpose.

You need to find what issues your users face daily and what would make their lives easier. By doing so you’ll achieve the goals of making savings and increasing efficiency.

Generating trust & achieving ‘buy in’

Local government audiences are subjected to software which doesn’t always put the user first; placing another barrier between your users and the intranet. It’s so important that you consider people’s time, especially when it comes down to providing a new feature for your intranet. And even more so if it replaces an existing process.

  1. Ask your users for their ideas and publish them for everyone to see; make it an open process.
  2. Communicate your intranet plans to your users; why a feature has made it into the intranet or why a feature hasn’t been included. Do this with a simple blog post or round-up email once a month or at a frequency that will not overwhelm them.
  3. Get groups of users to test and feedback a new feature before rolling it out to the wider audience.
  4. Make the user base aware of ideas that are planned for future versions of the intranet, and when they will be arriving.

Building an effective intranet will require engagement with your audience, communication on your progress, testing with your audience and delivering real solutions to your users’ problems.

! This article was original published on the Zengenti.com on the 27 September, 2013.