UKGC10 session one: Web Professionals

The first session I went to at UKGov Barcamp 2010 was led by Vicky Sargent from SOCITM, who is looking at how we can develop a framework for professionalising web careers.

Vicky began by explaing that historically SOCITM have been the industry body for senior IT managers in local government. But they’ve begun looking at how we can better support people working in and with web technology – that is, not just the guys providing the infrastructure, but the content too. And not just in local government, but in the public sector more widely.

People in digital roles come from a variety of backgrounds, which is a reflection of the broad spectrum of work that falls under the umbrella of ‘digital’. These include:

  • Communications: people from PR, marketing or publishing backgrounds with a focus on producing content for the web
  • IT backgrounds
  • Web developers
  • People who’ve fallen into it as they happened to be there when this whole internet lark took off.

As the digital sector grows, there’s a real need for a recognised skills and competencies framework. There’s also a call for greater recognition of the profession, so those working in it get the training, recognition and support they deserve. 

This debate is timely for me. My background is in communications, and as such I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, and their sectoral group for Internal Communicators, CIPR Inside. But I recently moved into an intranet role, and as my CIPR membership expires I am wondering if there’s any point in me renewing it.  CIPR is – as the name suggests – focussed on public relations. But while my new role is certainly internal communications, I am not a PR practitioner and I’m struggling to see what CIPR can offer me.

The extent to which CIPR supports and understands Internal Communications is the subject of much debate within the internal comms trade of late, with Communicators in Business voting to become the Institute of Internal Communications in order to focus on internal communications as a discrete profession in its own right. CIPR have responded by beefing up its offering for internal communicators.

But neither seems to offer a great deal for those with a focus on digital. And that’s why an  industry body dedicated to raising the status and skills of the web profession would be really valuable for me personally, and no doubt for many others.

There was universal agreement in the room about the need for professionalisation. All too often, noted Alastair Smith, the task of managing web content is given to the most junior member of the team, who recieves little training in how to do it. Job descriptions can often be poorly written or out of date, which has meant many web officers have lost out in the job evaluations required as part of Single Status initatives.

Another common problem seems to be a lack of recognition web professionals get within their own communications teams. Web officers are generally given lower pay grades than junior press officers, even though their jobs are arguably more skilled. Heads of Communications almost always come from Press Officer or Marketing Manager roles, and see digital communications as something of a poor relation.

Senior managers often say the web is their most important customer service channel, yet this isn’t reflected in the way they recruit, train and pay their web officers. Web skills ought to be seen as an investment in improving service quality.

So for instance, Socitm found that bad websites cost councils £11m a month in abandoned transactions requiring attention by other, more expensive means like face-to-face or telephone. Yet few councils have people skilled in studying analytics or improving user experience, and so are unable to tackle this.

There are countless examples of this lack of foresight and understanding.  The value of moving services online is clear, with enormous potential to reduce costs. But for this to happen, we need to focus on giving web teams the skills and resources they need to cope with this channel shift.

There are a number of other initiatives with similar aims, such as the COI’s Web Academy and the GCN. But the former is largely aimed at top civil servants, giving them a brief overview of digital and its potential, while GCN focuses on career paths for web professionals in government comms. 

Most in the room felt that while the GCN was useful, they don’t have enough focus on digital and Socitm was well placed to continue this work. However, digital communicators need to work closely with those working in press and marketing, so should keep their general comms skills up to speed too.

Vicky noted particularly the need to develop a skills framework for web, as these roles aren’t recognised in the national skills farmework. She hopes Socitm can bring web skills into the Skills Framework for the Information Age.

Those with most to gain from raising the status of web professionals are those devolved editors and authors. Too often they’re isolated and lack training, get no additional pay or support, and don’t have their web responsibilities written into their job description. A professional group and a widely-recognised competencies framework could force their managers to understand the work they do.

All of those in the group felt this would help web teams convince senior management that professional web management requires a skill set; it isn’t just something you should devolve to anyone with a half-day’s CMS training. Producing good web content is about a lot more than copying and pasting.

I also think communications teams, and particularly press officers, will be forced to develop broader content production skills, as  the news outlets they serve demand a full package of rich media content rather than simple press releases. But this is something we covered in much more depth at a session on how journalism is changing, and I’ll blog about that later.

Socitm are part way through their project, working with consultants to scope the remit of a web professionals group and draft skills profiles for common roles.

Their preliminary report is already out, and they’re holding a workshop on February 4th at the DCLG. The main output from the day will be a set of defined skills, and a draft will be circulated to those coming beforehand. If you’d like to attend, contact Vicky for more details. 

SOCITM have a web community of over 600 people on the IDeA’s Communities of Practice site (called the Web Improvement and Usage Community). This is one of the most popular groups on the CoP, and has three people faciltating it for a few hours a day each.

Vicky hopes that this group will help to identify where we go next and help to take this forward. Socitim will provide the neccessary admin support, but they people need to join in order to signal their commitment to the project and give them the funding they need to deliver this.

In my view this is something webbies would benefit from getting behind. If web becomes a recognised profession, it gives those working on the web greater credibility within their own organisation, so that their professional opinion is respected and valued, and they are given the recognition, pay and support they deserve.

6 thoughts on “UKGC10 session one: Web Professionals

  1. Pingback: That was the ukgc10 that was

  2. Let’s be careful what we wish for.

    Professions are basically jobs that are controlled by collective bodies and it usually results in people performing to certain standards in order to satsify the rules of the collective. This means you may not get an incompetent service from a professional practitioner, or that you can request sanctions if you do. Except for a few lines of work, I feel it also seems to make inspiring and passionate practitioners rarer. Are sexy solicitors and evangelical accountants the norm?

    It’s fairly rare now that I see an utterly incompetent ukgov web service, but few of them are inspiring and it seems like most of the webmasters do the bare minimum for competence. If anything, I’d say they’re more often too professional, following policies and rules without any passion. Wouldn’t adding a professional body make this worse?

    Recently I’ve heard that one of my local councils has got rid of most of its web editors and handed control to the departmental staff because they actually care about the content. Unfortunately, this seems to mean that we still don’t have anyone who actually cares about the web applications.

    So are we actually seeking professionalism or something more like recognition of the skills we actually want to see among webmasters and representation to higher level decision-makers? I think so, therefore I want better representative bodies, rather than new professional bodies.

    What’s wrong with our representation? Why aren’t the current bodies being heard? Well, with my non-council hat on, I’ve been looking at various bodies for webmasters recently. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious choice yet. I found ones that were too general, trapped in a niche, too expensive or undemocratic.

    For example, SOCITM appears to be democratic, but covers all computing without visible grouping (there appear to be groups, but the external face is SOCITM not the groups), it doesn’t cover the private sector (our main client base) and their corporate fee is higher than what we pay our national cooperative body! If SOCITM wants to help, I feel it would be a better improvement to fix some or all of those drawbacks, rather than push towards establishing themselves as a professional body and effectively giving SOCITM a captive membership.

    Anyway, I’m getting frustrated thinking about this again, so . Hope someone reads this and finds it helpful.

  3. RE:

    * Communications: people from PR, marketing or publishing backgrounds with a focus on producing content for the web
    * IT backgrounds
    * Web developers
    * People who’ve fallen into it as they happened to be there when this whole internet lark took off.

    I’d also include design background in that list. A lot of web professionals started as graphic or front end designers and are now moving more towards User Experience roles.

  4. Pingback: Notes from the 3rd annual UK government unconference (#ukgc10)

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