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Why public sector intranets are failing – and how to fix them

(Image credit: Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock)

Public sector organisations are increasingly implementing ‘channel shift’: moving services to digital to drive down costs while providing their users with an improved, more responsive service.  The potential benefits are significant: last year’s Digital Energy Efficiency Report estimated that for central government, channel shift could lead to annual savings between £1.7 billion and £1.8 billion. However, those same organisations are struggling to do the same with their internal communications despite the potential financial and efficiency benefits this would bring.

To understand the issue, we asked attendees at the recent CommsCamp event in Birmingham earlier this year, about their intranets. More than half of the 90 respondents rated the performance of their intranet at 4 out of 10 or lower, and identified problems ranging from poor functionality and out of date software to sites that are simply dull and discourage collaboration. They are also finding a lack of buy-in from their IT department.

It appears that internal communications is very much the poor relation of external communications. But with public sector budgets continually being squeezed, providing good digital tools is vital, and without them the public sector will struggle to deliver the services we all need. It is possible to do more with less, but only by changing the way we get things done.

The problem is not a lack of understanding of the potential benefits of channel shift. Survey respondents were very clear on processes that could and should be digitised, including HR, finance, admin and IT as well as document sharing and internal communications. The issue is more of a cultural one – poor intranets with a lack of ownership, leading to reluctance to use them.

The responsibility for intranets frequently falls between departments - HR, digital, IT, communications and service - and we were told that “people won't take responsibility for their pages as they're 'too busy'”. For some organisations their intranet is creating more work, not less: one writes a weekly email newsletter rounding up all the news it has put onto its intranet, while another uses online forms that have to be printed, signed and then scanned back into the system.

As a result many intranets are ignored and unloved. When someone does make the case for change, everyone clamours for their particular feature, and by trying to be everything for everyone they end up doing nothing at all. Organisations would do better to step back, work out what they really need their intranet for and use simple, up-to-date software to create something that everyone buys into and that makes their work easier. They also need to consider alternative digital communications tools for different purposes.

Working with end users

One of the key challenges in digitising services is understanding what users need, and then putting in place the right team to make things happen. Digital services will not be successful unless the community wants to use them, which means understanding what people actually want and referring back to them throughout the development process, with testing to see what is working and what needs to be improved.

Developing effective digital services also requires multidisciplinary teams with the right skills and the right attitude. The team must build long-term relationships with users that allow them to develop genuine insights and reliably validate their approach. This is not something that an IT or communications team can take on alone; it requires developers, researchers, delivery managers, product owners, support and front-line staff.

Ensuring engagement through culture change

The survey also highlighted a lack of engagement with internal communications in general. One of the key factors in improving employee engagement is trust, and this is known to be eroded by traditional communications tools such as email. If staff are already disengaged, simply putting in a new communications tool is not going to be effective.

This is highlighted in the White Paper Channel Shift: Realising the Benefits by Dr. Gerald Power, possibly the most rigorous channel shift methodology to date. Dr.Power says that: “In order to achieve effective digital self-service, organisations may have to radically re-think their communication strategies. In particular, how they use communication to support digital self-service processes, manage demand and bring customers to the new self-service channels." So whilst an intranet may provide digital self-service, it needs to be supported by other communications methods.

Some organisations in our survey are considering tools such as Yammer, Facebook Workbook and Slack for internal communications, reserving the intranet for tasked-based activities. There can be a reluctance to use Facebook groups because there is a belief that personal information can be viewed and shared via groups. But there is a lack of buy-in to many of these new tools because organisations appear to think that users need to be trained to use them, or that they would be quite costly.

However, in our experience training is not always required. People are increasingly digitally literate and use a range of communications formats outside work, so can easily pick up new ones. We use Slack as a team-messaging workspace where everyone can collaborate, and its simple interface ensures that everyone can get started without any problems. It can be used across a wide range of devices and platforms and allows teams to chat one on one or in groups (channels) on specific topics or projects. Perhaps the hesitancy masks a reluctance to change the status quo?  

Even in a digital world there is also a role for face to face communications, and this is a key aspect of agile working. We start each day with a stand-up meeting, where each member of the team gives a quick run-through of what they are going to be doing that day.

Developing an effective intranet at the Department of Health

The Department of Health (DH) wanted a more responsive intranet which could be accessed from any location to increase staff usage and connect the multiple systems they used for expenses, procurement and document storage.

We held workshops and one-to-one interviews with staff and stakeholders to identify user needs and the critical features that had to be included. To deliver the intranet we needed to bring about wider organisational change, so we worked closely with DH to transfer the skills and capabilities needed to run an agile product team.  The site is now live and is being used by health professionals all across the UK. By introducing better core processes on the intranet, tasks such as publishing posts, searching for team members/documents and filling in forms take much less time. The intranet saves each staff member around 30 minutes of time per week, a total of well over £1m of efficiency savings every year.

Harry Metcalfe is founder of dxw
Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

Harry Metcalfe
Harry Metcalfe is founder of dxw, which helps government to be better with technology. He is also a non-executive director of the Open Rights Group, a campaign for digital civil liberties.