Weeknotes from Content and Publishing (S1 E1)

Hello there. I manage the Publishing, Content Design and Digital Content teams at the ONS in Digital Publishing. Each week I’m attempting to give an overview of my work, key projects we’re involved in and encourage my wider team to blog more often about their work.

2020 is going to be a big year for Digital Publishing – planning for Census  2021, changes to statistical bulletins, contributing to a new Better Statistics, Better Decisions strategy, the arrival of a new deputy director – so I thought I’d mark it by following the lead of brilliant civil servants and former civil servants who write weekly updates on their work.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of #weeknotes then this is a great place to start. In short, I want to share the great work of the team, expose the challenges, get opinions and learn from the process.

So here goes – here’s what’s been going on in my world in the last week, and start of 2020.

My week has been focused on steps needed to renew the content strategy that was signed off by the ONS’ senior team back in 2015. Written by Alan Smith and Laura Dewis before they moved on to exciting new things, it’s an important document which set out to move the ONS into a digital by default space, commissioning content and products driven by clear user need. It’s also largely responsible for the creation of the Digital Content team within the ONS, and the driver for the work we’ve done for the last half decade to create digital products, and the effort spent on meeting the needs of the inquiring citizen.

I’ll write more about this work in the weeks to come and where we’re looking to make changes and what we hope to do differently in the future but for now I’ll just say I’ve been pulling together a survey to try and gauge as many views internally as possible around our users, their priorities and the products we need to create to meet those needs. One of the key challenges around the content strategy is embedding it into the organisation and that’s, in part, due to differing perspectives of user priorities and needs.

We also need to get views from our actual users too, if we’re going to shape a new strategy. The good news is that we’ve got 5 years of user research to draw on as well as work in train around Census.

One of the goals of that original strategy was to put more coherence around how the ONS produces digital products – being clear about user need, and the value of building to standards. To that end, we’ve been grappling with a recent proliferation of dashboards built outside our team in Digital Publishing and so I asked our head of data vis Rob Fry to write a paper on the challenges and opportunities around building digital products like dashboards.

Rob presented the paper to one of our regular meetings with statistical colleagues in the Public Policy directorate – hopefully,  I’ll encourage him to blog about this soon – and the feedback was mixed. We need to do more to both support the organisation to build digital products, while also ensuring what we’re building is fit for purpose.

Back breaking work

While my week was curtailed because of some back issues – diazepam and codeine definitely help – I’ve also been circulating some work we’ve done to look at how the content we’ve published in the last 4 months of 2019 align to the different web personas we have, particularly the inquiring citizen.

The 2015 Content Strategy I referenced earlier recommended a clear commitment in resource to the inquiring citizen, however examination of our publications raises some challenging questions, particularly around how we should be measuring  that commitment.

I’ve spent 20+ years as a journalist but I didn’t ever think I’d spend time discussing the value of puns in headlines with senior colleagues when I joined the ONS. Last year we published an excellent piece of analysis, looking at the changes to the pubs and bar industry. The piece had a great overall news line, was well told, with nice supporting data vis and also had a much-admired pun in the title – Economies of Ale.

We’re producing a follow-up article next week  and the analysts behind the work want to keep the pun in the new headline, even though our guidance on titles is to avoid prefixes as a way of denoting a series. Plus, there’s little evidence to show users are reaching the article through searching for the pun, and such play on words tend to have diminishing returns as a hook for users over time. But, we couldn’t convince the wider team not to use the pun and focus instead on the key story in the data in the title, and so round two of Economies of Ale will be served up soon.

Before Christmas I tweeted a thread of some of the best work we’ve done this year, and I also pulled it together into a deck to share internally. I’m lucky to work with some brilliant people and teams and it was a pleasure to look back on the work the team has done and share that with senior colleagues.

Beyond that the week was focused on reminding myself of all the pieces of work we’ve committed to doing, where we are with each piece, and trying get those balls back into the air to be juggled.

More on the juggling in future #weeknotes.