Public Sector Information in the Digital Age

Steven Hartshorne, SCOOP

The May meeting of SCOOP saw the delivery and discussion of two presentations of considerable interest to librarians in the information sector. The first, unfortunately not given in person but presented to SCOOP as a Power Point slideshow, was by Aniela Kaczmarczyk of the Tinder Foundation. The subject was the Society of Chief Librarians’ (SCL) Public Libraries Universal Information Offer (PLUIO), for which the Tinder Foundation has been commissioned to create a workforce development programme. Key to the SCL’s offer is the role of public libraries in the government’s Digital By Default agenda, particularly where the programme of welfare reform and the move to increase online interactions with government departments has put pressure on already stretched services.

The statement issued by the SCL makes the case thus:

“The PLUIO seeks to position public libraries so that they are seen as one of the natural places to offer support to citizens accessing government information and services, and so result in the commissioning of public libraries by Government.” The statement’s final phrase is somewhat ambiguous. It could either mean there may be a will to build new public libraries, or (sadly more likely) an intention to give public libraries more work to do which was formerly performed by other elements of the public sector. The brief that Tinder was given looked to address a number of primary concerns: The Tinder project sought to address the following concerns:

  • A need to increase staff awareness of the content and scope of government websites.
  • The need for increased skills in the area of referral and signposting.
  • Training in the awareness and use of local websites and information sources.
  • The need to address the needs of particular user groups and the complexity of their needs.
  • Increasing awareness of the shifting context of information, services and the development of electronic transactions.
  • Resolve anxieties about time, confidentiality and responsibility.

The outcomes of the training programme are that staff delivering the offer:

  • Are confident and enthused about their role as a digital champion in a public library.
  • Can demonstrate their knowledge of online government and information services.
  • Recognise the importance of their role in future policy.
  • Can identify and recommend appropriate steps for their customers.

The staff training, composed of five modules, will be delivered via a combination of face to face sessions and an e-learning package, with a network of regional representatives to mentor trainers who will cascade the learning packages to the workforce. The content of the modules did cause some concern, as a central element of libraries’ ability to deliver this offer, training in how to deliver digital skills, is included as an optional module.

The consensus was that any attention given to staff training in the areas of welfare reform and Digital By Default was welcome, but nevertheless, a number of issues were raised:

  • Staffing did not seem to be addressed anywhere in the planned programme. Since many library authorities have lost staff trained in information and reference roles, it would be difficult to see how this offer could be provided within existing staffing levels. The same could be said for releasing staff from frontline duties to undertake the training in the first instance.
  • Although the details of the training have yet to be finalised, it was felt that the necessity of accessibility requirements to be factored into the training of staff and the delivery of the programme needed to be acknowledged.
  • Confidentiality was alluded to in the consultation, but there are considerable problems around the use of volunteers in handling confidential information.
  • There is potential for public libraries to work with specialists in other sectors that don’t seem to be included in the programme.
  • The members of the committee who work in public library organisations commented that much work had already been done in this area by individual libraries and there was some concern that this had not been taken into account by Tinder.

A final point made during the discussion was perhaps the most pertinent one: since this activity in the library sector is in order to enable the public to access government services and comes as a direct result of government policy changes, surely there is a clear case for the government to fund it?

The second presentation was given by Graham Francis, an Associate Product Manager with the Government Digital Service (GDS) with responsibility for the Gov.UK website. Graham explained that the team with which he works essentially decide what tasks the Gov.UK site should do and what the interface should look like. The driving force of the development of Gov.UK was Martha Lane Fox’s report Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution and her subsequent work on rationalising government web sites. The underlying principle of the site is that users shouldn’t have to understand how government works in order to get what they need. The site has been “built around the needs of users” and the site’s structure is designed around the transactions that members of the public have with government departments and agencies. It was at this point that some members of the committee raised the point that the needs of users in the official publications (OP) community didn’t seem to have been addressed particularly well.

For example, when searching for specific publications, some metadata (for works such as HC and Command Papers) does not appear in the initial search results, which can make locating the specific documents problematic. The site also uses the term ‘Policy Paper’ to cover a range of document types, which again isn’t helpful.

Certainly specialist browsing is not well catered for on the site although the improvement of this is a project priority. One problem is the potentially unhelpful terminology (what is the difference between ‘Publication type’ and ‘Official document status’?) There also seems to be no indication of other sources of OP material, such as the National Archives and Parliament.

Another issue some users had with the site is that currently the datasets provided on the site are not available in open data formats, although Graham assured the committee that work was ongoing to address the situation.

The final slide of the presentation described the Government Service Design Manual which is a key element in the government’s Digital By Default strategy and will no doubt influence the format of official publications in the future.

Graham assured us that GDS encourages feedback, although some members of SCOOP had noted that it was not always acknowledged or acted upon.

The content of both presentations generated a great deal of discussion, both during the meeting and in subsequent correspondence. It is clear that the issues raised by both projects will impact the way in which the public and workers in the information sector access official publications in the short and long term. The emphasis on transactions and services rather than access to and retrieval of information does present a number of challenges to users. This would suggest that the necessity of trained information professionals to mediate for them is not going to go away in the age of Digital By Default.

Request for information

Please find below a request for information on behalf of Sharron Wilson, the Serials Librarian at the Advocates Library in Edinburgh.

“The Advocates Library obtains bound volumes of legislation via Legal Deposit. We are very aware at present that there are major delays in the production of UK Statutory Instrument and Scottish Statutory Instrument volumes – mainly due to budgetary constraints. These were last produced for 2009 and 2008 respectively. We are having to cope with a huge number of archive boxes of all of the loose parts. I am trying to establish if I anyone else in a similar position? If you obtain the bound volumes of UK or Scottish SIs can you please contact me directly?

With thanks in advance.”

Sharron’s contact details are:

Sharron Wilson, Serials Librarian,

Advocates Library, 11 Parliament House, Parliament Square,

Edinburgh, EH1 1RF.Tel: 0131 260 5617