Review blasts Birmingham's '£2.8m' website

Some fine detective work by Nick Booth aka Podnosh, to uncover Birmingham City Council’s report into the development of its reported – but denied – £2.8m website (mentioned previously here). The executive summary’s list of recommendations makes for painful reading:

  • The new CMS ‘requires further work before it can be said to function effectively for its users.’
  • ‘There are questions over the extent to which the FatWire CMS system was customised unnecessarily.’
  • ‘The system is currently viewed as unstable by the BCC Web Team and requires remedial action.’
  • ‘More needs to be done before the Council’s stated [accessibility] policy is achieved.’
  • ‘requires a look more in keeping with the vibrant city which Birmingham is. Navigation and design could be improved as part of this process.’

All that time, all that money… and it still sounds like there are significant problems with the fundamentals. Ouch.
In the comments on Nick’s post, Will Perrin makes a daring – albeit, I’d suggest, a bit impractical – proposal:

there has to be a strategic communications and business case case for the council to cut its losses, ditch the site, write off the contrators, publish all the inevitable embarrasing internal emails and adopt BCC DIY, the subsitutue site built by volunteers in a few days reusing the council content. this would gain the council and Birmingham remarkable credit around the web as a world first and most importanly, give citizens and staff an easy to use reliable website. could probbaly be done beneth the EU tendering limit. the council leaders could speak on platforms around the world about brimingham’s crowd sourced web miracle.

But it’s not all bad news in Brum. The ultra-cheap WordPress-based site (covered here) was recognised this week at the Local Government Association’s Reputation Awards. And rightly so.

Birmingham council: not all bad

Last week, I shared the general sense of shock around the blogs at news about Birmingham council’s new website: 3.5 years late, and costing £2.8 million. But last night, to my great surprise, I came across – a WordPress-powered website for the council’s press office, launched a couple of months back.
It’s based on iCompany – a ‘premium’ theme costing $80, with only minimal customisation; and by sheer virtue of choosing WordPress, it comes with a remarkably rich feature set, not least its offering of RSS feeds (and email alerting via S2). And that’s before we get on to its integration of Twitter, Flickr, YouTube/Vodpod, etc etc.
The domain was registered in March this year, and the site is hosted by – who appear to charge a jawdropping £2.95/month for unlimited disk space / bandwidth / MySQL / domains, cPanel based, plus a free domain name. In other words, the perfect antidote to an over-running, over-spending web project. And with no immediate evidence of Big Consultancy involvement.
There are a few odd things in the build; I’ve written previously about why I don’t like using off-the-shelf themes; and if I wanted to be exceptionally cynical, I’d be concerned that the Press Office had felt the need to go out and build this site: what, the £2.8m site can’t match WordPress? But instead, I’m going to say ‘well done Birmingham press office’. I’ve always said WordPress would make the ideal platform for a press office, and this kinda proves it.

Birmingham's new website: how late? how much?

I don’t usually cover local government issues here – I leave that to other people. But I’ll make an exception for the news that Birmingham City Council is poised to launch a new website.
It was originally scheduled to launch in March 2006, at a cost of £580,000. It is now set to launch in August 2009 – so a mere three and a half years late?! – at a cost of, wait for it… £2.8 million.
The truth came out in an FOI request lodged by Heather Brooke, the ‘unsung hero‘ of the MPs’ expenses row, using MySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow website. (And if you’re ever asking for similar information, you could do worse than copy and paste her letter to Birmingham.) The council’s reply, embedded below, reveals that the original £580k project was intended to last 7 months; its scope was then formally ‘modified’, moving the date back by two and a half years (!). Subsequent revisions and delays bring us to August 2009.
And here, this’ll make you laugh. Even after all that time, even after all that money, the Birmingham Post reported last month that the latest delay was because ‘officials discovered the software did not recognise pound or euro signs, apostrophes and quotation marks’.
For the sake of the good people of Birmingham, and I speak as a former resident… I sincerely hope it proves to have been worth the wait. And the money.