Outsourcing Web Teams?

During my seven hour train journey back from Scotland last week I had plenty of time to catch up on my reading and one thing I spotted got the gears turning in my head in a manner that was perhaps neither constructive nor positive🙂

However a few days have passed and I can now revisit these thoughts with a clearer head – no longer clouded by half-term hell on the trains or a week where decisions seemed inclined to go against me.

What it comes down to is this; can you entirely outsource a public sector web/digital team? I’m not just talking development, sys-admin etc but also content management, engagement and strategy. Essentially removing any in-house function and treating the entire thing like some sort of off-site helpdesk.

In this ‘age of austerity’ cuts are being made all over the place and things are happening that previously wouldn’t even have been agenda items so it is clear nothing is impossible. I’m pretty sure functions have been out-sourced before and then the teams embedded as if normal staff but I’m thinking of something more severe than that here.

The pressure to share technologies and platforms is already considerable (though this is something I agree with and support) but there are a finite amount of savings available there and people costs are often where the big money can be saved.

On the content management side there are numerous models that organisations follow though they tend to broadly fall into three categories;

1) The old school ‘Webmaster’ model – where content is written and forwarded to someone/s to prepare and publish onto the web,
2) The slightly chaotic ‘Distributed’ model – where anyone with a need/want to publish is given the right training and access to do what they need to do,
3) The all-conquering, answer to everything ‘Workflow’ model – that inevitably gets turned off two weeks after launch and reverts to 1) or 2).

Now on paper any of these models could be supported by an outsourced team. The tasks are generic and assuming some consistency in the underlying technology the skills are transferable.

The problem is this doesn’t reflect the reality of the tasks on a day to day basis. Building relationships with the content providers is vital as is growing a familiarity with the type/s of content. The ability to hold a helicopter view, snap shot of the whole site in your head becomes invaluable over time and perhaps most key is the sense of ownership of the site. Not of the individual elements that make up the site that belong to the writers, designers and coders but of the whole, coherent ‘thing’ that all those bits make up. This ‘ownership’ is what ensures the kind of ‘above and beyond’ levels of quality assurance the best sites have and isn’t the sort of thing – I think – that could happen if it was just a one of many sites scenario.

Now obviously given my role and background I have a bit of a stake in this! My current position is the fifth time I have been responsible for the digital output of an NDPB – over the years I like to think that my technical and strategic know how have kept pace with the web world at large but I’m not unique in that – I personally know dozens of people who have the same kind of understanding of the web as I do – and dozens more who understand the intricacies of digital design better than I ever will – plus stacks of people for whom developing complex websites is second nature. Where I like to think I have added value over the years is taking my understanding of the web and filtering it through the understanding of a particular kind of NDPB I have gained over the years. While many of my skills are pretty general it is the sector I work in that has become quite specific and I think losing this connection and the insights it brings would be harmful.

All this said I’m sure we’ll see this happen this year at some point as well as more and more organisations going to a distributed authoring model (before realising that still needs support and noone has time in their normal jobs for it!).

One area where I think it might actually be of benefit is the kind of organisation that still has alot of ‘child’ organisations with their own sites (I know this is *much* rarer these days with all the consolidation & convergence!). In these cases perhaps both a shared technical platform and central team could be beneficial – given that hopefully the knowledge gained at one level would be beneficial at all…maybe.

Maybe this is already common place and people just aren’t talking about it? Something I’ll be keeping an eye on anyway.

2 thoughts on “Outsourcing Web Teams?

  1. Patrick Wallace says:

    There is another factor: it’s not just the intricacies of website management and design, it’s how it fits into the corporate culture, and its custodians’ place in maintaining corporate memory. By definition, outsourced or sub-contracted teams and organisations have defined and circumscribed functions, often time-limited – so they tend to bring to the job a project management approach, with no great incentive to future-proof the content and its presentation. Once their contract runs out or the project folds up, who maintains the legacy content – or understands why it might be necessary to do so?

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