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When Lambeth Council decided it needed a new website, it didn’t start drawing up tenders – it asked the local people to pitch in with their skills. Now the London borough is asking the community to help its digital services reach people who find websites difficult to use.

The Made In Lambeth hack event, held in September 2014, aimed to make subjects such as looking at options for housing or getting involved in council decision-making simpler for those who don’t have ready access to the internet. “We don’t want to just sit there in our glorious offices,” explained Lambeth’s head of digital, Kate Vogelsang, a few weeks before the event. “We’re expected to involve people in what we do.”

The Made In Lambeth banner encompasses a range of activities designed to tap into the expertise of people who live in the borough. Challenges have included designing a new sexual health service, cutting food waste, giving a fresh look to council estates and relaunching a local city farm. It’s all about Lambeth’s policy of being a “co-operative council” – and Vogelsang’s happy to call herself an evangelist for it.

The process began with a hack weekend in June 2012. “It was an amazing feeling seeing a room full of people working on it – there was such energy,” she said. Collaboration agency Good For Nothing, which specialises in “turbo-doing”, was brought in to help run the event.

“I was surprised by the level of positivity towards the council. We get told, ‘oh, you’ll be hated’, but people could see what we were doing, and were galvanised by it.”

New site under budget

By the end of the weekend, a draft website was ready, although the full process took 18 months until the new site was launched in January 2014, on time and under budget. The process, documented on the Made In Lambeth Open Web Project blog, also included hiring locals, such as a designer and developer who both come from Brixton, in the heart of the borough.

“We benefited from having people who were working on other projects while they were working at Lambeth,” Vogelsang said. “It’s more effort for me. But I’d rather go to more effort and get local people and small/medium sized businesses involved than write a massive spec and put it out to tender – that’s the easy way. These are the values we’re expected to live by.”

The new site’s been widely praised - though Vogelsang admitted it was tough for council staff who were used to the old version. “Most residents only use the site only four or five times a year,” she adds. “They visit an average of 2.1 pages – they come in, check what they want and go – after all, we’re a council.”

Lambeth is aiming to release the code behind the new site as open source for other authorities to adapt and use. It already has over 120 datasets available for others to use, from maps of cycle stands to details of local chemists.

Anyone who can contribute skill or expertise is welcome at Lambeth's hack events - not just programmers. “If we just had coders, we wouldn’t get anything done,” Vogelsang said. “I’m less interested in the technology, more the process and how it’s delivered.”