Councils still need better web sites

Councils still need better web sites

Usability is a big weakness, but some online services can match the private sector

Many council web sites are now providing as good a service as their commercial counterparts, but quality is patchy and inconsistent across the sector, according to a report from local authority user group Socitm.

Experts say that to provide the correct online services to the right groups of citizens, councils must improve their understanding of user requirements.

UK council web sites attract an estimated 21.2 million visitors every month, up 30 per cent on last year, according to Socitm Insight’s annual survey.

Use of transactional web sites that offer interactive functions such as payments and bookings, has increased by 36 per cent.

But usability was cited as a recurrent problem, even on sites that impressed reviewers for other reasons, such as content or innovation.

Meeting the requirements of users is the key to improving online services and it is important that services are designed with the web in mind, said Siobhan Coughlan, head of service transformation for the Improvement and Development Agency.

“The priority is usability ­ web sites need to be made less scary. Lots of sites have good information, but have not thought about citizens’ individual needs,” she said.

“If you want your citizens to use self-service functions, you have to understand user preferences and design services for the web site.”

While 47 per cent of web sites met Socitm’s standards for use of search engines, only six per cent met the standard for resilience.

And although homepage performance improved by five per cent, errors have increased by two per cent and availability is down by two per cent.

But there are excellent examples available ­ – see Top new ideas, below ­ – although there is room for improvement and scope for further efficiencies, said Jos Creese, head of IT at Hampshire County Council.

“The quality and usability of many local authority web sites is as good as the best in the private sector, or better, but there is a need to extend online services, which also need to be integrated with other methods of delivery, such as contact centre support,” he said.

“This will permit some traditional delivery channels to be switched off to reduce overall costs, and the benefits achieved from this need to be clearly demonstrated.

“This must be driven by the needs of the public. Not every service or every citizen can interact electronically, and these are the areas where we need to focus scarce traditional resources such as face-to-face contact.”

Web sites can even act as a catalyst for improving business processes, said Socitm report author Martin Greenwood.

“Web sites provide an opportunity to rethink processes,” he said. “The web site is the end of a process. So when a service is put online, it should have already been reviewed.”

Top new ideas on council web sites in 2008

  • Bury Metropolitan Borough Council allows users to interact with library staff by suggesting purchases and submitting comments.
  • Plymouth City Council’s Amazon-like library facility provides users with synopses and allows them to view other books by the same author.
  • Boston Borough Council runs a Flash-based game to show people which recycling bins are used for different types of waste. Players lose points for choosing the wrong bin.
  • Bridgnorth District Council broadcasts webcam views of the River Severn on its flood pages, allowing users to observe the river levels.
  • Glasgow City Council was praised for going the extra mile to provide non-standard services in the form of family history search facilities.
  • Redbridge Council’s 'Redbridge i' site is described as "more like Facebook than a local authority web site". It is modelled on private sector web giants, incorporating Web 2.0 services such as Google Maps.
  • Epsom and Ewell Council runs Texts 4 U, an SMS service for 11- to 19-year-olds providing information such as details of local initiatives and leisure activities.
  • Hammersmith and Fulham Council runs a leaders’ blog that allows users to post comments. The comments are moderated, but a balance of opinions is published.

    Source: Socitm Insights