What makes for a decent Council website?

After the kerfuffle over the Birmingham City Council website, as expertly documented by Paul Canning, there has been a considerable amount of discussion about what a Council website should look like, and what it should actually do.

This isn’t just an academic debate, as some local authorities have been making some really innovative steps in redesigning their sites, such as the search dominated Westminster and Lancashire sites – which I quite like; and the personalised Redbridge and Nottingham sites – which I am less keen on.

There are, it seems to me, three main groups which have a view on council websites, in particular order: citizens in the area who use the site, internal staff, and the wider world of interested folk (I hesitate to say ‘experts’).

So I wondered how the third group might go about putting a wishlist together of features that a Council website really ought to have, and perhaps of deciding which are the most important. These could then be documented somewhere so that Councils have a free point of reference of some good quality advice on where they should go with their website.

So I have set up a page on IdeaScale, which is a bit like UserVoice only it has a few more collaborative features. You can find it at:

http://localgovweb.ideascale.com/

It is straightforward enough to submit an idea and then vote on it and others, you can comment on ideas and even edit them collaboratively, using wiki like features.

So do come and join in, leave your ideas and let people know what you make of theirs, and let’s build a really useful wishlist for what makes for a decent Council website.

0 thoughts on “What makes for a decent Council website?

  1. paul canning

    This is an interesting idea but council websites should be judged in exactly the same way any other website is – by their success at meeting their customers needs.

    You identify two groups of customers, there are many sub-groups. And success can be measured for each (or rather should be).

    The problem with ‘experts’ is that any move away from measurement leads to bias of some sort. For example, as you know I bang on about a few issues not the least of which are usability and online marketing and analytics. I’d also argue that none of these – unfortunately, in my experience – have much expertise or purchase in the collective priorities of elocalgov.

    In the exercise you propose I can just see the scenario for people like myself having to do the proverbial ‘banging on’ to redirect priority thinking back to my first point – a ‘good’ website is one which works, which is successful and that can be measured.

    Council websites having their own separate way of thinking about what makes them decent to other websites? Which is determined how? Collective internet wisdom aka best practice is what should be looked at – reinventing the wheel here isn’t necessary. This is another of my ‘banging on’ points, that commercial best practice needs to infiltrate the egov conscious for our collective good.

    This is why people like Gerry McGovern have – better late than never – been so well received by Lgov webbies. He speaks truth to …. ! – from a commercial best practice, results-driven background.

    We need to stop speaking to ourselves in other words. It’s self-defeating and certainly not good for the customers.

  2. Dave Post author

    I take your point, Paul, but surely there are still a basic list of things which every council website should feature, as a matter of course? Creating a ticklist of stuff for web teams to consider when planning their site is something I’m sure a lot of people would find very useful.

    Obviously every council – and its citizens – have slightly different needs, and those need to be reflected in the website. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some basics that every website should cover and which – at the moment – aren’t being covered.

    Also, on the issue of council websites being no different to any others – fine, of course that’s true. But why does that prevent a tailored list of good stuff being useful? It might have exactly the same items on it as for any other sector’s websites – but that doesn’t decrease its relevance, does it?

    Perhaps you’ve slightly misunderstood my intentions here. I’m not trying to lead the revolution here or anything, nor will I be claiming that whatever comes out of this will be definitive, or ground breaking, or the answer to local gov webbies’ prayers. I’m just hoping that we can produce a list of stuff that might be useful to councils when they are planning their website refresh. That’s all!

  3. paul canning

    The idea of council webbies having a resource on best practice is good but how it happens and how it is structured is absolutely vital.

    There is actually lots of guidance – cabinet office wrote the first, what, eight years ago? Better Connected churns it out every year. Part of the problem with both is a tick-box approach which effectively becomes a pick-what-you-prioritise approach (this is why accessibility looms much larger than usability in the council webbie consciousness). What usually happens leads to imbalance and a biased sense of priorities. Any guidance itself needs to read what it says – and be usable.

    And most importantly such guidance, led by commercial experience rather than, say, legal or political factors, should be about being customer-led rather than any other approach.

    It is a good idea for council webbies to have such guidance and they simply don’t properly have it. Take usability for example where localdirectgov spent a lot of money providing it from a specialist (Nomensa) then withdrew then hid it. DCLG’s approach has been a problem.

    I’m not being deliberately negative about this initiative, I just think the obvious (to you and me and others) gap cannot be properly filled by a volunteerist, crowd-sourced method for the reasons I outline about introducing bias, problems with its usability and not necessarily being customer-led. It needs funding by Whitehall and or councils collectively.

  4. Vicky Sargent

    All discussion on what makes a decent council website is great as far as I’m concerned, but lets build on what exists……….

    So, to add to what Paul has said, Socitm uses expert opinion and actual customer feedback to inform its view of what makes for a ‘useful and usable’ council website.

    Better connected assesses websites systematically using 16 criteria: information; currency
    links elsewhere; news value; transactions; e-mail; participation; ease of finding; use of a to z; use of search; use of location; navigation; design of transactions; accessibility; readability; and resilience.

    Each of these criteria is defined in detail by Socitm Insight, in a document first published as Better connected: aiming high (January 2005) and available to Socitm Insight subscribers (ie the 95% of all UK local authorities that share this service).

    We are currently updating the criteria in Aiming High, and there is a consultation going on right now. You can access this, and the discussion in the Socitm Insight Community of Practice on the IDeA platform at http://www.communities.idea.gov.uk/
    Lots of people have already but more comment is always welcome before the closing date on September 25. The material is also advertised on the Socitm website homepage at http://www.socitm.gov.uk.

    We also capture customer feedback from council website users through the Socitm Website Takeup service. 125 councils use this service which operates through a pop up survey offered to every fifth visitor to participating councils’ websites. Participation by users is high and we get lots of data.

    The feedback councils get from this service in terms of who is using the site, what they are using it for, and their degree of satisfaction with the experience (including free text comment) is invaluable to anyone trying to improve their website.

    Its also sobering to know, through WTS, that between 10% and 40% of visits to council websites currently fail, setting up large numbers (eg 16,000 enquiries for an average unitary a month) to potentially reappear as ‘avoidable contacts’ in other council channels and as importantly, turning people off the web – which is potentially the least expensive channel…………

    At risk of repeating myself, feedback on the current Better connected proposals from people who haven’t previously been involved would be fantastic.

  5. Dave Post author

    Hi Vicky, thanks for stopping by.

    I think there is a difference in both the method and the audience of these exercises – the more formal SOCITM consultation and my quick 5-minute bodge of a survey of – effectively – my mates on Twitter. Both have their advantages and disadvantages – mine more of the latter than the former, I dare say – and both will yield very different results.

    But the SOCITM consultation – even with the added layer of interaction that the CoP brings – is going to pass an awful lot of people by, who aren’t part of the local government IT loop, but nonetheless have interesting and innovative ideas on what a Council website could do.

    I’m delighted by the quality of submissions to http://localgovweb.ideascale.com/ so far, and think there are some really good, sensible suggestions that could be refined and brought together to complement the more formal advice provided by bodies like SOCITM – and which you don’t have to pay a subscription fee to read 😉

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  7. Will

    Thanks for the post Dave – have added a couple of ideas.

    I’m for fewer guidelines and more examples of best practice like your links to Westminster and Lancashire sites – the annual DavePress awards? 🙂

    I agree with Paul Canning’s comment on commercial best practice. Agile development, focusing on the bottom line, engaging with the customer… all need to play a part.

  8. Paul Geraghty

    I too think this is about a useful as the annual SOCITM reports, consistently getting it wrong year after year, spewing out a grey-soup tick-list of ordinariness, lowering the bar not raising it.

    I think it DID serve a purpose back in the early noughties when some LG orgs did not even have a site, and were starting from scratch, but now you have to sift through loads of bleeding obvious repetitive dross just to tease out a list of slightly interesting CMS hacks and system integration milestones.

    Why did it take until Jan 2008 for the word RSS to even appear in their reports? ( I was consuming RSS in 2001 and writing it in 2002)
    Why until recently were they awarding points for having a text-only version of a website, then wordlessly the next year they switched it to removing points if you HAD a text-only version?
    Could it be that they are not techies and do not understand technology?

    SOCITM and innovation are two words that should not to be used together.

    To take your place at any IT table you need to be able to predict the future with some degree of success.

    You need to be able to assess something and say with some certainty “this is a waste of time, it will fail” or “this could actually be the future …”. In order to do that – and bet the farm – ( which we all do when we decide to hop jobs, learn a new language, spend some company time on a proof of concept etc ) we have to take a risk, a personal risk.

    That risk, that ability to predict the future is hard earned, and you should not profess to either have it nor be the judge of it by virtue of having a history of simply reading other peoples websites.

    What we want from SOCITM reports is someone to point out the things on the horizon, or at least be honest and say “we think this is the big thing” – something they have dismally failed to do.

    Year after year – we, local government, have to shell out big lumps of tax payers cash to SOCITM just to find out what we all collectively decided to do LAST YEAR, using the budgets from the YEAR BEFORE, when we really need to know what we should be investigating THIS YEAR because maybe its going to be big NEXT YEAR. I resent those payments and the ridiculous service it actually delivers just as much as I resent other such “clubs” that LG is collectively peer-group hi-jacked into joining such as Sitemorse.

    So, sadly while this looks like great fun ( no naming and shaming now, nor flag waving for your fave council – oh, its already started! ) its sadly going to be another grand example of self-masturbation by the LG cognoscenti – which is OK, some nuggets may evolve from it, and you didn’t have to pay a massive fee to get the information!

    But SOCITM popping up here and adding their “credence” to proceedings, oh please …

  9. Dave Post author

    Paul – I feel the need to jump to SOCITM’s defence here 😉

    I think that on balance, whilst SOCITM have struggled, like many organisations, to update itself and the way it works to meet the current needs of the technology community in local government and beyond, they are at least making great effort to do so. Commenting on this blog, for instance, would have been unheard of not too long ago.

    Plus, the great support SOCITM and Vicky personally provided to the LocalGovCamp event – which was theoretically competition to much of the business SOCITM does – was vital and welcome.

    That’s not to say that they have all the answers, of course, and there are still issues of openness, amongst others, that I feel need to be addressed. But that’ll only happen by taking a conciliatory approach, in my view.

    As for the IdeaScale being an example of local government’s onanistic tendencies… well, maybe. I dunno. It just seemed to me there were a load of ideas flying around the web after the Birmingham site launch, which were of value, but which were only published in ephemeral media like Twitter. It seemed sensible to capture that stuff, somehow, and share it with everyone who is interested. What they do with it is their business, and with cost at zero, why not?

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  13. fran

    You left out Enfield which has some great stuff for citizen interaction, as you are aware Dave.

    Me, I really liked the “life events” idea that seems to have got lost along the LGCL way somewhere. You know, “I am getting married” – links to register office, town hall venue booking, on to local churches and cake makers, links to electoral roll or crm to register address changes, onwards to the DWP etc to register name changes

    Do any “customers” care who does what between town/district/county councils, agencies, central govt