Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

Hot on the heels of their (always hotly debated) annual report on the state of local government websites (Better Connected 2010), we were pleased to welcome SOCITM reviewer John Fox to a workshop session this morning to provide what he described as a “web content ra-ra-ra presentation”.

Disclaimer – I haven’t had the chance to read the full #BC10 report yet. I hope to add my own perspectives to this blog once I have. What follows is a summary of John’s presentation on the report and what he thinks it means for local authorities.

Summarising the report, John spoke about the negative headlines that we can expect to see coming out of this year’s findings, which stated:

‘Given the urgent need for councils to deliver more for less, it is really disappointing that the performance of this lowest cost service delivery channel seems to have stagnated over the last year. This should not be taken as a criticism of web managers, many of whom do an excellent job with limited resources. Rather, responsibility lies with councils’ top management, many of whom still do not recognise the key role of the website in reducing corporate costs through the efficient management of customer enquiries.’

Martin Greenwood, SOCITM Insight programme manager

Indeed, such headlines are already cropping up:

But John was quick to reiterate the point that the criticism isn’t aimed at the hard-working web teams across the country, but rather the management figures who are holding back the development of this vital channel. The middle management strata, John suggested, is full of people who simply ‘don’t get the web’ – and no matter how dedicated your webteams are, or how much buy-in you have from the very top, this is always going to be a major problem.

Why is the web so important in local gov?

Now more than ever, the web must be seen as a vital channel for service delivery. With local authority cutbacks looking like they may be as drastic as 20% in some areas, the need for self service is critical. This is closely tied into the concept of avoidable contact – where people help themselves to information online at a far lower cost that requesting it directly from a member of staff.

And the figures are impressive. SOCITM estimate that whilst a web transaction costs an authority just 39p on average, the equivalent transaction by telephone costs £3.21 and a face to face encounter sets us back a whopping £8.23 (Source: SOCITM Insight, Dec 2009). Of course, some people will always want, or need, to use the more traditional channels, but the web is a vital addition. And currently, despite being the cheapest channel, the web continues to also be the one that delivers the highest levels of failure and dissatisfaction.

Taking actual stats from SOCITM’s Insight take-up service, John showed how, year on year, people appear to be finding less of what they want on local gov sites, with satisfaction levels also dropping. In terms of numbers, one metropolitan district had a failure rate of 36% (people who said they did not find what they wanted). This translated to 43,018 visitors, and if we assume all of these people were forced to make contact with the authority in a different way, the cost implications are huge.

How good are local gov websites?

The SOCITM process assesses whether a site is useful, usable and used. It uses a main survey of 120 questions, carried out by 12 reviewers, with 5 supplementary surveys and additional data (for example, from accessibility tests carried out with the RNIB). A total of 433 local authority websites were assessed.

The report uses a new 4-star ranking system, with 9 essential criteria:

  • Information
  • Links elsewhere
  • Currency
  • Transactions
  • Use of A to Z list
  • Use of search engine
  • Navigation
  • Use of location
  • Accessibility

The report is intended to help councils understand the state of their own development, and with nearly 50% of sites getting just 2 stars, there is plenty of room for improvement. Only 12 got the full 4 stars this year.

Map of results

Stuart Harrison’s mash-up of Better Connected 2010 results

Best practices

John talked us through a number of good examples of sites that had done well, and reported on feedback from the reviewers which praised sites for:

  • clear, consistent navigation
  • good A-Zs
  • high standards of content
  • a pleasurable overall experience
  • useful eServices
  • good locational information

John used Allerdale BC, East Sussex CC and South Tyneside MBC to highlight some of these good points – these all got 4 stars and are worth a look.

Allerdale Borough Council website

Allerdale Borough Council - getting it right, says SOCITM

Changing to a web culture

John mentioned a number of things that we need to be doing to bring about the cultural change necessary to support the web as the principal customer service channel.

Perhaps the most fundamental is to “think customer”. The web should be 100% about the user and their needs. Everything we do on the web should be for our citizens. This potentially means rethinking a lot of the content we currently offer.

Also, service providers need to “think web”. Posting info to the website shouldn’t be an after thought, or a box-ticking exercise. It should be at the heart of everyone’s processes.

Next, we need to advocate the web to our colleagues, who in turn need to advocate it to their service users. We need to sell the benefits, and promote the channel wherever possible. An obvious example is if someone receives a phone call about something that is available on the web – use that opportunity to promote the website, so that next time the contact can be avoided and the user can benefit from all the other content on there.

The customer journey

There was time for a look at a few more good and bad examples of content, before a final consideration of the customer journey. Wycombe DC was given as a good example of delivering a strong focus on task management – enabling citizens to quickly do what they need to do online.

Salford’s postcode search was another good example of providing additional functionality, pulling in maps, democratic info, refuse collection times, local facilities such as schools and community centres, whilst also linking to key online tasks such as council tax and planning applications. Such “find my nearest…” searches are becoming increasingly useful as data can be brought in from a number of sources, and are a great way of presenting a broad range of relevant information on a local gov website.

Finally, a mention of the fact that the customer journey may go beyond our own site. What if the service is provided by a different organisation? Are we providing links to related info and other sites, to help our customers get the information they need, wherever it may be? This can have its own challenges in terms of sustainability and accuracy, but is another example of providing an excellent, and complete, customer service online.

John’s presentation came at an opportune time – we are currently working towards implementing a replacement system for our websites and taking a long, hard look at both our web content and our customer’s experience of interacting with us online. We may have only got 2 stars this year, but I look forward to seeing where we rank in BC2011.

More thoughts on the Better Connected 2010 report to follow soon. In the meantime, local gov bods can log onto Communities of Practice to follow some interesting #BC10 discussions there.

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5 Responses to Better Connected 2010 and the changing web

  1. Ian Cuddy says:

    Interesting reading James.

    I disagree with Martin Greenwood on that a) local government are apparently ‘stagnating’ and b) this is somehow due to council’s senior management failing to appreciate the value of the web channel.

    A more likely explanation is that the large amount of money/central government funding which spurred the huge jumps in developments in previous years aren;tt there anymore!

    Between 2001-2005 councils had to move from 0 to 100% e-delivery of services AND implement the ODPM Local eGov Priority Outcomes. I very much doubt we’ll witness that level of progress ever again.

    Let’s not forget that the previous flurry of web development wasn’t necessarily a good thing. To meet the 2005 targets many councils had to rush things through with no consideration of business process redesign, usability, back-office integration, take-up or value-for-money Even now, local authorities are still unpicking the legacy of this short-sighted, top-down, centrally-drive, point solutions-based approach. To blame everything now on council’s top brass is incredibly simplistic.

    It’s also interesting to see Socitm acknowledging council web teams work on limited resources – though the Better Connected results do not take into account at all the wide variations in web budgets that different council web teams have available to them to improve their websites.

  2. James, thanks for this report – excellent and Ian, I think your point about taking web budget into account (and presumably web team size etc etc) is excellent. Certainly worth further consideration.

  3. Peter Barton says:

    Blimey! Is that a tone of contrition from Mr Greenwood? Has he suddenly decided to stop hitting his clients. Whatever: I like the fresh approach.

    Having lived through all of the ‘noughties’ in Local Government web production, and many years before in commerce, I believe the true block to progress of local government web sites – assuming you believe there is one – lies within departments who cant, or wont produce content that is really meaningful to clients. There is still a desire to write stuff which polishes egos, stuff which contains local authority gibberish and stuff which is more about ‘us’ than it is about what users/clients/customers/citizens want.

    On top of that layer is the desire of the rank amateur to interfere. Why would a social worker ( for example) think they can design a good web site, or even pages, which comply with everything we have to comply with and still do the required job? Would that social worker let me look after people in care? No. They would be barking if they did.

    Web is what I and others do for a living. It’s what we are paid to do and looking at the results it’s what we do pretty well. And yet there is a regular struggle in most web teams I would guess to get that over.

    This meddling ( perhaps too strong a word) leads people to go off and spend ( and waste ) money on inappropriate web sites because a commercial company may not argue quite so much at what they want to produce. Never mind the quality feel the width sort of thing. I’m sure many web managers have to pick up stuff previously built by outside companies to make it functional, complaint and cost effective or even after that ‘zappy little web company’ has gone bust and the pages cant be updated anymore.

    Local Government is the last bastion of the meddling amateur. Don’t get me wrong…what the individuals do they do extremely well. Their core business so to speak, but why oh why do they think they are good at web design, desk top publishing, graphic design, accessibility, usability, coding, SEO and so on?

    Do what you do well and leave the rest to those who are paid to do it has long been my maxim. Save time, save face and save money.

    We have a new phrase in our office. We describe ourselves self deprecatingly as being “one criteria short of a 4 star”. It describes the web site, the web team, and particularly me, pretty well.

  4. Peter, I agree that in local government we have a plethora of self-styled web experts, but using data to demonstrate what customers need seems to be a tactic that works well for us. E.g. Google Analytics, word clouds of search terms used, SOCITM feedback, remote usability test results or observing/recording moderated usability testing sessions.

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