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Access for all to council websites

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2013

Colin Stenning, digital services manager at Bracknell Forest Council, explains how services can be delivered online while minimising the digital divide.

To save time and money, many councils across the UK are going ‘digital by default’ and moving more of their services online.

Yet in doing so, there’s a danger of creating a ‘them and us’ culture; a digital divide where the tech-savvy thrive and the less able suffer. It’s therefore vital that we get the balance right by keeping face-to-face and telephone services where needed and ensuring online services are accessible, easy-to-use and up-to-date.

While central government is working toward this with the introduction of the single address, many council websites are falling short of the requirement to ensure ease of access and encourage take up, with visitors increasingly dissatisfied at a time when the public sector is endeavouring to increase services online.

The National Audit Office says this dissatisfaction stems from a lack of awareness among users, a reluctance to provide information online and a preference for face-to-face communications. The question is, how can we overcome these barriers? Is it possible to convince people that visiting a website can actually be much easier than visiting an office or making a call?

While there will always be a minority of people who don’t use the internet, Bracknell Forest Council has seen a 45% take-up of online services by local residents since launching its new website in spring 2012. Working in partnership with design agency Nomensa, the council transformed its services to become digital by default while earning a reputation for offering high-quality, responsive, convenient and up-to-date services. The council found that with the right approach, services can go online without compounding digital exclusion.

When we began the process of transforming the website, the incumbent site was six years old and had become bloated with content, making it difficult to find information or to complete online transactions. The website also needed reviewing to ensure it was accessible to all.

By following a thorough and proven design process from the start, which included valuable input from local residents, we were able to ensure value for money by avoiding costly design and build mistakes down the line.

The result is intuitive and provides easy access to information, whether on a desktop or mobile device, improving customer service, satisfaction and experience.

We worked with Nomensa on a round of user testing and refinements to the design, involving local residents throughout the project to get their feedback on design concepts and help select the final design for the website.

We ensured the services and information local residents needed were clearly represented and their feedback was incorporated on the website.

The new website has improved search functions and the content has been re-written in plain English to allow tasks to be completed quickly and easily. The site has integrated social media elements and is accessible through the inclusion of a style switcher, which includes alternative font sizes and colour schemes, so the website works for people with a wide variety of visual impairments.

The end result was a leaner and easier to use website, cutting out over two-thirds of the previous content. It was approved by the Plain English Campaign and accredited for its accessibility by the Shaw Trust, following testing by people with a wide range of disabilities.

We have also received the top four star rating from the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) in the Better Connected survey, a prestigious annual report which identified the quality and performance of 433 council services online.

Digitising transactional services has the capability to save the public sector time and money; by making transactions faster, reducing the number of failed transactions and simplifying the end-to-end process. By following a digital by default strategy, this can improve the user experience and introduce a wider range of high quality digital services.


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