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Good content without the complexity: making council websites better

Source: Public Sector Executive April/May 2014

After three years of modest annual improvement, the quality of council websites has taken a tumble in the latest Socitm ‘Better connected’ survey. PSE found out why from Socitm Insight’s director Martin Greenwood.

The quality of local authority website performance has slipped back in 2014, according to the most in-depth and authoritative annual survey, ‘Better connected’ by Socitm, the society of public sector IT managers. The survey, which always grabs attention, is now in its 16th year.

The factor driving the poorer performance this year is mobile and tablet access to council websites: despite these devices now accounting for 35-40% of visits to council sites, many simply do not offer a good enough user experience.

Martin Greenwood edits the survey and leads Socitm’s Insight division. He told PSE:  “Councils are struggling to keep up with the mobile change. We’ve not raised the bar ourselves – we’ve raised the bar because everybody out there using council websites
has raised the bar. There’s been a gradual increase in access by mobile devices, including tablets, and that’s edging up every month – it’s now in the 38-40% range. Last year it was 30%. Councils are struggling to keep up with that. It’s a major change and it’s having real impact and knock-on effects.”

There are problems for general users of council websites who access them via mobile devices, as well as those with specific accessibility requirements. On the plus side, there has been “significant improvement” in the use of search.

The results show that 31 councils (8% of the total) achieved the top, four-star ranking; a further 157 sites achieved three stars (38%); 133 (32%) achieved two stars; and there were 89 sites that only managed one star (22%).

Top tasks

Socitm’s reviewers focus particularly on council websites’ ability to handle ‘top tasks’: the kinds of reasons that most people visit council websites in the first place. The top tasks agenda has been very important in public sector web development for years, and its impact is also clearly visible in the award-winning redesign.

Greenwood said: “If you talk to people at councils, the idea of top tasks has become part of their common language. But I actually think there are still too many people who don’t really understand it – or at least, they’re not in a position to apply that and re-think their information architecture properly.”

He said there are still “far too many” councils using the scrapped Local Government Navigation List (LGNL), an attempt in the early 2000s to impose a standard structure on council websites. Socitm has been critical of the LGNL for years, saying that amongst other problems, its key terms tend to be those used by council employees, not the general public.

Greenwood said: “Even at the time I thought it was fundamentally flawed. If it wasn’t then, it’s certainly become so, but there are still people who are using it. It’s directly in contradiction to applying top tasks.

“Many sites have got something like the old LGNL architecture, but also something like top tasks. But actually, adding a new mechanism on top of existing mechanisms makes things worse, not better! The focus should be on clarity and simplicity, on cutting out steps.

“Some people may understand the rationale for top tasks, but might not have the opportunity to persuade people to spend some money on re-thinking the information architecture. They may be painfully aware of these problems, but the reality is, their websites are lagging behind.”

There was a big variation in performance on the top tasks, as the table shows. Applying for primary school places may have done particularly well because of the historic focus and national tracking of that during the Labour government years. But others, like reporting fly-tipping from a mobile device, performed very poorly.

Public vs private

The survey does not specifically look into who manages and designs council websites, but we asked Greenwood for his personal feeling on how private sector involvement affects website quality, versus more in-house design and management.

He said: “I can’t prove this, but my feeling is that on the whole private sector involvement makes things worse, not better. Where it works is if you’ve got one or two people, particular the web manager, who are passionate about usability and realise its importance, who are able to ‘shake things up’ inside the organisation or do whatever is required. It’s not a question of resources, because there are some small councils’ websites that are very good, and bigger, better-resourced sites that are poor.

“The biggest bugbear without a doubt for people in councils is using third party applications and services. Often, they’re not really fit for purpose, and even when they are, they’re not well-integrated.

“Where they are better integrated, the difference tends to be the attitude of the web manager.”


Clearly local authority leaders and finance chiefs have many pressing concerns right now, such as how to deliver decent services under huge budget pressures. Are they bothered if their websites don’t offer the best possible experience to users?

We asked Greenwood whether cash-strapped councils do think a usable, high-quality website is worth spending money on.

He said: “Some do, some don’t. There are too many places where senior management don’t really understand that a really significant part of their business is conducted online these days.

“If there were long queues in their ‘one stop shops’ customer service centres, they’d pretty quickly do something about. But the online equivalent of those queues – poor navigation – is invisible to senior management, to a large extent. Web managers are not,
generally speaking, asked the right questions by the people they report to. Managing a website is not rocket science, in terms of performance information.

“Managers know to ask the right question about call centre performance, queuing times and so on, because they understand that – the same does not apply for their websites. That leaves a void. Some web managers just ignore it, while others try to do something about it but end up using technical jargon, which is a total turn-off.”

A single website for all councils?

Over the years, many people have advocated a radical shift to a single website for all local government. A recent example came from Richard Copley, who attracted a lot of attention with his recent blogpost on the subject, which went into some detail on how it could be done, starting with information distribution before moving onto the much more tricky element of transactional services.

He said: “Who could lead on Local GDS? It’s got to be Socitm hasn’t it? A ready made team of experts in digital government who know what’s needed to transform Local Gov and who are champing at the bit to get cracking.”

But Martin Greenwood was scathing about the idea, calling it “a total waste of time, it’s never going to happen – and nor should it”.
He added: “However, there is scope for a lot more ‘intelligent sharing’, and looking at the pros and cons of working together nationally and regionally. There are some examples, but also examples of it not working.

“It’s a bit haphazard: it doesn’t happen through any properly planned process at the moment. Where sharing takes place, it’s usually done to reduce cost. But if it doesn’t lead to a better quality service and a better experience, it’s an utter waste of time.

“The best council websites have taken on board the idea of making things simple and clear, of getting rid of complexity, of having the right content. That’s the way to go.”

How the survey is conducted

Using a structured survey of 259 questions, Socitm’s reviewers explored how quickly and easily they could complete a series of top tasks. These are things research shows most visitors to council websites want to do.

The full list of top tasks can be seen in the table on the facing page. Of these, according to type of council, up to nine were tested for each council, including two from mobile devices. The percentage grade in the table shows the number of councils that enabled reviewers to find and complete the task successfully, achieving the standard.

For each task reviewers tested the ease of: finding the task (arrival from Google, use of internal search, use of A to Z, use of
information architecture and use of landing pages); and completing the task (step-by-step customer journey to completion, promotion of online option, assessment of supporting information).

A star ranking is given to each site based on: the number of successful customer journeys recorded for ‘top tasks’ tested; the
number of usability criteria achieved, comprising navigation for top tasks, use of search engine, use of A to Z list, and accessibility of the site for disabled people; overall reviewer rating of the site, from 1 (poor) to 3 (very good).

The Top 20

Socitm’s list of the top 20 best-developed websites provides a broad benchmark for others and some best practice in action.

Adur & Worthing

Allerdale BC

Blaby DC

East Renfrewshire

East Riding of Yorkshire

Eden DC

The City of Edinburgh


Hinckley & Bosworth BC

King’s Lynn & West Norfolk BC

Leicester City 


North Ayrshire

Oxfordshire CC

Preston City

Sandwell MBC

Scottish Borders

South Oxfordshire DC

West Dorset DC

Wigan MBC

Using a shorter questionnaire based on the local authority survey, Socitm also investigated websites from some other subscriber organisations: eight fire services, eight registered social landlords, five devolved administrations, five government bodies outside England, three central government bodies in England, two passenger transport executives, two regional government bodies in England, two education organisations, two voluntary organisations, two police services, two NHS organisations, and two overseas
local authorities.

Ten “exceptionally good” websites were noted as having the equivalent of at least a three star ranking. These were:

Cheshire Fire & Rescue Service

West Yorkshire PTE

Futures Housing Group

Northern Ireland Housing Executive

South Yorkshire Police

Charity Commission for England & Wales

States of Jersey

University of Newcastle

Kingston University



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