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Lessons from the best-rated council websites

Source: Public Sector Executive May/June 2013

Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council reached the top ‘four star’ ranking for council websites for the first time in Socitm’s ‘Better connected’ survey this year, and has been speaking at events about how it’s managed it. PSE caught up with the council’s web officer, Anne Jones.

Council websites can be frustrating places – but they needn’t be. Leading local authorities are showing the way, with help and encouragement from organisations like Socitm, whose ‘Better connected 2013’ survey gives thoroughly researched conclusions on what works and what doesn’t.

Simple is key. Problematic websites have too much clutter, too many drop-down menus, too many clicks, too much organisationcentric jargon, badly integrated third-party applications and information, and too much information buried in PDFs.

The best websites are ‘top tasks’ orientated – and it was a faultless implementation along these lines (along with improvements in its accessibility score) that helped Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council in Leicestershire get a four-star ranking for the fi rst time in this year’s ‘Better connected’ survey.

Its web officer Anne Jones, who spoke at the ‘Learning from Better connected 2013’ event in London on May 15, told PSE: “We’ve got top tasks on the homepage, but we’ve also implemented that through the site, so once you click on a link through the homepage, once you’ve made a choice, then you go to another page, and it narrows it down for you to make another choice from there.

“For example, paying council tax is a top task; you click on that and go to a page about paying council tax, then make another choice.

“We’ve implemented the top tasks approach throughout the whole site, and I think that’s why we got the four stars.”

Evidence, not hunches

Importantly, the council based its decisions on which top tasks to choose on actual evidence and feedback. Too many councils, Socitm’s experts say, base this on ‘hunches’, or pressure from senior directors, or organisation-centric rather than user-centric assumptions.

Top tasks will therefore differ from council to council, though some are likely to be common – paying council tax, searching planning applications and reporting potholes, for example.

The tasks chosen by Socitm’s reviewers to judge websites’ useability are listed below.

Jones said that increasing its website’s accessibility score took a lot of hard work too. She said: “We were very pleased about that, that was a hard one.

“It’s all sorts of things: colour-contrast has to be right, you need to have the right images and alt-information behind images if someone can’t see it but they can still get information about it, it’s about link text being right.

“It’s quite involved, with lots of things you need to pass.”

‘Simplify and declutter’

Speaking at the same event as Jones, Socitm’s Martin Greenwood urged those in charge of council websites to streamline, streamline, streamline.

His presentation noted: “Still the norm for a council home page is clutter, chaos and confusion. Menu after menu; overlapping subjects; cryptic labels; unexplained logos; important things hidden below the fold or buried in footers. Exhortations to ‘do it online’ or to ‘find it’ etc.

“But the answer is to simplify, de-clutter, reduce the number of menus, make things easier to use.

“Yes, top tasks are a good idea – but adding a top tasks menu in as a fifth or sixth way to navigate the home page is not that helpful.”

Simplicity was a key factor in the success of, which landed many plaudits and much favourable media coverage when it won the ‘Design of the Year’ award in April, beating 97 other entries. Judges praised its “well thought out, yet understated design”

That site is run by the Government Digital Service, also known for the ‘digital by default’ agenda – something that local authorities are increasingly focusing on too.

Asked whether it’s a priority at Hinckley & Bosworth, Jones told us: “That’s something we’re moving forward here, definitely.

“We’re working on a channel shift strategy, implementing more services into the website, and we’re looking at the mobile site, for example. It’s a work in progress at the moment.”

She added: “Just looking at where we were in say 2006 and everything we had to get in place to deliver the site we have now – it’s been a lot of work, not a five-minute job!

“You can’t just take a site and add top tasks to it: you need other things in place too, like the right people publishing, and the right content management system, and so on. There’s lots to think about.”

Web design features that dramatically increase engagement

A beautiful homepage alone isn’t enough either, however: more and more traffic is coming to landing pages directly from search engines, rather than via the council homepage. South Tyneside Council, whose principal web officer Roger Abbott also spoke at ‘Learning from Better connected 2013’, said the amount of traffic coming straight from search engines was about 60%.

He advised web officers to regularly search for their own top tasks in Google to see the results, and to ensure top task keywords ensure top task keywords are consistently placed in navigation, breadcrumb, page titles, H1 tags and the page content itself.

He also emphasised the importance of ‘call to action’ buttons and highlighted boxes, which do a fantastic job of attracting user attention. “These design features have shown to dramatically increase conversions”, his presentation said, as long as they are applied consistently throughout the website.

Task promotion and the user journey

Aideen Flynn from Socitm also spoke to explain how to improve one common top task for users, finding out about help at home.

She explained that the task needs to be split up, with essential information obvious and kept simple at first.

Socitm rates websites on both their promotion of the task (prominent signposting of task/ topic link in search results, Google search, home page, landing page and A to Z) and the journey (a logical sequencing of information, links, and web pages).

In 2012/13, fewer than half of councils managed even a ‘satisfactory’ rating for both task promotion and journey.

Here are Flynn’s suggested ‘three quick wins’ on task promotion:

1. Name the task on the social care landing page, place it above the fold and link it to the relevant web page.
2. Provide an AZ entry for ‘help at home’ or ‘care at home’ and link it to the relevant webpage.
3. Check that Google and your internal search engine is picking up the correct web page in the top three search results – if not, tweak key words etc. until it works.

A common problem for people trying to find more is websites that mix together services provided/funded by the council with those that are only provided externally.

“Make it clear who does what”, Flynn suggested, and she also provided thorough advice on the best way to present information about care assessments, eligibility criteria and so on.

Too many links too soon is another common problem – it can confuse people or scare them off from finding more if they are presented with a page of text with 12 or 15 links to other pages of fresh information straight away.

Many more hints and tips are available via Socitm, and especially via its ‘Digital Insights’ draft framework for a digital strategy.

Socitm’s reviewers investigated how easy it was to:

• Dispose of an old bed
• Reserve a library book
• Find out opening times for council tip
• Apply for a council job
• Find opening times for local swimming pool
• Find out about free nursery places
• Object to a planning application
• Find out how to apply for housing
• Apply for older person’s bus pass
• Pay parking fine
• Find out about getting help at home
• Report pothole
• Find help in starting new business
• Find out about my councillor

Task-based landing pages

For some inspiration and ideas, take a look at the websites of these councils:

• Preston
• South Tyneside
• Liverpool
• Sandwell
• Rochdale


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