Local Government has, shall we say, had mixed success with its ventures into online portals. Historically issues have ranged from poor contract management leading to ballooning production and maintenance costs (as seen in Birmingham City Council’s £6million website debacle[i]) to just plain poor quality service. As recent research by Socitm shows many Local Authority websites remain, to be polite, less than perfect, failing basic accessibility and information seeking tests[ii].
There are, however, still numerous reasons why local authorities should continue to develop and improve the performance of their online offerings, both from a customer-centric and managerial perspective. The administrative reality of local government services is that services are often quite separate, for instance: the department responsible for free nursery places is unlikely to have much to do with waste disposal. From a customer-focus perspective, effective local government websites can offer an integrated service model or “one-stop shop” approach, vastly improving ease of access to information and modes of participation[iii]. As figure 1 illustrates, web portals can allow citizens to access information and services from across the whole organisation in one place rather than chasing around different departments and websites.
From a public management perspective, effective web portals can be far more cost efficient than traditional service delivery. By transferring their service delivery online (whether it be simple access to information or formal transactions such as paying council tax) local authorities can significantly reduce costs per transaction (both in terms of financial cost and time) for both the public sector and citizens[iv]. At a time when local governments are being forced to make tough budgetary decisions it makes perfect sense that they should attempt to improve their digital offerings and further capitalise on the potential efficiency savings. This is particularly important given that they are also currently being pressured by central government into making many services “digital by default”[v].
However, the data from Soctim suggests otherwise; the overall number of high quality local authority websites actually decreased between 2012 and 2013[vi]. Unfortunately, as much e-government and diffusion of innovation theory demonstrates[vii][viii][ix]; unless local government websites represent significant relative advantage over other modes of contact and service delivery, they will not be taken up by a high enough percentage of the population to maximise the potential efficiency savings. Put simply; where local government websites are clunky, confusing or frustrating citizens simply won’t use them.
So what can be done about it? Well local authorities could take a leaf out of Gov.UK’s book for a start.
Like local government websites, national government web portals have experienced their fair share of troubles. Some readers may recall the issues over the now defunct Business Link website which, over the first three years of its life, cost the tax payer approximately £105million, hardly cost effective. Despite this chequered past Gov.uk (which now hosts Business Link) is making history. Last week the brand new UK Government website won the prestigious Design of the Year Award 2013. The Award, run by the Design Museum , seeks to recognise innovative, forward thinking and interesting design in everything from fashion to transport. This is the first time that the overall winner has been a website, let alone a product of the public sector[x]. The way the designers did it was simple: co-design.
Co-designing a service (or in this case an entire online portal including elements of online service design) involves harnessing the experiences of users in the design process, going far beyond traditional consultation. It assumes that ‘nobody knows better how public services should be designed than service users and their families, friends and the communities they live in’[xi]. In the case of Gov.UK, throughout the Alpha and Beta testing stages, a dedicated online forum platform, email address, twitter account and blog were set up to gather ideas, feedback and problems encountered from the general public. The designers were in continuous dialogue with members of the public and responded promptly to concerns, collating them and factoring them into the overall design[xii]. The end result? What one Design of the Year Award 2013 judge referred to as ‘the Paul Smith of websites’[xiii].
Co-design is not in itself a revolutionary idea (although infrequently applied), nor is this the first public sector web initiative to utilise it effectively; Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council used a similar approach in designing its Adult Social Care website[xiv]. In both cases the new websites have been shown to generate vast efficiency savings over their predecessors[xv][xvi].
There are, of course, additional staffing costs to take into account when considering implementing a co-design approach. But, in terms of additional materials, given that the cost of setting up the online forum much of the Gov.UK consultation activity took place on was $19 a month, it was clearly very much worth it.
Now has never been a better time for local authorities to re-evaluate their online service delivery and web portals. With the introduction of the “G-Cloud” (the UK Government’s Cloud Store for procuring digital services) and its preference for SME providers, short term contracts and open-source technology[xvii], the days of the bloated, inefficient, “locked-in” contracts with underperforming suppliers are becoming a thing of the past. By utilising this relative security in procurement and boosting the targeted efficiency of the final product through obliging providers to use co-design, local authorities have a very real opportunity to make a big difference to the cost and efficiency of their services via the virtual world.
[i] Dale, P. (2009), Website Problems Cost Birmingham City Council £6million, The Birmingham Post, 19th October 2009 [Online] Available from: http://www.birminghampost.net/news/newsaggregator/2009/10/19/website-problems-cost-birmingham-city-council-6million-65233-24960284/ [Accessed 22 April 2013]
[ii] Socitm (2013) Better Connected 2013, [Online] Available from: http://www.socitm.net/news/article/175/better_connected_2013_available_now[Accessed 22 April 2013]
[iii] P. 149-50 Wimmer, M. (2002) Integrated Service Modelling for Online One-Stop Government, Electronic Markets, 12(3):149-156
[iv] P.132, Kernaghan, K. (2013) Changing Channels: Managing Chanel Integration and Migration in Public Organisations
[v] P. 18 Cabinet Office (2011), Government ICT Strategy March 2011, London: Cabinet Office, Available From: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/uk-government-government-ict-strategy_0.pdf [Accessed 22 April 2013]
[vi] Socitm (2013) Local government not signed up to ‘digital by default’ agenda suggest results from latest Better connected survey of council website performance, Press Release, [Online] Available from: http://www.socitm.net/press/article/231/local_government_not_signed_up_to_digital_by_default_agenda_suggest_results_from_latest_better_connected_survey_of_council_website_performance [Accessed 22 April 2013]
[vii] Rogers, E. M. (2003), Diffusion of Innovation, (5th edn), New York: Free Press
[viii] Carter, L., and Belanger, F. (2005). The utilization of e-government services: citizen trust, innovation and acceptance factors. Information Systems Journal, 15 (1):5–25
[ix] Gilbert, D., Balestrini, P., and Littleboy, D. (2004) Barriers and Benefits in the Adoption of E-Government, The International Journal of Public Sector Management, 17(4):286-301
[xi] P.9 Bovarid, T. and Loeffler, E. (2012) We’re all in this Together: User and Community Co-Production, Institute of Local Government Studies and Third Sector Research Centre Discussion Paper, Birmingham: University of Birmingham
[xii] Mann, D (2012) Case Study: Collecting User Feedback on Alpha and Beta Versions of Gov.UK, Available from: http://openpolicy.demsoc.org/2012/11/08/case-study-government-digital-service-gds/ [Accessed 22 April 2013]
[xiii] Unknown (2013) Gov.UK Wins Design of the Year Award, BBC, 17 April 2013
[xiv] P.9 Bovarid, T. and Loeffler, E. (2012) We’re all in this Together: User and Community Co-Production, Institute of Local Government Studies and Third Sector Research Centre Discussion Paper, Birmingham: University of Birmingham
[xvi] Cabinet Office (2012) Digital Efficiency Report: November 2012, [Online] Available from: http://publications.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/digital/efficiency/#introduction [Accessed 22 April 2013]
[xvii] HM Government (2011), Government Cloud Strategy March 2011, Available From: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/government-cloud-strategy_0.pdf [Accessed 22 April 2013]