How do you Solve a Problem Like Local Government Websites

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].

access to services

Figure 1

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

[x] Designs of the Year (2013) About, [Online] Available from: http://www.designsoftheyear.com/about/ [Accessed 22 April 2013]

[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

[xv] ibid

[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]

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11 responses to “How do you Solve a Problem Like Local Government Websites

  1. The gov.uk website is certainly a huge improvement on previous offerings and to be applauded. The developers of WebCT could learn a thing or two from it too 🙂 But lest anyone should be left with the impression that centre = good, local = bad, it’s worth remembering that part of the historic reason that many local government websites are so difficult to find your way around lies with the centrally mandated Local Government Categories List which they were expected to conform to. On the face of it a sensible idea – make the navigation of local government sites the same and make it user focused. Unfortunately, it was anything but user focused. And as the person once charged with writing the page on beaches for a district council whose area includes one of several points claimed to be the absolute centre of England, I can assure you not all areas are the same!

    But actually one of the big difficulties with the LGCL was the internal politics. It quite rightly was not interested in how the authority was structured, but directors and heads of service are. And were remarkably resistant to website layouts that didn’t make it clear just how big their empire was.

    Which kind of leads me to my second point. Whilst it is really important to get local government websites right, to focus on driving down transaction costs by encouraging channel shift is to be distracted from the real possibilities that the digital era offers. The information age makes possible huge changes to the way in which public organisations are structured. The ease of exchanging information and auditing actions that it brings allows the traditional silos to be replaced by service configurations which are more decentralised and more focused around citizens’ needs, whilst retaining accountability. It’s not just about using web portals to create the illusion of user focus, but about fundamental reorganisation that actually is user focused.

    • Agreed – in fact it was little old Stockport adult social care that got in there first with a co-design approach but given the newness and scale of the gov.uk example I thought I’d focus on that (definitely not a bout of over eager centralism 🙂 )
      A page on beaches?! Mad, on the other hand though despite rules, regs and statutory what-not some local gov websites are still failing/scoring low on basic accessibility criteria so, whilst I agree daft specs of the past many have been an issue, they’re certainly not the only stone in the proverbial shoe (however, as you will see with Lucy’s comment – which I promise to publish/respond to asap! – the socitm stats are not beyond reproach)
      Also absolutely agree with your point on digital era government – there is real scope to entirely revolutionise service design and delivery, something the customer centric concept of co-design definitely feeds in to.

  2. Really interesting post – especially because this is the area I worked on in my previous job before joining the grad scheme. I just want to pick up on your comments about Socitm evaluations. A lot of LAs live and die by the number of stars Socitm give them. However, the Socitm process it flawed: it is only the opinion of ONE reviewer on ONE day. It is therefore not a balanced view of the website. Also, a lot of what they evaluate as being 5 * seems odd – you would expect a 5* website to look like Facebook, Google but a lot of the time they look like first generation websites and it is baffling to work out how on earth they got 5*s.

    • Thanks Lucy! I had a quick gander at the socitm methodology and I don’t think it’s quite that simple but I certainly believe that no bulk stats like these are unquestionable (especially in this case where I’m sure you know more about socitm than I do!)
      In terms of what counts as a 5* website I think this is a really interesting area – websites that are rated high on accessibility and ease of use are often surprisingly old fashioned looking and simplistic (gov.uk itself being a prime example!) – as long as they’ve got a powerful search function or very clear signposting, they’ll rate great on these kinds of tests – it’s also something that the co-design process for gov.uk and Stockport highlighted as being most important to citizens too.

    • I think that’s a harsh view of SOCITM’s Better Connected survey. It has a specific purpose, to assess council websites in terms of how easily citizens can use them to access the most commonly requested services—the ‘top tasks’. It is not interested in what a site looks like except where that affects the customer journey. The top tasks seem like a pretty good signal to look at in the context, and the methodology is about as robust as you can get given the essentially subjective nature of the assessment. Yes, it’s a point in time, but so are many evaluations (an MOT, a medical). And there do seem to be processes in place to ensure consistency. The big problem that I do think it has is that it is carried out by SOCITM.

      In the case of the Better Connected survey, that is perhaps not such a big deal—they do have the expertise to assess accessibility for example. But in a wider context it seems to me that SOCITM is trying to position itself and its members at the heart of digital era governance, with campaigns such as Planting the Flag. To me, DEG should not be centred around ITC or ITC professionals. It is about service delivery and citizens. ITC enables it, but it is not at the heart of it and should not dictate its direction. DEG is fundamentally about governance—the digital bit is just about the era it is happening in.

      • Obviously SOCITM aren’t as simplistic as I’m describing but what I’ve described is what many LAs find difficult with SOCITM. A team spends a whole year (in some cases) reviewing the pages in light of the most up to date SOCITM to only then get a worse star rating. This isn’t a good use of time – especially when SOCITM are currently the only recognised opinion in this field.

        To judge a website on customer journey alone and not how aesthetically appealing it is is short sighted – and in my opinion completely ridiculous. A website that has an easy customer journey is great – but it’s star rating should be given with a weighting given to how it looks. Would people use Facebook as much if it looked like a first generation website? Some would but many wouldn’t – in my opinion.

      • It’s an interesting thought (though perhaps wondering off topic a bit). What is the purpose of a council website? And how does looking pretty contribute to that purpose? I guess my answer to the first question is to deliver information and services to citizens. And to the second, I’m not sure it does. I hear your point that aesthetics may attract use, but actually I’m not sure that people are that shallow. Perhaps there’s a dissertation topic in there! My suspicion is that more people will be put off using a council site by poor usability than will be attracted to it by aesthetics. I’m not saying don’t make council sites pretty too, just that it’s not really an important criterion for evaluation, when looked at in terms of the core purpose of a council website.

  3. Really interesting blog Henerietta. I was just thinking about how efficient channel shift really is? I agree that fundamentally it makes sense especially given user preference for such technology. However, there seems to be many examples of websites which are counter intuitive and not user friendly providing a real problem. This is not to mention the need to help those who are not IT savvy in shifting and what happens when the technology fails? The worry is many users may give up and hence their needs are most definately not met or calls are made to IT help desks which require resources that would suggest a serious inefficiency- previously a call would be made and job done. However, once that call is made and someone shown ‘how to’ one would assume the customer is equipped to use the technology independently in the future, this is a very good thing and likely to be a skill that transfers to other areas! I do think though that organisations need to test new technology thoroughly using citizens as you suggest through a co-production approach and systems such as those which follow mouse clicks to identify where users have become unstuck seem like a very good idea.

    • Thanks Rebecca! I definitely agree that channel shift is a challenge and without efficient, appropriately deployed systems to back it up, it can seem more trouble than it’s worth. Unfortunately, it’s not really a choice for local govt and the public sector any more, what with pressure from cental govt to make citizen-focused transactional services digital by default and, generally speaking, the public’s expectations regarding online service. You’re definitely right to raise the issue of those who aren’t IT savvy though – latest ONS stats (Q4 2012) show that 15% of the population have never used the internet. The number is falling year in year but given that the vast majority in this category are 75+ and therefore highly likely to have more to do with public services than the average adult, adequate support and access to the more traditional modes of contact/service delivery are still crucial. Gov.UK is great and all, but I know my granny wouldn’t have a clue how to use it (or any other website for that matter!)

      • Hi again – I just wanted to pick up on the 15% never using the Internet/know how to. Hertfordshire county council are doing a huge amount in this area – there is a news story on our webpage promoting ways to get online. Digital inclusion is a really big topic at our council. There are also some LAs that are breaking the mould with their websites – I think Lancashire is one and Tameside another – Barnet also has a new design which is becoming popular. Crucially though I think there needs to be more than one authority on this – SOCITM should not be the sole judgment.
        I also agree with what you’ve said, Rebecca – websites can be counter efficient if people end up calling the CSC for help. Really thorough used testing is needed – again something HCC are really pushing.
        Interesting blog though for me because this is my background!

  4. This is a really interesting blog post Henrietta! I completely agree that adopting a co-production approach can be extremely beneficial. It is amazing to think that there has been £300,000 per year savings by using a co-production approach for Stockport Council’s adult social care website. The benefits of engaging citizens within the website design process not only delivers efficiency savings but also makes websites more user friendly and responsive to the public’s needs and so needs to become standard practise within the public sector.

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