Council websites not good enough for self service

Most council websites not yet good enough to support major shift to self service concludes Better connected 2010

Key results from this year’s survey are:

• Eleven sites achieve four stars, the top rating in the 2010 survey: (Allerdale BC, Brent, Buckinghamshire CC, Cambridgeshire CC, East Sussex CC, Exeter City, Newcastle upon Tyne City, Oxfordshire CC, Salford City, South Tyneside MBC, Worthing BC). (See notes below for explanation of new rating system)

• This compares with eight achieving the very similar ‘excellent’ rating last year, three of which have achieved four stars in 2010 (Allerdale BC, Salford City, and South Tyneside MBC)

• Under the new rating system, 11 sites (3percent) are rated four star, 106 (24percent) are rated three star, 200 (46percent) two star and 116 (27percent) are rated one star.

• Overall, council websites have not made significant progress since 2009. The judgement is based on comparison of standards across nine essential criteria where improvements are balanced by deterioration or evidence of little or no change.

• Council website usage appears to be rising: 80 councils using the Website take-up service saw visitors rise by 21.7percent in 2009 compared with the previous 12 months

• More than half of all councils’ answerphone messages still fail to refer callers to their websites

• 123 sites (28percent - up from 25percent last year) are rated as satisfactory or very good on accessibility, with no more than two types of failure reported.

• Of the nine new English unitary councils created on 1 April 2009, two achieve three stars, four two stars, and three one star, the best being Shropshire

The majority of council websites are not yet good enough to support the major shift to self-service required to mitigate the impact of coming budget cuts on service levels and satisfaction, concludes this year’s annual Better connected report, published on 1 March.

Shifting enquiries to the much cheaper, 24/7 available, web channel will only work if people seeking council services online can achieve what they want, and quickly. But results of this year’s survey show little evidence that councils have invested in their sites over the last 12 months to make the necessary improvements. Overall, there has been little improvement since last year and there is an increasing gap between the best and worst performing websites. The basis for this judgement is the results summarised in note xx below. 

Other data from Socitm Insight, gathered through its Website take-up service and reported in Better connected, shows that visitor satisfaction with council websites dropped by 18percent between December 2008 and December 2009, and that in December 2009 21percent of visitors to council websites did not find what they were looking for from the council website - increase in web failures of 9percent in the year since December 2008. The worst recorded failure rate was 39percent

To turn this situation around and achieve the sort of websites that will maximise channel shift to the web, councils need to focus much more on identifying and delivering the ‘top tasks’ that their website users want to achieve. A survey for Better connected 2010 into current practice shows that few councils currently follow a ‘top tasks’ approach.

The report acknowledges several developments posing new challenges to those managing websites and other forms of online communication. The impact of social media, the development of hyperlocal and community websites, the drive to open up public data for re-use, and the proliferation of mobile devices being used to access to the web, are all considered in the report.

Better connected 2010 is based largely on analysis of the annual survey of the 433 local authority websites in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that has been carried out since 1999. This year, 46 other public sector sites were also assessed, including fire and police services, PTEs, RSLs and a range of other government and third sector bodies.

As in previous years, a lengthy (120-question) survey was carried by a team of reviewers in November and December. Around half of the questions were designed to test the information content of websites by focussing on the six topics that generate the most visits to council websites, namely:

• jobs
• library services
• schools
• family history
• planning
• rubbish collection

The remainder of the questions assessed performance around the essential and other criteria used by Better connected to assess website performance, including currency, links, transactions, location, navigation, A-Z, search, and accessibility.

Results of five additional surveys, were carried out by individual members of the team outside the main survey, are reported in Better connected 2010:

• how quickly and well do councils respond to a random e-mail enquiry (see note 9 below, test carried out November 2009)
• extent to which a ‘top tasks’ approach has been effectively applied (December 2009)
• how well do out of hours phone messages promote the website (December 2009)
• how well do council websites work on mobile devices (January 2010)
• how well did council websites respond to disruption caused by severe weather (January 2010). A report on this survey has already been published with the title Twitter gritters: council use of digital channels in local emergencies.

Other information sources used for the report are:

• The Socitm Insight Website take-up service used by 121 councils (nearly 28percent of the total) in January 2010.
• Review of government forms toolkit by Effortmark
• Website accessibility review by RNIB
• Website readability tested by The Writer
• Benchmarking of various technical measures by SiteMorse
• Access to the internet data from Ipsos MORI
• Data on usage of websites from Hitwise
• Visitor feedback on 59 councils from GovMetric

Commenting on the findings of Better connected 2010, Martin Greenwood, programme manager for Socitm Insight and author of the report, said: ‘Given the urgent need for councils to deliver more for less, it is really disappointing that the performance of this lowest cost service delivery channel seems to have stagnated over the last year. This should not be taken as a criticism of web managers, many of whom do an excellent job with limited resources. Rather, responsibility lies with councils’ top management, many of whom still do not recognise the key role of the website in reducing corporate costs through the efficient management of customer enquiries.’

Better connected 2010 (the Main Report) will be available to Socitm Insight subscribers from 1 March 2010. An expanded version of all the results (the Full Results Report) will also be available from 9 March 2010, but only as an electronic version. Non-subscribers will be able to buy a printed version of the Main Report (available from mid-March) at a cost of £415 (£395 for Socitm members in non-subscribing organisations).  It can be ordered from

Spreadsheets available to subscribers include:

• A summary of the results of the main survey, together with the supporting surveys

• An index of council references contains all references to examples of good practice, entries in the lists of top sites etc, so that subscribers have a quick reference to their council

• A summary of the accessibility results brings together all the detailed information about the accessibility assessments produced from the three stages of the testing process, using the automated testing software and RNIB expertise, and highlighting those who have passed or failed the Level A and Level AA standards (and the reasons why).

For the first time, a summary of the results for all local authorities will be made available as open data under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence on .

Source: © Socitm

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