Tag Archives: socitm

Council websites become more citizen-centric

There has been a strong shift over the past five years in the design and layout of council websites to a more user-centric model. Many councils are taking note of a variety of factors that influence how residents use their websites. Accessibility for visually disabled people, mobile access and other considerations are important factors for councils who want to follow the ‘digital by default’ mandate and serve their website customers well.

We’ve been watching this trend with interest, and have compiled a few examples of great council websites.

Manchester City Council

Manchester City Council recently launched a fantastic new website, which targets the needs of residents first. Based on research carried out by the council, the new site replaces a four-year-old version that users considered outdated and difficult to navigate, especially on mobile devices.

The council’s research found that 80% of users used the site primarily to complete simple tasks, such as to request a new wheelie bin or pay a bill. Taking this on board, the new site was designed around resident services, not around the council’s structure, making it easy for people to do their business fast.

The new council homepage features nine large and clear ‘app’ like icons that link to the top services residents use, including taxes, bins, roads, education benefits and planning. A ‘can’t find it’ link under the icons reveals another fifteen services without taking residents away from the homepage.

Manchester City Council website
Manchester City Council website

A bonus of this resident-centric design is that the large icons, contrasting colours and large font make the website highly accessible, meeting government standards and, more importantly, resident needs.

Rochdale Council

Rochdale has taken a similar, if slightly less high-tech approach, by also incorporating the use of icons to help users navigate around their website:

Rochdale Council website
Rochdale Council website

The use of clear, simple visual cues helps the council’s site reach far more citizens, and is useful to visitors for whom English is not their first language.

Medway City Council

Medway relaunched their website in 2010, and in March of this year was awarded four out of four stars for usability and accessibility, among other things, by Socitm. The site’s clear layout and the council’s strong, consistent use of social media also went some way towards their site being billed one of the best in the UK.

Medway Council website
Medway Council website

While it seems logical that council websites should exist first to serve their communities, many organisations still struggle to get past the ‘ego’ factor, designing sites around their organisational structure instead of their service provision.

Socitm, the association of public sector IT managers, carry out a great deal of research around council websites, and produce the annual Better Connected benchmarking report, which is a survey of over 400 UK councils. The purpose of the report is to identify best practice in digital service delivery by councils. Socitm’s research found that councils are losing up to £11m a month due to poor website design. This cost is incurred because people are forced to communicate with these councils by phone or in person, which is far more expensive than having services automated by a well-designed website.

Another aspect covered by Socitm’s research is mobile accessibility. More and more websites are taking this into account when redesigning their site. For example, the Manchester City Council website has been designed to overcome mobile issues, understanding that many residents use mobile devices to access the internet. Using responsive technology, the website recognises the type of device customers are using and reformats the layout and content accordingly.

We look forward to seeing more clean and modern site design over the coming years, as it links with our passion for empowering citizens to work better with their local councils. The easier it is for a person to engage with their local authority, the more likely it is for that person to take part in a consultation or other engagement activity.

Crowdsourcing quick wins for government ICT strategy with SOCITM

I went along to a SOCITM South West event in Exeter last Friday where local authority IT managers were encouraged and challenged to think about the role of ICT in the new world of budget cuts and the big society; specifically, they were asked to try and come up with some possible ‘quick win’ project ideas.

It was really interesting to sit in and get a bit of a view from the ground, but also especially to hear from Jos Creese, SOCITM president, who very clearly and quickly articulated a compelling vision for the central role of ICT in the transformational/cultural change in local service delivery being demanded by the new government. It’s worth seeking out some of his chat if you can (I can’t immediately track down anything from Friday).

I think the final set of project suggestions put forward by the group are still being written but I thought I’d briefly share three of my ideas to encourage innovation – which, perhaps unsurprisingly, met with a mixed reception! These were more about trying to get people thinking in a different way, though, which I think is always a useful thing to do, even if it’s just so that you can dismiss the approach from a position of information rather than prejudice…

  1. Contribute to an open source project
    There’s so much that could be gained by doing this that it seems probably the easiest of easy wins to me. Council staff would increase their understanding of open source software, and probably their trust of it; they would learn a lot about remote working, different development approaches, collaborative problem-solving, rapid iterations etc etc – and all this whilst building something that could be of tangible benefit to their organisation. Think a useful facility in a CMS would be the ability to identify files that need to be tagged for compliance with a government risk management scheme? Why not build it yourself?
    (By the way, the biggest objection to this seemed to be ‘but people will be cross that we’re not in the council building doing our busywork’. If that’s the case, I couldn’t help but wonder, how are you able to happily take a day out for an event in Exeter?)
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  3. Develop a Spotify-style/apps approach and bundle up your service in easy, bitesize chunks (maybe sell it, too?)
    This idea seemed to be seen as one or several leaps of logic too far, but at the same time I think it’s quite likely to actually come about, possibly even as policy. Have a look, for example, at some of the TSB funding streams, or the Big Society Network‘s talk of a ‘big society store’.Anyway, in short, I’d love to see what local government could come up with in terms of simple apps to enable their community to do things – taking common points of interaction with the council, or useful data that is available, and packaging it up in a simple, useful, accessible tool. I don’t know, it could be providing alerts on planning applications in a given postcode to landlords, or an organagram builder for community groups to self-organise and register their membership. 

    I think there’s lots about this that is going to be seen as desirable in the near future: the ‘hyperlocal’ approach, putting speed and simplicity first, getting discrete things done rather than trying to build an uber-system. I also think it’d be a great exercise in training council staff about user-centric design. Also, a lot of this is just common sense with the web as it is now (for example, I did find myself cringing at one point when we saw a presentation of a workflow module for a £300k contact management system for reporting of local problems – you just think ‘this isn’t necessary or easy. Just use MySociety’s FixMyStreet already’).

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  5. Invert your firewall
    OK, so this one is a little flippant, but I’d certainly be interested to see what would happen if you shut down access to all the enormous internal management systems and opened up Facebook, Twitter and YouTube instead. Might we find that social media can be a more human and quicker way to run large parts of customer contact? Might spending a little more time in places where residents actually converse, rather than staring at workflows and system messages, have an influence on the way staff talk to people? I don’t know but, like I say, trying and finding out is better than assuming.