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Local authority internet services are showing signs of improvement, though the overall level of progress is slowing, a major survey reveals.

The eighth annual Socitm Insight survey of local authority websites - Better Connected 2006 - also concluded that general improvements in the functionality of council websites is being offset by a reduction in overall usability.

The survey found that a total of 60 councils now offer the highest level of 'transactional' website where customers can access council services online. This figure has increased from 38 last year and in London alone it means that more than four-in-ten councils are now rated as transactional.

But beneath this highest level the survey found that improvement has stagnated. For example, the number of councils with "content plus" sites (the level below transactional) remained the same over the past year at 226, while the number of content sites (the second to lowest rating) fell by only 11.

The survey's tests of website usability rated 70 per cent good or satisfactory, an increase on last year's results.

However, tests on council search engines showed only one-in-ten sites could find the four most common terms researchers believed any local authority site should be able to handle.

And just over three-fifths of authorities achieved a level A rating under the 'web accessibility initiative' used to regulate content accessibility. No increase from 2005.

Usage of council websites has shown a significant increase over the past year. Overall, it estimated that 10.2m people used a council website in December 2005, when the survey was carried out, a massive 40 per cent increase on last year.

Also more than 84 per cent of users said they would return to a council website compared to only 7 per cent who said they would not.

Analysis of users confirmed the existence of a 'digital divide' across the age brackets, with between 71 and 77 per cent of the four age bands between 15 and 54 saying they use the internet, compared to 23 per cent over the age of 64.

This divide also persists across social groups. Seventy six per cent of the social group AB – managers and professionals – said they use the web, compared to only 32 per cent of the DE group, which covers the unemployed and semi-skilled.

Commenting on the findings of the survey, Societm Insight programme manager Martin Greenwood said: "Use of the internet is central to around 80 per cent of the 'transformational' projects and programmes recently researched and published by Socitm.

"The website should, therefore, be positioned as a vehicle that will help to drive transformation forward in local authorities. The engine of that vehicle must be up to the job. The findings of Better Connected 2006 can be used by councils as a self-audit tool to diagnose the current state of the vehicle."

Better Connected 2006 is available as a pdf to Socitm Insight subscribers. The printed version, available from mid-March will run to 180 pages (with another 36 pages of technical appendices available electronically). The report costs £375 to non-subscribers from www.socitm.gov.uk

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