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Brits trapped in confusing council website labyrinths - survey

ICT body says sites useful only to local gov wonks

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Too few council websites are sufficiently focused on the top tasks that are of most interest to their users, according to an annual report by Socitm.

The IT trade body examined how easy it was to complete popular tasks, such as paying council tax or finding school term dates, on council websites, with only 5 per cent achieving the top grade of four stars. It also tested performance on four usability criteria: navigation for top tasks; use of search engine; use of A to Z list; and accessibility.

Problems with ease of use could be due to deficiencies in the governance and management of websites, Socitm says, which leave web teams struggling to balance different interests rather than concentrating on providing users with quick and easy access to the most popular services.

Socitm's "Better Connected survey" on 433 UK local authority websites found navigation to be a "major weakness", with 13 per cent of council websites reaching an adequate standard. It says that many councils continue to use the Local Government Navigation List (LGNL) structure for their main site architecture, and that this can be a significant cause of weakness – since LGNL terms tend to those used by council employees rather than customers.

Socitm recommends that to improve customer journeys, councils should drop the LGNL in favour of a topics-based navigation structure based on their own research and testing. Web teams looking to improve the customer experience and make their sites fit for channel shift need to pay attention to the main navigation structure of the website, as well as 'top task' presentation on home and landing page.

The report recommends that councils should put in place corporate governance and management frameworks for their website that:

  • use a top tasks approach and ensure that top tasks are selected on the basis of hard evidence rather than managers' judgement;
  • keep website size and content rigorously pruned;
  • support centralised and not devolved content management; and
  • favour continuous improvement over big bang, technology-led change.

Socitm's research found that overall council websites have improved since 2011, with 42 per cent of councils achieving three or four stars in 2012 compared with 32 per cent in 2011. However, it also found that of the nine four star sites named in 2011, only Edinburgh and Salford city councils have retained their four stars in 2012.

Another key finding from the survey shows that 37 per cent of councils with an answerphone message for out-of-hours-calls are still failing to refer callers to the website – a missed opportunity for self-service.

Commenting on the findings, Glyn Evans, Socitm president, said: "This is a pivotal moment in the development of online government information and services and an exciting time for all those involved. From the organisational viewpoint it provides some light in the gloom resulting from public sector austerity. Above all, the customer stands to gain from the real promise of cheaper, better and more convenient services."

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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