WEB: So, what makes a good council website?

Jason Santa Maria / Flickr

This was drawn-up after the ‘What makes an ace local government website?’ session at #ukgc10 by Liz Azyan from Camden Council and also the #ukgc10 WordPress session. Some extra thoughts were inserted after…

You’re in a rush. You’re going swimming. You’ve three minutes to find out when the nearest leisure centre closes… and you’re face with a council website.
This could be a pleasant experience and for many it is. But if you’re unlucky  you’ll be faced with a sprawling brick wall behemoth of a website written in a funny language riddled with jargon.
Oh, Lord.
It’s not gritting information, for example. It’s a winter service plan.   
Your opinion of your council suddenly plummets and you hurl abuse at the screen.
But ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Liz Azyan’s session at the UK Government Bar Camp ’10 at Google was a thought provoking session with some cracking points.
Cards on the table at this stage. I don’t work in a web team. I work with them and more to the point I’m a council taxpayer who uses one.
Here are some points that emerged from the session — sprinkled with some that struck me afterwards.
What do people want?
They want to find the information they are after. Simple.

What do they often find? 
A website written in council speak with difficult to find pages presented poorly. In short a frustrating experience.

Tech frustration by CCB Images / Flickr
Tech frustration by CCB Images / Flickr

So, why bother with a council website?
It’s an argument that – surprisingly – seems still to exist in some quarters. Isn’t it just a big waste of money? Actually, no. Quite the reverse. After getting attacked for wasting money by TPA Lincolnshire Council responded with a cool, calm and brilliantly argued piece that argued that the cost of web was staggeringly lower than employing people to help face-to-face or over the telephone. It’s worth taking a look at.
What’s the average cost of contact via a council website?
For contact, read an occasion a member of the public needs to contact the council.
            Face to face              £7.81
            Telephone                  £4.00
            Online                         £0.17

Which does make you think. Vast resources get put – rightly – into a help desk or a one stop information shop. Often, web is seen as a poor relation.
There is also a theory that telephone numbers should be hard to find. If you have cost savings in mind pushing people towards the £4 option may not make good sense.


Do Local Government websites pay enough attention to design and appearance?
The hell they do. Some of them look utterly dreadful. There’s an organisation called SOCITM who seek to raise standards in government. Every year they survey Local Government sites on a checklist. Accessibility is key. So is usability. But nothing seems to get assessed on design.
One point that Devon’s Carl Haggerty made very strongly – which I totally agree with – is the need for this to change. Design and look IS important. If the website looks poor people won’t even get as far as starting a search.
As someone who has worked on newspapers and has put together magazines the look of something is fundamental. Look across the news stands. From the unscientific straw poll in the session colour seemed to be important.
Why should we bother to make websites better?
We need to improve because people’s expectations are higher.
We need to improve because at a time of tighter budgets web is a cost effective solution.
We also need to improve because while once council websites had a virtual monopoly on local information those days are changing.
As barriers are lowered – by things like WordPress and by the surge in hyperlocal blogs – others can do the job themselves. The case of the tech-savvy Birmingham residents who knocked up their own council website – bcc.diy.co.uk should send wake-up calls throughout local government. If you don’t do it, they are basically saying, someone else will.
As more and more data gets released web developers will find their own uses for it. Leisure centres? There’s an app for that. The days of the council website being a monopoly are ending. Smart people are just starting to wake up to that.
Yes, but it’s all about the home page, isn’t it?
The figures can vary widely. Around 15 per cent of people came onto the site through the home page from one council. That’s not much more than one in ten. A piddling figure. Especially when you take account the time and effort that goes into it. But in another council researched after the session was around 90 per cent.

Brent Council's opt in less busy webpage.
Brent Council's opt in less busy webpage.

The moral of the story to local government webbies  is to research your web stats before changes are made.
Can you make your homepage less busy?
Yes. Brent council offers the option of the traditional busy page and a more simple one. That quite appeals to me.
So how do people navigate around your site if they do do that?

There’s your website search box. Which often isn’t that great. Even if it’s a google one, apparently. From the experience of several councils much time and effoft is wasted bu users here.
There’s your A-Z of services too.
There’s also the postcode search which to me seems rather attractive and far more relevant. If I lived in Baswich in Stafford, wouldn’t it be better to tell me what was on offer for me there?
There’s also the novel idea of a pictorial map. You point at it. You hover over the bits you want and you click through there. Directgov have a rather attractive planning map that does that.
Widgets. Redbridge Council have use this. It’s a similar theory to the igoogle approach where you compose the page that you want from the information that you want. The idea is great but feedback suggests that only small numbers of people have embraced this
The message from Liz’s session was that as far as search is concerned you need to pick one way and stick to it. Sites that try and do absolutely everything in the way of search look cluttered, busy and turn people off.

How about open source (and what the hell does that mean?)

At the WordPress #ukgc10 session the idea of WordPress as a web content managament system was talked about. There is much going for it. It’s open source. Which for non-geeks means that you don’t have to pay someone a lorry load of cash to buy it and maintain it. It’s free. You can download it from www.wordpress.com and web developers who know what they are doing can build you widgets so you can customise things to suit your ends.

The downloadable version of WordPress is from WordPress.org while WordPress.com is where you get your hosted versions.

There are plenty of examples of Government using open source. The 10 Downing Street web site relies on it in parts for it’s press operation. So do almost half UK government departments in one shape or another. It’s great if you need an emergency website knocked up at short notice.

However, the feedback was that there was  a 500-page limit on WordPress. That’s probably more than enough for some sites but bigger projects may be hampered by that limitation.  

But how about the Birmingham City Council experience? (insert clap of thunder here.)

There has been plenty written about the Birmingham experience. But if you haven’t come across it it’s a tale to strike fear into local government web managers up and down the land.

In short, Birmingham City Council appointed consultants to build their website. The final bill was more than many expected and wasn’t as good as people were expecting. It led to Press criticism.

The Birmingham bloggers build a DIY site when they were less than impressed with the council version.
The Birmingham bloggers build a DIY site when they were less than impressed with the council version.

There is a thriving community of bloggers and the digitally-connected in Birmingham. They decided to build their own DIY council site by taking the data that was publicly available and constructin their own website.

Based on open source and while it may look rough at the edges, it is a site born of social media and built by community-spirited people eager to do their own thing. That it cooked a snook at authority to boot was for some a bonus.

They came up with something based on a postcode search and using stunning Flickr imagery of their home city.  

It’s legacy will be more than a website. It’s legacy is a warning shot that internet users have a powerful voice and if you don’t provide them with something they’luse and be impressed by, they may well build their own. As a warning shot to council it’s there to be heeded.

So, how about asking people what they think of your site?

I’m impressed with the Camden Council Facebook group set up to see what people thought of their site. An impressive use of social media. Bold, imaginative and connecting directly to the online community. Magnificent. And a template to follow.
In a nutshell: So what would NINE really good things to do be?

1 Use pictures better. Pictures tell a 1,000 words and are a brilliant way of showcasing your organisation. Not just the arty commissioned ones. The Flickr ones too.
2 Choose a way for people to navigate about the site. And stick to it.
3 Don’t make your site busy. It looks awful. Simplicity works.
4 Don’t get too hung up on the homepage. Remember that few people can get onto your site that way.
5 Speak to the people in the calls centre. What subjects come up most often?
Shouldn’t that play some role in what appears on the homepage? And be well designed and put together?
6 In an A-Z of services think Yellow Pages. Put links in several places. For example, people could be looking at household waste in several places. Waste, rubbish or even trash
7 And finally, wouldn’t it be good if SOCITM took more account of design and look? That way we may all have better websites.

8 Use social media to see what people think. Use Twitter and Facebook. If social media is about a two way conversation then what better way of connecting with web-savvy citizens? 

9 Don’t rule out open source. It’s free. And one day someone with vision will come up with something that government can use.
Input for the #ukgc10 ‘What makes an ace website?’session included points from Dan Harris, Ally Hook, Liz Azyan, Sarah Lay, Martin Black, Stephen Cross and Andrew Beeken.

Flickr pics used with creative commons licence laptop (Jason Santa Maria) and frustration (CCB Images).

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for writing up this session – I was disappointed to miss it. I agree that good design is important. But design in terms of the whole user experience, not just graphic design, which I think is what Liz was getting at.

    You wouldn’t believe the difficulty we had in trying to recruit someone with design skills who can also write great CSS, use JQuery and is a dab hand at user experience. Maybe that’s one for another session – how do we attract people with design skills and creative ideas to come and work in local government. Is local government still perceived to be too dull for designers?! We still haven’t found someone btw 🙁

  2. Hi Dan,

    Interesting post! There are a number of councils that have gone for very simple home pages in the last few months. In addition to Brent, Westminster, Lancashire and Swale have all developed them. Lancashire’s and Swale’s are particularly ‘minimal’.

    I’m a member of Socitm’s Better Connected team of reviewers (whose ears were probably burning when you lot were at Localgovcamp!). In carrying out the annual survey (in which we carry out over 100 tasks on a site) I’ve noticed an improvement in the look and feel of council websites in general. In fact I had a few sites in my allocation for BC2010 whose visual design I thought was really excellent and should have made for a fantastic user experience. Great use of white space, graphics, colour, icons, not too busy etc. But I couldn’t find the answers to the questions. The content was very patchy and at times really badly written, the navigation poor because there were redundant clicks everywhere and the whole experience was very frustrating.

    Better connected doesn’t ‘score’ sites on visual design in a very explicit way, I agree, but I think it does expose sites which are nothing but pretty window dressing.

    Of your points, I particularly like point 5 about the contact centre. In some of the more forward-thinking councils I suspect that contact centres and web content management are getting a lot closer aligned as part of ‘channel management’ (I think that’s the current jargon!).

  3. Cheers for the links and comments. They are read and appreciated.

    Particular hats off to Helen Williams from SOCITM for taking part in the conversation. It could have been easier – particularly at 11.32pm on a school night, wow! – to do something else rather than comment.

    There are some great suggestions from her too of sites who have really taken care over appearance recently. I’ll look forward to taking a look.

    I think we’re all agreed that SOCITM do a good job in raising standards across government web. For those that don’t know, as I’m mindful that non-gov webbies may take a look at this, they are the professional body for the web in government.

    The Better Connected survey is the industry bench mark which checks websites on a whole host of things. It is highly coveted and our web manager at Walsall is very proud of a top 20 ranking.

    The one thing that came through very strongly in the #ukgc10 session was more needs to be done to drive up standards in look and appearance.

    Snap shots of several of the top 20 – and no, I won’t embarass people by naming names – looked visually quite poor and off putting. At their worst they came over as over-busy and downright confusing.

    At a time when the barriers for DIY sites have never been lower it’s up to government of all shades to ramp up standards in all areas, I’d say.

    It was a good argument that Carl Haggerty put in the session to try and engage SOCITM to see if we could factor in appearance on the scoring yardstick.

    It would be great if Helen’s thoughtful and constructive comments here may be the start of that process… : )

  4. Thanks Dan and for the positive words about Socitm’s work! I think it was actually 10.30 when I posted it – somewhere some software must be an hour out!

    Another thought struck me about your post – about the BCCDIY saga. Council websites have to try to be all things to all people, which is why they are perhaps inevitably such ‘beasts’ as Dave put it. Rather than look at BCCDIY purely as a cautionary tale, I think it also illustrates how communities (whether geographically or common interest based) are well positioned to re-publish subsets of council information in a more focussed and easily digested way – because they can make it highly relevant just to their community. The Bournville gritting routes map that Dave Harte blogged about here http://daveharte.com/bournville/data-is-the-new-grit/ is an example.

    So councils not only need to get the design and usability of their baggy monster sites right, but they should also be thinking about providing data in formats that community developers can re-use – i.e. not pretty, not html tables but .csv, or XML or KML or probably, when we have some more standards, RDFa! Raw data now!

    Which should be the priority?

  5. I think it is important that we understand what we all mean by “top 20” or “best performing” as this can be misleading.

    Often when speaking to people about website redesign projects they start off with great visual designs which make good use of strong bold imagery and end up sacrificing most if not all of that because they try to follow the recommendations in the better connected report.

    I am a big fan of better connected and i’d like to see it develop more to offer more value, but i also accept that socitm has limited resources and inevitably design is objective and can be difficult to rate.

    However some simple steps into this area would make a big difference.

  6. It would be nice to have a ‘top 20’ of visual design I suppose. That certainly isn’t what Better Connected tries to do, and I think it wouldn’t be a particularly helpful product if it just looked at that (and of course it would be highly subjective!).

    I do appreciate that the ‘Top 20’, which comes from best scoring overall rather than ‘best’ according to what reviewers think of the experience of using the site, will not be the 20 sites with the best visual design or even necessarily the most usable. Where the design is awful enough to materially hinder our review then there will be some ‘marking down’ in areas we do get to judge – and will influence the overall score.

    I don’t think we will ever get a perfect product, but we are always open to ideas and feedback. In fact this has reminded me that last year there were ‘reviewers’ favourites’ where reviewers got to nominate the sites they felt were the best of their allocation and write some spiel about why. It would be good to do that again this year as it will pull out sites with great user experience even if they are not complete enough to get into the top 20.

    For me and for the rest of the team ‘top 20’ is not a big part of what Better Connected is about, but it is something that local authorities really seem to focus upon.

  7. Oh, absolutely. A super whizzy looking website that does nothing but has link cul-de-sacs is no use, I think we all agree.

    However, what I think the consensus of the #ukgc10 session was that design, look and feel needs to be a stronger part of it.

    I know Liz Azyan and Dan Harris (and others?) were looking to blog on the website subject. I’m looking forward to seeing what they say as this is more their territory than mine. After all constructive debate such as this has to be a good, positive thing and hats off to Helen for taking part in it ; )

  8. Great post, Dan.
    The problem with council websites – in my humble opinion – is that they are incredibly difficult to navigate and look so busy.
    Searching for something that should be relatively simple (ie: home refuse collections) is nigh on impossible to find. It makes me wonder if these sites have been subject to useability audits.
    While this is purely a guess, I do wonder if the search problems arise because of the corporate speak used in LAs? we mere mortals get totally confused by it all!

  9. nice!

    I’m doing lots of research before I build a certain council’s website….

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