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).

A FACE TO A NAME: Why organisations should be personal in social media


Pic credit:

Light-Hearted

Originally uploaded by fiznatty

There is one truly brilliant thing about Harrogate copper @hotelalpha9 on Twitter.

It’s not the fact PC Ed Rogerson has a truly cool Hawaii Five O sounding name online.

It’s not even because the police are using social media. Although, that is great.

What’s really brilliant, is that he has succeeded in putting a human touch on what is by definition a large organisation.

In North Yorkshire there are 1,500 police officers serving 750,000 people. @hotelalpha9 is able to connect with his beat particular brilliantly.

Here is an example: “Residents of Camwell Terrace – there’s a meeting for you at 10am tomorrow at St Andrews Church. Let’s make your street the best it can be.”

“@annicrosby Hi, I’m following you as I saw you location is ‘Harrogate’. I follow anybody from Harrogate as I want to communicate better.”

“Just dealt with some criminal damage. Paint thrown over a car.”

It’s stuff specific to a small area. It’s in effect hyperlocal blogging for an organisation.

The debate about whether or not police should use digital is a short one (answer: yes).

On that topic there is an inspiring and groundbreaking blog by Chief Inspector Mark Payne of West Midlands Police – on Twitter as @CIPayneWMPolice – that deserves a special mention: Police and social media: Why are we waiting?

But what it really opens up is how best to use this stuff to connect.

By all means have a central presence with a corporate logo on.

However, in Twitter 2.0 shouldn’t we start putting the individual to the fore?

If we call a council, government – or a big company for that matter – you are often met with a name when you ring or write. Why not do that with social media too?

Recently, when Walsall Council contacted a protest group on Facebook an officer set up a dedicated work profile to make contact. It wasn’t a logo. It was a real person that made that connection. On behalf of the council.

So, isn’t there a case the closer we get to an organisation hyperlocal blogging we start allowing the individual to be the organisation’s face? They are in real life over the phone and at other contact points. Why not in social media too?

This may well create new headaches. Would staff be prepared for the potential for brickbats, for example?

How about if they leave?

Then there is the usual ‘what if they say bad things to us?’

But let’s not forget that these dilemmas also apply offline too.

A possible three tier organisational model for Twitter and other social media platforms:

1. THE CORPORATE VOICE WITH NAMED INDIVIDUAL. Eg @anycouncil. Biog: news from Any Council updated by Darren info@any.gov.uk. Content: general tweets.

2. THE SERVICE AREA. Eg @anycouncil_libraries Biog: updated by Kim. Kim@any.gov.uk. Content: niche tweets from a specific service area. More specific info for fans of that subject. Eg author visits, reminders to take out a holiday book.

3. THE HYPERLOCAL INDIVIDUAL Eg @artscentreguy Biog: Bob from Any Arts Centre. Content: More personal updates from an individual first and foremost who just happens y’know to work for a council. Eg. Twitpics of rehearsals, behind the scenes shots and listings info.

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