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back to article Brits trapped in confusing council website labyrinths - survey

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 …

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Silver badge
Megaphone

Meh, too easy

I've done council stuff and it's really not that hard to get right.

Pretty much every council in any given local government area has to abide by the same rules and carry the same content: rates info, news, etc, etc, plus local stuff specific to any area. Common content such as privacy policies and other legal stuff can be written centrally. It adds consistency and reduces costs.

The frequently accessed info should always be linked from the home page. Don't make the rate payers pissy by hiding things. If councils can't work out what is going to be popular then check the logs and search data and you'll see what people want. If it's not on the home page then put it there.

Most important tip for all for councils: Beware internal empire builders that don't have a clue about web sites but "know someone who does". They will cost the rate payers squillions for no noticeable return. Your council shouldn't be paying 25k for a slightly modified WordPress theme. Leave this stuff to people that know what they are doing.

Sheesh, it's 2012 and people are still struggling over web sites?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Meh, too easy

Yep, definitely with you about Empire builders. Far too often I see web content and decision making responsibilities handed to some "comms" droid. They often have the mistaken belief that because it involves communicating with people and because they've done a few leaflets and posters in their time, they should be in charge of running the website. These individuals know nothing about usability, accessibility, audience segmentation, proper user testing, targeting, use of metadata, technical capabilities of the underlying system, etc etc etc.

Before you know it, the front page is covered with words that read likes its from some printed marketing literature. A search for council tax returns results about street repairs because the comms driod couldn't be bothered to fill in metadata as "No-one will see that, so why should I put it in?". And the navigation is so confused and hidden, buried on the fourth page in, bottom right hand corner - the last place anyone would look!

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Silver badge

Re: Meh, too easy

"buried on the fourth page in, bottom right hand corner"

With a sign on the door saying "Beware of the Leopard"

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Silver badge

Re: Meh, too easy

Google site search makes using council website bearable, instead of the garbage search engine councils use. If you don't know the trick, you type 'site:[website] [thing you are searching for]' into Google.

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Vic
Silver badge

Re: Meh, too easy

> you type 'site:[website] [thing you are searching for]' into Google.

Historically, that's been a good trick, but it fails for two important reasons :-

- You need to understand Google's query syntax to get what you want. Most people I know don't know how to find a phrase or exclude certain keywords.

- Google is getting worse at searching. For example, it now keeps replacing the words I've typed with what it expected me to want. Now I've no objection to offering a correction in a link (as it used to do), but these day, my searches frequently have to be done in two stages, with me going back and individually quoting every word in my query.

I've been a big fan of Google for many years, but it is heading in the wrong direction at present Google is becoming the bloated behemonth it replaced (anyone remember AltaVista?). I expect someone to do to Google what it did to its predecessors. I'm even considering doing it myself...

Vic.

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Anonymous Coward

CHESHIRE WEST

There was a time when you could speak to a person to report road damage. Now you fill an online form in, click send and it gives you a reference number.

The reference number has no meaning because there is no one to talk to to ask about it.

Then over a year later and several online forms later it still has not been resolved.

Maybe the forms don't actually go anywhere, a black hole?

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Anonymous Coward

con-cil

I love the way my local council [Manchester] makes me add my Council Tax payment to a "shopping basket", then has a twee little link saying "pay for your shopping basket" to get to the screen where I enter my card details... as if I'm skipping round a supermarket, choosing treats for myself —instead of being shafted every month, on pain of court summons, by a bunch of leeches down the Town Hall.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: con-cil

Why not save yourself some time, and them some (of your) money by paying by direct debit?

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Bronze badge
Facepalm

Re: con-cil

Perhaps because only idiots let others dip into their bank accounts using the direct debit mechanism. It's your money, shouldn't you be in control?

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FAIL

Re: con-cil @Jan 0

Errr Jan 0, direct debits do put you in control.

Someone somewhere makes a mistake and the wrong amount gets removed from your account? Tell your bank and they are obliged to credit the money (and charges if applicable iirc) back in and investigate the problem at their expense.

Are you perhaps too moronic to be able to check your statements either regularly online or when they come through the post?

It's your money, so save it by using direct debits and spend less time each month checking your statements than you would paying each bill manually. What's not to like?

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Bronze badge

Re: con-cil @Jan 0

Of course I check my statements, but I know I won't have the hassle of chasing banks to fix problems that shouldn't be there in the first place.

Direct debits are the equivalent of giving a shopkeeper your wallet to keep. Why would you do that?

Direct debits are a marketing gimmick to make it a little more difficult to change providers.

What's so difficult about BACS transfers and standing orders that makes you use direct debits?

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Unhappy

Sounds familiar...

I was under the impression that it was standard practice NOT to consult end users before implementing a project of this kind.

While I'm ranting, do I really need to log in (and create an account), just to find out when the leisure centre is open?

That's before we get to all the cool stuff enhancements, such as auto-scrolling lists, that some site designers seem to love.

And no I don't want to like your bin collection schedule.

/rant

PS Yes, I have been trying to renew my car's tax disc on-line.

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Silver badge

Re: Sounds familiar...

Eh. Tax disc online?

that's possibly one of the EASIEST things to do with .gov's.

Enter the code, confirm, pay.

How frickin hard is that?

Hell even SORN'n is easy.

Now trying to find the school term times...or the local tip.. sorry Enviormental Recycling and disposal centre, so I go t do a search, it refers me to the direct.gov, that directs me to my local council home page, that after a process, directs me to my counties home page, so a search then redirects me to my local's home page. Gah!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Sounds familiar...

I think the TaxDisc/SORN pages are a shining example of the exception that proves the rule. They do one thing - pay rod fund license (or claim exemption). That's it.

Just about every other government site (and this includes all council web sites)? Utter vomit. Search doesn't work well, or uses arcane terms. When you do find something it's in impenetrable legalese/PHB-speak.

For example "renew my photo" did my tits in. Rather being nice and simple, I had to sign up for some kind of state ID scheme (got the card, never used it, will probably need to apply again). The process failed at various times with no messages, so took about 5 attempts.

That police crime website works quite well, but doesn't cover the UK (just England&Wales) so not much use. Why they can't publish that data in an open format and simply let people consume it beat the hell out of me - they fact it is wedded to Google makes me rather uneasy.

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Silver badge

Damned if they do ...

Councils get a kicking for not having easy to use websites. I'm sure they can live with the pain, when it would be compared with the fulminating tabloid headlines if they went out and engaged a "high priced external consultant". You know; one of those people who actually KNOWS how to design websites.

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Unhappy

Re: Damned if they do ...

Try 'www.barnet.gov.uk' and see if you don't find the prospect of hitting yourself with a hammer as a far more worthy way to spend your time.

Had a chat with a firm that did some work for them who were hamstrung by the borough's people not knowing anything at all about websites and it all being down to minimum spend with little content.

Easy council - low-spend.

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Facepalm

Re: Damned if they do ...

Part right -

High priced consultant? - check

consultant knows how to design websites? - not part of the requirements.

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Facepalm

according to an annual report by Socitm

Some how, before the affine had kicked in, I read that as a report by Scrotum. The whole thing made so much more sense then.

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Unhappy

Quite agree...

Can the councils include popular tags on the useful web pages, like the opening times for "refuse/recycling centres"? When I search for "dump", can I find the dump, rather than the site saying that there is no such thing. There is! it is very close by and I went there recently! I just need to know if it is open now!????!?!?!

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Silver badge

Re: Quite agree...

Be careful what you take to the dump too. Some are staffed by jobsworths and if you arrive in a van they won't let you in. Even if you are only dropping off a few small items and your only transport is a van, you won't get in "Not worth me job, mate. Just following rules." Carry the items in by hand "Nah mate, not in the rules. Not worth my job". No, one has to book in advance and potentially pay a fee.

Other councils are bit more sane. Their staff will have a look in the back and if it is genuinely just a few items, off you go. No trouble and just how things should be. It may not be officially "in the rules", or maybe one of their rules is "Bloody well apply a bit of common sense"?

I agree on the "dump" thing, playing "guess the gubbermint-term" is a PITA. Why can't the site do a basic synonym check? "0 results for 'dump', did you mean 'refuse centre' or 'public lavatories'?"

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Vic
Silver badge

Re: Quite agree...

> There is! it is very close by and I went there recently!

Many, many websites fail in exactly the same manner. I believe it is because they are only every tested by the original developers.

This is true of council sites, large corprat ones, and (especially, IMHO) FOSS documentation sites[1].

All the data is on the site. But to find the answer to any question, you already need to know that answer. Once you have the answer, finding it is trivial. Without knowing what you need to know, it is impossible.

Thus a developer, knowing what he is looking for, can't see why anyone would have a problem with his creation. A neophyte is completely lost.

Vic.

[1] I hit this regularly - but that might be because I'm reading FOSS doc sites more regularly than anything else[2].

[2] Except ElReg and Groklaw, of course.

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Vic
Silver badge

Re: Quite agree...

> if you arrive in a van they won't let you in.

I always get in with my van.

I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that I occasionally buy stuff from them. And I'm quite memorable :-)

Vic.

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Re: Quite agree...

I love Edinburgh council's site

On the main page, on the "popular pages" links, it has council tax, school openings, swimming pools, bin collection, road gritting, libraries etc. etc. Never had a problem using it, which still comes as a mild surprise each time...

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Meh

Worth noting that many of the things local councils struggle with are supplied by third parties, there's not a huge demand for providing solutions to government as it's not a massive market and because the suppliers don't make a massive profit they have very little incentive to improve software or fix bugs.

Also worth noting that the LGNL was a "suggested" structure for all local authorities which they had to adhere to, it was designed with the customer in mind, all be it rather generically - top tasks are much more focussed locally but restructuring an entire authority site is a potential nightmare.

No excuses for empire building or historically departmentalised councils though, these should change and evolve fluidly but equally it's impossible to make everyone happy, especially with customers complaining that their local council's website is useless because they can't renew their car tax.

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Anonymous Coward

I wish it were that easy...

... I should be dedicating a lot more time to our site but between an unbelievably incompetent manager and far too many other things I apparently have to do, it fails to get enough time. On average I think I get to spend about 40% of my time working on the site when it should be at least 80%.

The sad thing about it is I'd like to stay and finish the job and see all the planned work I have done but due to low morale and the whole 'swimming in treacle' feeling, I'm off as soon as I can find another job which will have a knock on effect of the site slipping backwards even further.

Anon for obvious reasons but the icon would be 'FAIL' for me and 'Eat this' for the council.

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Silver badge
Flame

Councils should not have websites

This is just another avenue for them to piss our money up the wall.

Whenever government implement something like this, it always costs too much and the quality of service is always poor. And I'd rather have no service than be encouraged to use shoddy one. If only just to save a couple of quid on my council tax.

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Silver badge

Re: Councils should not have websites

And then they get pilloried for not having a website.

They all should have websites and all their data should be published in an open standard. That way some more focused sites can be built by other, thus reducing the burden on the council. e.g. "UK Recycling Centres". All the data pooled from all the councils and findable in one place. Perfect. Possible? No.

There is a problem with open data though, it would allow people to mine it and gain some transparency - this is not permitted in UK politics.

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Re: Councils should not have websites

and how would people access the services they currently use Online? In person or on the phone which would mean an immediate increase in staff and funding increasing council tax even further not reducing it.

Online transactions cost a fraction of face to face and telephone services, we're just lucky that Online take-up has increased alongside customer expectation.

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Silver badge
Go

Re: Councils should not have websites

I totally agree with you. Online transactions are more cost effective when implemented properly. I'm just not seeing that kind of professionalism from UK councils though.

Customer expectation has increased way out of proportion with what councils are providing. I'd like councils to start producing websites that people can actually use *and* that will save us council tax. Private companies appear to be able to manage it, why can't our local councils?

We could all benefit from properly implemented council web sites, but as the article and some of our fellow commentards have pointed out, we can't at the moment.

(oh, and I upvoted your post because you made some good points)

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Re: Councils should not have websites

Good points. The article is referring to a very small aspect of what SOCITM review however and this is something they've only started recommending this year, which is why the figures are so low, structural change to council websites is always going to take time due to all the hoops and constant justification.

From a commercial point of view it's always going to be easier for private companies to quickly produce a properly implemented website as the bulk of what they do is usually more focused than the broad spectrum of legislation and council services that your local council has to provide. Add that to the ever increasing challenge of working with councilor's and council officers who have traditional government working methods ingrained in their job rolls and it can be a real up hill struggle.

It's also worth remembering that most of the time the council's web team are going to be far more frustrated with their site's shortfalls than the customer. In a lot of cases their the only ones driving online take-up, and sometimes the only people listening to what the customer has to say.

May be hard to believe but in some cases we're still having to convince people that the internet is actually a customer channel and that it's here to stay. Half the battle is convincing the right people that we're not keeping up with customer expectation.

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Obligatory references

You are in a maze of twisty councillors, all alike.

It is pitched by quacks. They are likely to be beaten by a clue.

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FAIL

CMS Hell

I think all too often the, the CMS used to drive these sites is cause of poor usability.

Obviously, a CMS brings with it benefits to the organisation, such as devolved the creation of website content to the relevant departments, but this often leads to clunky pages as those writing them have little knowledge of usability and are constrained by the structure of the CMS.

My local council (London Borough of Islington) has brain damage such as 'to search planning applications click the 'planning' button on the toolbar on the left' - rather than providing a direct link in the content.

Saying that, the pages where this leads (https://www.islington.gov.uk/onlineplanning/apas/run/Wphappcriteria.showApplications?regfromdate=05-mar-2012&regtodate=05-mar-2012&DispResultsAs=wphappsresweek1) is clearly not within the CMS framework, and is a vanilla database driven query. It is piss-poor, being practically impossible to use unless you know the precise street address or planning application number, and looks poor as well. The 174 validation warnings for 1 page of content suggest there are several *per line* of HTML.

Their page for applying for a resident's parking permit is similar bad, and buggy as well. This is a service I struggle to use on an annual basis.

Pretty poor show - probably driven by an inability of the Council to hire good staff to build these sites.

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Nostalgia ...

You are in a confusing labyrinth of counsel websites.

It is dark.

You are likely to be eaten by grue.

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Unhappy

Re: Nostalgia ...

You are in a twisty maze of local government. It is dark.

There is a bin in front of you. It is emptied not well and not often enough. Whose is it?

It might be the County, District, Parish Council or National Park, but it is dark and you cannot tell. You ask a passer by but it is dark and she does not know. You ask a policemen but it is dark and he cannot tell. You go on a web site but it is dark and you cannot find bins.

Maybe the bin is nobody's? But it must be somebody's because a van comes and empties it, not well and not often enough. The van has a symbol on the side but it is dark so you cannot see where it is from. The cleaner works for MegaClean Co. but he just cleans the bin when he is told. It is dark.

You are in a twisty local government maze. It is dark.

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(Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

Re: Nostalgia ...

You just put a smile on my face.

C.

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Stop

Why?

Why do councils build their own web site when they all be delivering the same online services? Create one site standard that meets the requirements and apply branding for each council...

And a few shared data centres will save costs.

Or I am I naive in thinking that councils will actually see the logic and stop wasting tax payers' money duplicating effort and not try and keep control of their web site?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Why?

What you mean like DirectGov (or dare I say it Beta Gov).

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Re: Why?

as above, it's not like it hasn't been tried - just seems like it's far too complicated to realise. regional and local expectations just create too varied of a service, alternatively central government dictates what services and structures should be but then you just end up back at the LGNL.

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Re: Why?

All councils don't deliver the same services. Just at a high level, rural councils deliver different services to urban ones, unitary councils deliver different services to district councils. Councils which are on the sea have different services to landlocked ones (and the services are different again if they have a port). The last Labour government tried to replace all council websites with DirectGov and had to scale back its plans when it became obvious that there were problems with that approach.

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This post has been deleted by its author

They are not in competition...

...and they offer the same services.

There should be a single template. Properly done. Everyone chips in a bit for setup and a usage charge. ODPM came closest with the BVP stuff but it died from lack of interest.

Unfortunately there is a lot of dickwavery about who won this award etc so they won't work together. Not even in a single organisation.

And anyone who has not been there would not believe the complexity of the back office apps. None of which are designed to work with anything else. There's a mess of database dumps, file imports, spreadsheets and post-it notes. I'm currently struggling with getting a common payments system in a County. There are currently 4. Each has its champions. None want to see theirs dropped. Decisions made in one meeting are reversed in the next because there's a new opinion every week.

And it looks like the only 'acceptable' way to get information from webforms into one back office is to email it to someone who rekeys it because the process maps dictate a manual entry and checking step. And the process maps are sacrosanct. I have even been informed they are dictated by law.

It's not rocket surgery but the capacity for the civil service* mentality to complicate something simple should not be underestimated.

* I know they are not but they come from the same stock.

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Silver badge
Trollface

Re: They are not in competition...

That sounds like a sensible well thought out idea.

That kind of thing has NO place in government!

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Council sites are a breeze

Compared with any BT site. Like trying to get out of Milton Keynes. Third left at the twenty-third roundabout and back where you started.

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FAIL

Referring callers to the web site

"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."

Actually the brand name was "Ansafone" but it's bound to be voicemail these days. Anyway the one thing that pisses me off above all the others is when I've phoned up because the web site isn't working only to be told to go to the web site. And then when you do go to the web site the last thing they want you to do is actually contact them. You get kicked off to some FAQ at every turn. If I do find the contact form I can't submit it because it quite unnecessarily uses javascript and I normally use a non-js browser. There is of course no adequate <noscript> section.

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Vic
Silver badge

Re: Referring callers to the web site

> I've phoned up because the web site isn't working only to be told to go to the web site.

You've played on the Royal Mail merry-go-round as well, I take it?

Vic.

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