Do councils need a website at all?

SimonGeneral8 Comments

At Medway Council we’re look at rebuilding and redesigning our website at www.medway.gov.uk.

One idea that’s been playing on my mind for the past few days is whether a council needs a website at all.

Initially this might seem like complete heresy. Surely a public sector body providing services to local residents needs a website to help them communicate and provide online services to their residents?

But do they need a website in the sense that we might see a traditional “destination” website – a place where people go to find out information and do council stuff online?

One of the things that is making me challenge some assumptions is the increasing focus on place in local public services. For the uninitiated this means that there’s much less focus on the organisation providing particular local services (eg council, police, primary care trust…) and more on the organisations working together to provide services in a coherent way that suits residents and businesses, not service providers.

So why a council website alongside a police website alongside a primary care trust website?

If the focus is on coherent local services regardless of provider, why not a single place website that provides information and online services for people in a particular place?

Of course not all visitors to a council website are looking for service information, so there’s probably a case for a corporate presence on the web, in the same way as most retailers have a customer site selling product as well as a corporate/investor relations site with organisational information. But this presence could be completely distinct from an integrated place website providing services to residents and businesses.

For this to work councils would need to be confident in their own branding and service provision to throw their online presence into a shared place website. And that’s before the inevitable IT hurdles of integrating content management systems and online tools between public sector bodies, often with differing and overlapping geographic boundaries.

So maybe as an end goal this is a non-starter. But the concept could give a couple of pointers for councils thinking about their websites in the next few years:

  • council websites need to integrate as closely as possible with the online lives of their target audience – focussing on the customer not the organisation – which means open standards and being able to link with the current generation of online social tools as well as tools that will emerge in the future
  • councils need to get together with their partners to think how online information and service provision can work together – while this might not be a single website, what about an area portal? This can easily become a reality if the organisation websites can easily syndicate content to the area portal (through RSS for example)

8 Comments on “Do councils need a website at all?”

  1. Pingback: Do councils need a website at all? | DavePress

  2. I think this will happen naturally (for some services) as location-aware devices become mainstream.

    As an example, fixmystreet.com. You’re walking to the bus, you note a new pothole, you check your phone to see if it’s been reported, if not you add it to the fixmystreet (or whatever) service.

    You don’t need to know what council area you’re in, and you don’t care whose responsibility it is – the council’s, the electricity supplier’s, the roads authority… you’ve reported it, quickly and easily.

    Councils’ efforts should be directed, as you say, to making their data openly available, for reuse by third-party and other agencies.

    Mysociety is the exemplar here. It’s all about the internet as platform.

  3. Hi Simon, I have been thinking the same thing, i blogged a couple of concepts about this a while ago see http://carlhaggerty.wordpress.com/2008/08/19/a-concept-for-devon-online-version-2/

    I am now in the process of writing the updated corporate web strategy and i am hoping to remove the emphasis away from a traditional corporate site, but towards a community wide web, incorporating local services within it. It will also focus on the increasing role social media tools like facebook etc have to play in enabling councils to deliver services – mash-ups (a local council 2.0 model) would be great. Our driver for change is local government review, so i am hoping that we can take advantage of the increased focus on change and transformation.

    keep me posted on your developments.

    Carl

  4. first, wow! I’ve never used a site with such broken tab order! Tab from comment name, and i ended up at your search box instead of comment email.

    Secondly, i think it would me monumentally stupid for a council not to have a website. Yes, that information should be aggregated somewhere, recording geographical context as well as relevant service info in order. But residents need to be assured that the info they read is the most credible. They want to know when their bins are collected, they should be able to go to their council site, and know, by fact of the url, the .gov.uk domain, and perhaps even digital certificate, that what they are viewing is legitimate.

    Councils have a lot of responsibility to ensure their info is legitimate, accurate, updated, and can be searched. They are the custodians of the information regarding the services they provide. The problem is, it isn’t joined up properly.
    Direct Govs spreadsheet of Urls for services is so incredibly stupid I don’t understand why anyone returns the info. But that is the role that must be updated.

  5. b3rn – I agree. Have seen fixmystreet etc and very impressed. Not being technically minded how do they do the integration to make it work for all councils?

    Carl – great post. Agree with much of your vision. The challenges will be delivering it and delivering the organisational change to support it! Will keep you posted on our progress

    Doug – thanks for the tip re tabindex – was a casualty of my recent redesign I think. All fixed now. The issue of credibility and authenticity is an important one – I’ve been in local govt too long to be completely objective, but my assumption is that .gov.uk is understood and trusted by majority of users?

    In a scenario where services/information are syndicated, being transparent who the provider is would be very important.

  6. I’m in local gov too, and the there is a certain amount of credibility with a .gov.uk domain, but its more about ownership. If I’m at somecouncil.gov.uk and read from them that for more info about a service I should contact anothercouncil.gov.uk, its clear who has published that information, and that somecouncil are telling me they don’t do that service. If it were allinonebasket.gov.uk, who will manage these information boundaries? There are differences in service provision that go beyond someone’s postcode.
    It played around my mind more after commenting here (see how useful open and transparent discourse is!), and the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to thinkall councils need one big search box, with quick links to the corporate stuff, the tourism stuff, and the more topical/popular stuff. Not sure if you know about the OpenSearch mechanism, but if every government website supported it, there could be a central search facility along the lines of a9.com, implementing IPSV or some such, where visitors can search everything with the choice to narrow the search by provider.
    In summary,federation and aggregation, not centralisation.

  7. I worked in local government communications for a while and tried the non-digital version of this, by getting the various community orientated press departments all working together. Broadly it was successful, however some of the more obscure public services didn’t want to join in.

    I think a community based website would be far more useful and engaging. With XML it should be quite easy for every news release to be tagged so that someone can go to the shared site and look for “safety” + “advice” and “Woodside” and get all the news releases, videos, fliers relevant to this, along with a set of key contacts. The difficulty is sorting these tags into something meaningful and not having an information overload.

    I recently mentioned the idea of having “hyper-local” information on my blog (http://wesenwille.wordpress.com/2008/10/07/community-safety-hyperlocal-twitter-accounts/) I wonder if this would be another aspect of your vision…

  8. Doug – thanks – an interesting discussion indeed. I like the idea of a unified search – it would remove many of the “artificial” boundaries that exist in public services – for example by geography, organisational boundaries or, in the worst cases, internal silos.

    Kevin- I like the idea of integrating Twitter and the hyper-local angle is worth exploring. Through geotagging content on a site we could allow people to browse by location as well as the more traditional site structures – or maybe we shouldn’t have a fixed site structure and use extensive tagging to allow people to use the site in their own desired way. That said, I know how challenging metadata can be on a large CMS-based site to get consistency – bad tagging could give a very poor experience.

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