Do councils need a website at all?

SimonGeneral

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)