Is content king?

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Jeremy Hunt sat in a packed room in the House of Commons and spoke with the expectant crowd about his plans to both open up broadband access to more of the public as well as to enable the roll out of ultra high speed broadband for a small number of towns. He also sat through a rather cheeky and lengthy pitch for Gateshead’s city status bid, but perhaps that’s a mini-rant for another day.

These plans for enabling more people than ever to get online are very welcome, especially with the ever growing importance of channel shift (moving people from face-to-face contact to phones, and from phones to online in order to save money). Smartphones are becoming ever more prevalent, and decent Internet connection will help make these channel ambitions a reality. We’ve previously discussed that this isn’t for everyone, but the direction of travel for the masses appears to be clear.

So far, so good. We are helping people to get online and encouraging them to do so; what could go wrong?

Have you seen your average council website?

If its anything like the random sample we looked at then it doesn’t matter how fast your web access is or how much you are pushed towards it, you are not going to go back any time soon.

For those who’ve never really considered their own council website and why it is the way it is, we recommend you take a quick look there now. What you will see is usually something which appears to have been in place for several years, filled with text and impenetrable navigation and more out of date images than at your average barbers.

Most make use of a shared taxonomy – list of words and areas – that was originally intended to make navigation on one site as easy as that on another; if you knew how to find out about your bins in Aberdeen then you could do the same in Yeovil. Trouble is, who would need to do so doesn’t seem to have been considered, and with so very many different authority websites with their respective content management systems trying to unify the lot has resulted in hundreds of sites all directed by committee and being actually useful to few.

The range of services offered by your average council appears to require thousands of web pages to explain, along with reams of supporting documents linked to all over the place. The default position seems to be ‘if in doubt, knock a web page out’, resulting in sprawling sites of several layers and more breadcrumbs than Hovis.

As the crowd at #ukgc12 were told later that week, will be getting a bit of a makeover and a haircut; the realisation that several pages of advice on bee keeping and horse foaling wasn’t really required on a government website was a refreshing one. It may take a while before local government catches up fully, but in the meantime we might all be in a position to consider our own corners of the web and what we actually need to do there rather than all the things we could do.

Rather than our first response being ‘we’ll need a micro-site for that’, how about questioning who needs to see that information at all, and then tailoring an approach with them in mind? Ask your web team for usage stats for similar pages and you may be surprised to see how few people appreciate the hours or days worth of work that was put into crafting those fifty paragraphs of text. Cut it down or cut it out; if you can’t say it simply, ask if you need to say it at all.

And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that text online means people will read it; if you weren’t interested writing it, that will shine through. The web is a vibrant, dynamic place and your content should in some way reflect that. Keep sentences short and use images; when your web team try to tell you that there is no space on the server for images, tell them to stop making excuses and free up the 30kb or so you are asking for by getting rid of all those useless scraps of site which haven’t been viewed or updated for three years because no-one knows who owns them.

If you are planning a slightly more radical shakeup of your website then you could do worse than take heed of our previous advice and stick to a simple core system with all other transactional functions being made to work with – rather than alongside – this. Insist on this approach of small but perfectly formed parts creating a greater whole, which will mean you are no longer shackled to any single system for your entire online offerings.

And think about what these transactions will be. Will users really want to use the council website to find the contact details for their local takeaway, or are they more likely to be interested in finding nearby planning applications? If they want to pay their parking fine then don’t require them to have a different password for when they pay their council tax. Think real user, not real salesperson.

In fact, why make them have a separate password at all when they could link their social networking accounts up and integrate the two? I know not everyone may be interested in saying they ‘like’ their council, but with nigh on every decent major website offering this functionality as a matter of course we risk preventing people from being comfortable accessing our services.

Essentially, the message is that we need to stop thinking like local government from seven or eight years ago and start thinking about where we are today and where we will be in a few months or years time. If we fail to take the initiative here then no matter how fast the public are able to access our websites they simply won’t, leaving us to literally count the cost of every avoidable phone contact and wish we’d invested a fraction of that cost and time doing things properly when we had the chance.

We Love Local Government is a blog written by local government officers. If you’ve got something you’d like to share, send it to us at or catch us @welovelocalgov

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9 Comments on “Is content king?”

  1. A really excellent article. Amongst the biggest problems local Council’s have is the obsession with comparing themselves primarily with other Councils.

    Having your website judged to be in the upper quartile by Soctim is about as useless a measure as you can get as regards what your users and residents demand. Why not benchmark against the BBC or other public sector organisations.

    This peering at other Councils for ideas also fuels the samey look and structure.

    Hopefully @barnetcouncil will have a good read. They are guilty of much of what you highlight as poor practice and, alas, seem to have micro site-itis too.

    • And, sorry, forgot to add agree fully that people will come to Councils for certain information. Things that they are known to hold information on, such as planning applications. We’ve had a bit of a twitter war this week arguing as to whether the Council should be tweeting out half baked facts on cold weather and shouldn’t stick to what it knows and people expect it to know best.

  2. when local councils in cadiz province in southern spain launched their first websites many of them used the same simple template (provided, I think, by the provincial or regional government).

    As a regular user of the sites, it was a treat to be able to get to the bit of the site you needed without scouring the home page. Never mind that once you got there the content was mostly gibberish/out of date/absent.

  3. forgot to say: good article.

  4. I’m not sure if you have seen Socitm’s recent announcement that simpler, more focussed council websites are likely to get higher ratings in Better connected 2012, our latest survey of council websites, due to be published on March 1. If you have, you’ll know that it says exactly the same thing as you are saying above.

    We’ve changed the survey assessment criteria to embrace fully the concept of ‘top tasks’ and promote the importance of quick and simple customer journeys from search engine or home page through to resolution.

    We believe, like you, that councils need to simplify website design and content to better meet the needs of online customers and encourage more people to shift to the web channel.

    The 2012 survey has tested the following top tasks:

    • Apply for council job
    • Object to a planning application
    • Find rubbish collection day
    • Pay council tax
    • Renew library book
    • Find opening times for local swimming pool
    • Find records office opening hours
    • Find out about getting help at home
    • Find out school term dates
    • Apply for dog licence
    • Find how to register death
    • Find how to register a food business
    • Find winter gritting route

    For each task reviewers tested:

    • Ease of finding the task (eg arrival from Google, use of internal search, use of A to Z, use of information architecture and use of landing pages)

    • Ease of completing the task (step-by-step customer journey to completion, promotion of online option, assessment of supporting information )

    Tasks were selected as ‘top’ tasks on the basis of evidence from Socitm Insight’s Website take-up service, which gathers data about service usage by visitors to council websites. This survey is used by 140 councils and provides more than 25,000 user responses a month.

    Better connected 2012 will be published on 1 March 2012 – see for further details.

    • The focus and worship of Soctim is a huge part of the problem. With all due respect to ‘IT professionals’ asking them to provide the answers what local residents want from websites is the tail wagging the dog.

      These subjective decisions must be made from the grass roots up, from re-empowered local Councillors discussing with their residents and then getting technical advice as to how it can best be done.

      As much we love IT geeks they aren’t the people to be driving this.

  5. […] week on the blog we have looked at officer neutrality, council websites, local government managers and the balance between working in local government and having a young […]

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