What should a council’s website look like?

by Dave on January 24, 2009

in E-Democracy, egovernment

Simon Wakeman presents a nice roundup of some of the new websites being launched, comparing Barnet and Cheltenham’s latest efforts with the current poster-child, Redbridge.

Generating an environment for residents to interact online with their councils will generate more engagement with the democratic process and council work in general – but it needs truly interactive platforms, a supportive culture within the council and a drive from officers and members to create genuinely two-way conversations.

Simon is right to call out Redbridge for the lack of interactivity in his post. Some basics have been missed: no RSS, no home page box for me to enter my email address to get news updates straight to me.

I think Redbridge and other sites like this are missing what the web is really about these days.

What local authorities (and government generally) need to understand is that they need to stop thinking about their websites as a destination. They should provide people with the information they want, where they want and in the format they want – not force them to spend hours personalising a site in which they have very little interest other than finding out when their bins get collected.

In fact, here’s a (only slightly stupid) vision for council websites. Make them look like Google. Not iGoogle, but the actual Google homepage, with just a search box on it. Make sure the search works, so people can actually find what they want, and then add an option to receive an email when that content changes.


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{ 1 trackback }

Cheltenham go for search | DavePress
March 4, 2009 at 3:34 pm

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James Darling January 24, 2009 at 11:37 am

Redbridge is the current poster-child? Goodness, I live in Redbridge, and was quite mesmorised at how much they had missed the point. It is a step int he right direction, but far from there.

But I’m now oh so jealous of cheltenham.gov.uk. It’s got clear IA and UI plus it’s accessible with Unobtrusive Javascript.
I am actually in awe. On a quick overview, I can’t fault it on anything major. Can you? I’m interested. To me it’s the best .gov.uk site I’ve ever seen.

2 Dave January 24, 2009 at 11:47 am

No, it’s a lovely site. And in Jadu too! Wonders will never cease.

But… no ability to sign up for email alerts that I can see, and the RSS is buried in a small news box, and there’s no autodiscover.

I’m probably nit picking, it is probably the best I have seen.

3 Simon Wakeman January 24, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for the link Dave.

The “search box homepage” was one idea we were knocking around a couple of weeks ago – as most visitors have a clear idea what they want, and categorising the breadth of services most councils provide in a way that is understood by the majority of users is virtually impossible.

I think we might do a bit more investigating this…

4 Stuart Harrison January 24, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Interesting stuff. The minimal front page thing is something I’ve thought about too, but I do think a lot of people internally still see the council’s website as a promotional tool too, so there may be some resistance. Still, I think as more and more people use social networking sites, these are going to be more and more important for promotion. Getting in people’s faces via social media is much more effective than sticking an ad on the homepage.

And what’s wrong with Jadu eh? :p

5 Mike Amos-Simpson January 24, 2009 at 1:24 pm

I kind of agree with the ‘all people go there for is to get the info they need and then go’, thing. Thats all I ever go to the local authority site for, and usually I get there from google anyway.

But….. I think councils should be really encourage to experiment. In the same way that some think RSS feeds and integration with social media are important, somebody else maybe thinks I don’t want RSS feeds, I don’t need updates from the council. I don’t care about integration with youtube and having a facebook page is a waste of somebodys paid time – I just want to get the info I need, when I need it. So they’re never likely to please everyone, but I think they should be encouraged to experiment. In the same way that town centres are bland when they all have the same shops maybe the same could be said if all their websites looked the same?

Has any research been done by any local authority about how people actually want to use their sites and what they need from it? and if so has it been broken down by age group etc. ?

6 MJ Ray January 24, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Big flaw with the “search box homepage” idea: councils can’t do search properly. Lots of councils (including n-somerset.gov.uk) return some misleading 404 Not Found “Server Error in ‘/’ Application. The resource cannot be found” message if you try to search and don’t allow them javascript, cookies and general insecure-IE-default access. That means it doesn’t work from my work computer unless I weaken my security settings and it definitely doesn’t work from my mobile phone without some jumping through hoops.

I have no faith that councils would learn how to do search properly, learn how to test it, or learn how to react to bug reports from their tax-payers. So, a single-route site based on search would lock out tons of users from many councils.

Before running with radical web design ideas, councils should first learn to walk with basic, informative, structured websites that work and follow basic accessibility guidelines.

7 MJ Ray January 24, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Just to illustrate the point, the header search box on Barnet Online doesn’t work either. I can’t delete the “Please enter your search” text and I didn’t see why not at a glance. Bizarrely, I can click search and then edit the box in the page body to do the search I want. Anyone else seeing this behaviour? May be NoScript.net at fault, but these things should be tested to make sure they work without scripts.

8 Harry January 24, 2009 at 3:48 pm

While implementing a search box as main site navigation may seem radical, it’s only so because it’s not been done in local gov. before.

But there’s other sorts of sites where the same problem exists. That is, where visitors are trying to find relevant information out of a vast weight of pages. And in those sorts of sites, the seemingly simple strategy of categorising information, and leading users down a hierarchy has been outcompeted by the simple search box. Google is the mammal, Yahoo the dinosaur.

Categorising large sets of pages for multiple audiences is actually pretty hard. And implementing search isn’t particularly difficult. Hitting Google with the search string “site:barnet.gov.uk council tax” gets pages of useful responses for example.

9 Simon Wakeman January 24, 2009 at 8:08 pm

I think I’d see the “search” as being one means of finding services/content – not the only one – albeit if it is raised in prominence it needs to be done accessibly and properly (in terms of the results it returns).

And I agree with Harry – it’s radical for local government, not in the wider internet world – but I think it’s worth exploring if user evidence shows that it can help a proportion of council site users.

10 PaulG January 25, 2009 at 11:52 am

I was really hoping this discussion might be in a similar vein to this one:


… but sadly, not.

Isn’t this what should happen with bin collections?

My device knows where I live, ergo it knows who is my council.

My council in turn knows where I live (because I gave my device permission to tell them), and the council knows when my bin is to be emptied.

So why don’t they let me subscribe to the service that picks up when an exception will occur? (bin lorry cannot get down my street)

Better yet, the council should selflessly slide themselves (and their spin) out of the way and simply broker (negotiate, organise, delegate and monitor) an agreement between my device and the company who empty the bins.

So the bin company now contacts me if there is an exception.

Even better yet, when the bin lorry cannot get down my road, the team on that truck who ACTUALLY EMPTY MY BINS should trigger a tweet/txt/email to be sent me that I should leave my bin out overnight.

If I tell my device where I live, and tell it to subscribe to exceptions, then shouldn’t the council be building the necessary infrastructure to let my data find the supplier data which it needs?

This is web3.0 thinking, not web2.0.

Maybe Simon called it right – the future direction of council websites, is no website, or rather some subscription engine, ning or pipes-like.

That may not necessarily even have a gui.

That is doable now in a variety of forms, what is missing are probably the will to do so and the agreed standards .

And, hey, when I go on holiday for 2 weeks – my device will automatically tell the team on the bin lorry not to expect my bin on x day, if I give it permission.

Maybe we should be highlighting what is pushing the envelope on the web of data and applauding those breaking the chains of the cms suppliers not holding up cute drag and drop gui elements and links to flickr as being somehow ‘cutting edge’.

11 Harry January 25, 2009 at 1:24 pm

I think that approach would suit a sub-set of the population very well.

(For me, an sms alert the night before collection, telling me what bin they want left where would be fab…)

But some folk can’t afford a “device” that’s conscious of where it lives, some that do won’t want to give it some sorts of permissions, some simply won’t be comfortable with letting the council interact with their device at all, etc. etc. etc.

Some folk – and it may even be the majority – will simply want to find that information themselves, from a single authoratative point. For some that will be a phone call, and for some it’ll be a website.

And I don’t think we have the solution of how to find information really cracked yet for that last group. So, I don’t think it’s sad that this discussion is about making finding information on council websites easier/better.

12 Mike Amos-Simpson January 25, 2009 at 2:27 pm

@paulg I love the thinking and agree with the sentiment of applauding those “breaking the chains”. However I don’t care to be honest if my bins are to be collected a day late – in my case the wheely bin still gets filled and its just out for a bit longer. Obviously that differs between authorities, so for some it could be useful, but the problem then is everyone wants something different – so to be able to allow people to choose which data gets pushed to them, they first need to be able to go somewhere and choose what they want to ‘pull’.

There are also other aspects to local authority sites. When I was deciding on somewhere to relocate to I looked at lots of different sites to get an idea of what areas were like – it makes a big difference to see a council thats gone to some effort to promote their area and the services they provide.

In any case for those people that prefer to have a google type of approach to getting info – why not just use google for that anyway?!

13 PaulG January 26, 2009 at 6:42 pm

To clarify:

“device” = PC, phone (maybe kitchen appliance or your wristwatch) anything with a browser on it.

Which information do you pull?
This would be the key job of the council – in fact their only task, is to broker, manage, oversee and respect my requirements.

The setting you made on your device will automatically bring back a list of services, the questions you will be asked may well depend on the level of privacy you told your device you hold dear.

The data on your device goes and finds what it needs, this isn’t fairy stories, what is almost unimaginable is the public having enough trust in government, and gov and suppliers agreeing to the few simple standards that would be needed.

So imagine another scenario, I and my family move into a council owned property. We have 4 children, and I tell my device its new location and list some of my personal details, and with whom I want to share those details.

The bin company’s actions to leave me a second rubbish bin (joke), the housing stock repair contractors decision to turn up and check the heating flu for co2, the grants section’s decision to send me a form to fill in for a redecoration grant … are, with the correct permissions, mere IT formalities which fire off on their own.

Why do I need to google the council website for things I don’t even know exist? ( never mind the vagaries of the 3 tier shire local govs … er, which council do I google that for?)

14 Mike Amos-Simpson January 26, 2009 at 7:53 pm

“Why do I need to google the council website for things I don’t even know exist? ( never mind the vagaries of the 3 tier shire local govs … er, which council do I google that for?)”

none – Google does that for you! “swimming pool opening times in xxxxxxx”, that was my point, the service already exists if thats what you want.

Even though it sounds convenient to have services tailored to perceived need, I think in reality most people want to keep control over a lot of stuff – maybe I don’t want that extra bin?

Agree with you about the trust factor. In part I also think many people are already too lazy and don’t take enough personal responsibility/too quick to blame their woes on the Govt. so even though that kind of technology could be available theres maybe wider considerations too?

15 PaulG January 29, 2009 at 10:39 am

Looking at what I wrote, I am sorry to have dragged this conversation off topic, I failed to make my main point.

In the clamour to claim to know what web2.0 actually is, and hail council x or y as being a proponent of this ephemeral web2.0 label, it troubles me that we are in danger of diluting the message that “social-web-ites” are really pushing.

To me that message seems to be the democratisation and enabling of people or groups of people using what is confusingly also called web2.0 – a.k.a. “joining up people”, or “enabling the web of people”.

This is really radical and is seen as threatening for many working in local government organisations.

In order to embrace and promote this democratic movement less prominence should be given to website bells and whistles, and more given to real attempts to permit the clustering of social interactivity on council turf.

It is going to be hard enough to identify, highlight and reward either the emerging signs of Local Government use of web2.0 (connecting people) or web3.0 (self connecting data) without having to stop and applaud the use of screen widgets, no matter how useful they may seem.

That’s just usability, look for the real stuff.

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