Vicky is programme co-director for Connected Local Government Live and the Boilerhouse series of Digital Innovations Showcases. She is programme director for Socitm - Better Connected and a board director of Boilerhouse Communications Limited@vickysargent
Better Connected has been reviewing local authority websites since 1999, before some councils even had a site ("a fad that would not last" perhaps?).
Things have changed hugely since those early days with software, devices, digital infrastructure and human behaviour – no social media back then – not to mention what has happened with local authority funding and management. But at the heart of Better Connected one thing has stayed constant: our focus on user experience. Back in the day, we said that council websites should be useful, usable, and used, and that still holds true.
Better connected surveys – results of which are free to view online - explore the ability of websites to resolve of a series of top tasks. These may be informational (find out about keeping fit) or transactional (pay parking fine).
Tasks are selected from service areas that have high web visitor numbers (based on data from Socitm’s Website Performance service) which may be important in budgetary terms (social care) or which are topical for reasons of legislative or other change. Inclusion of purely informational tasks is based on the fact that data shows more than half of all visits to council websites to be for information only.
Reviewers conduct some tests on a smartphone (eg the rubbish & recycling tasks in Better connected 2016-17), reflecting the fact that more than half of all visits to council websites are now made from mobile devices.
As well as performance in service-based tasks, the survey evaluates site navigation, search, and A to Z; the degree to which sites are purposed for access from mobile devices; and their accessibility to people with disabilities. Testing the latter is carried out for Better connected by the Digital Accessibility Centre.
From the 2015-16 survey cycle, Better Connected began to publish headline results from all 416 UK councils’ free-to-view online, along with some key contextual data about population, households, and deprivation within the council footprint. Together with up to five years’ worth of Better Connected results, this has made the site a really useful source of data for any observer trying to get a handle on where a particular council made be at on its digital journey.
Another highly significant change, made at the same time, was to publish and promote the service based surveys (ie those that focus on planning, waste, libraries, highways etc) individually and to award Better Connected ‘stars’ for each, rather than continuing with the practice of publishing one overall star for the whole website.
Now that the planning department, say, can see its performance online highlighted on a public website, it becomes less easy for them to dismiss Better Connected’ as a web manager only concern. Planners can easily access the detail of where their pages may have fallen short and work with the web team to put things right.
This is as it should be, since service based failure is often down to issues with the service management software service teams have acquired, or the way it has been implemented. Or sometime is to down to pre-digital processes being dumped onto the web or a lack of commitment to customer self-service.
The focus on service-based tasks has also enabled Better Connected to engage more with software providers, not least by inviting them to support individual surveys with sponsorship. While development of question sets will always remain with the Better Connected team, there is no doubt that established and new to market suppliers have much to bring to the programme in terms of their knowledge of technology trends and understanding of the local public secotr nationally and sometime internationally. The same applies to our mobile, accessibility and search/navigation and A-Z tests.
In 2017 a number of our survey partners carried their involvement through to the Better Connected Live. The event provided direct feedback on councils’ performance in Better Connected as well providing a platform to discuss wider issues around digital development in key service areas.
Service-specific workshops at this event were supported also by our local authority professional association partners, including the Society of Chief Librarians, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, the Local Area Research & Intelligence Association, and the Local CIO Council.
Better Connected 2016-17 showed that 55% of UK local government websites provide a good or very good experience from a user perspective, with he percentage of 3 & 4 star up by 11% year on year - an encouraging result for UK council websites.
But the need for testing continues. Council websites are trying to hit a constantly moving target. Some need encouragement to keep up: 19% of council sites are still presenting a desktop site when accessed from a mobile device, not nearly enough are accessible to people with disabilities, and when it comes to popular tasks like ordering a bulky waste collection, too many still expect people to call the council or force them to because of insufficient or ambiguous content.
Better connected surveys results are free to view online at https://betterconnected.socitm.net
Better Connected service reports are available from https://betterconnected.socitm.net/services and mobile, accessibility and search/navigation and A-Z reports from https://betterconnected.socitm.net/usability.
Slide sets from Better Connected Live 2017 can be found at https://www.slideshare.net/BoilerhouseCommunica1/presentations