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Is fragmentation ruining localgov websites?

Many councils now have task-based, user-focused websites, but underneath the skin, too many are being let down by fragmented services. Leisure trusts, library services, social care and family directories are letting the site down. Focused on the organisation, and often policy heavy, these sites leave users with a disjointed and difficult experience, when accessing the services they need.

Many council digital teams don’t have the resources to fight this fragmentation and even in the larger councils digital isn’t afforded the importance to see this as a real issue that needs addressing. Part of the reason for this comes down to politics, but a lot is because in most councils there is little or no link between the cost of contact and the budget of the service areas who insist on controlling their web presence.

Unless the digital sector in local government can address this imbalance, it is likely to become an even bigger problem, as councils move from directly delivering services to commissioning others to deliver them on their behalf.

As PageSpeedy will testify, there are lots of newly designed council websites being launched every month. With the odd exception, most are a vast improvement on what has gone before. Lean, task-based, user-focused sites are becoming the norm, replacing the tick-box, policy-heavy monsters  that are the legacy of the eGovernment agenda from the early millennium.

While this new breed of local government site is letting people navigate to what they want faster, underneath the often thin veneer there are still many issues facing councils on their site, not least the fragmentation of the services across multiple sites.

Delegating services

Much of this fragmentation is a result of in-house services being outsourced to charitable trusts. Leisure services, particularly, have seen a vast growth in the use of trusts to deliver services. Often these trusts will take the service and assert their rights to the website as part of the deal.

While these trust sites can occasionally deliver a good, usable site, more often than not they are a step backwards in terms of user experience. They focus on competing for the gym membership market, and so neglect the larger group of casual users of council leisure services. For the user, that makes it much more difficult to find out the basics – where is the pool, when is it open, and how much does it cost to go swimming?

Internal battlegrounds

Outsourced services aren’t the only source of fragmentation. Internal departmental battles can, and frequently do, explode onto a council’s web presence. It’s all to common for a council’s library services to exist on a different site. Typically, these sites then usually fall into the trap of focusing on the heavy user of library services, the educator, the researcher or people booking rooms. The much larger segment of their audience, the casual library user, is foiled in their attempt to find out where the library us, and when it opens, because all paths seem to lead to the local history archive. The simple, commonly requested tasks are pushed out by the department’s own agenda.

It is quite sad. Just as core council websites are finally moving away from feeding the needs of the organisation, and towards user needs, this fragmentation of services takes whole chunks of online service delivery back in time.

What happens on a service’s website can lack accountability – if there is little or no coherent link between the digital presence, and the responsibility for service delivery, or cost, it can be difficult for relevant staff to see the value of doing the web differently. In many teams, the management of the website is seen as an administrative task, which risks placing responsibility for it with people who have little time, and even less authority, to change the way it is done.

Its not our fault… is it?

It would be wrong to just sit in our digital tower and blame others, of course. Digital teams sometimes come across as arrogant and not interested in the business needs of a service. If a service area doesn’t believe that the digital team are on their side, they are much more likely to look elsewhere and force through their existing beliefs. Digital teams need to get better at being on the side of the staff – which is tricky, because we know that looking inwards results in bad experiences for users. But it’s also true that ignoring the needs of your commissioning group isn’t even going to get you off the ground.

There is a lot of talk of embedding digital within the organisation, but are we really achieving this? If you think you are a digital council, stop and take a look: are all the services that the council is responsible for delivered in a consistent and unified way? Just because the leisure centres were farmed off to an independent trust, doesn’t divest the council of it’s responsibility to deliver those services, and deliver them well. The user doesn’t care who actually runs the pool. It’s the council’s job to run the pool, and they retain ultimate responsibility for how it is done.