12 June 2012
Socitm is holding its annual Building perfect council websites event on 12 July. I’m sure it’ll be very helpful so my best wishes go to everyone running and attending the event.
Here’s my own brief list of strategies and ideas to help you improve your local council website.
Ultimately, only you can decide what you’re trying to achieve with your council website and whether you’ve achieved it. While Socitm has probably done more than any single directly-involved organisation to raise web standards in local government, too many councils are taking the Better Connected review process as gospel. Not only does it have a disproportionate influence on many councils’ web strategies, I’ve even seen “maintain and improve the council’s Socitm rating” as part of job adverts for council web staff. This is wholly misguided.
The aim of a council website isn’t to get a good rating from Socitm or approving comments from anyone else. The aim is to serve the public better. You should be no more trying to improve your Socitm rating as a specific goal than you’d write a novel just to get a good hearing in the London Review of Books. Don’t put the cart before the horse.
So develop your own standards and find someone outside the council to give your website a rigorous assessment. Your standards will need to be informed by a very broad range of sources and people (including Socitm’s reports, why not?) but ultimately it’ll be your vision and your standards that count. If you can defend your standards and meet them, it hardly matters what others think. Listen and learn but never delegate your vision to others.
It takes more than passion to make great public services but it’s a necessary requirement. To make great council websites you need passion for the public and passion for the web. But councils are often stuck with suppliers and partners trotting out the minimum needed to tick a list of features with no real insight or effort, let alone panache.
This is particularly noticeable among businesses offering web front-ends to their back-office software for common business functions such as finance, town planning and street fault reporting. Very often these web apps are poor translations of desktop software with no evident deep understanding of web technologies and design.
Where you can, choose to work with people who view the web as the main event, not just another tick-box feature in their product’s sales brochure. Where you don’t have a choice, push your suppliers to raise their game by clearly explaining your standards and expectations and showing examples of how they can improve.
If you want to build a better council website, start with trying to build a better website. The public service context is crucially important for you to achieve your website’s full potential but many councils are still stuck with resolving web design and management issues that are common to all organisations.
So take time to raise your standards on the bread-and-butter web issues: fast and reliable hosting, elegant and valid markup, great usability, inspiring aesthetics, and lively content. Great council web designers are great web designers first, so look outside the sector for inspiration and opportunities to improve your craft.
Everyone pays lip service to having a user focus but few organisations really demonstrate it. Discussions around council websites still focus on the sites themselves, the pages, pixels and words, rather than on empathy, empowerment and experiences. (Here too – it’s a tough trap to avoid.)
If you’ve never seriously asked yourself how it feels to be someone else using your council website then you don’t have a user focus. How does it feel to use it if you’re in a desperate hurry to get something done? If you don’t read or write English well? If you don’t understand how public services work? If you’re standing up on a bus using a phone with one hand?
Your council website isn’t what matters. It’s people finding the information they need and understanding it, it’s people getting access to the services they need with a minimum of fuss, it’s the smiles or frowns at the end of the process. Work backwards from your users’ lives and goals to build experiences that serve them better. Don’t put the stuff you make first.
The web doesn’t stand still. The world doesn’t stand still. Nor should you. Don’t build yesterday’s websites for yesterday’s people. Technology and society moves so quickly that last year’s great website is this year’s embarrassment unless it keeps up the pace. Radicalism and change isn’t an end in itself but you should try to build for the world that will exist when your project is complete, not the one that existed when it was first conceived. As ice hockey players say, skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it is.
Adrian Short works to get people the information they need, when they need it, in a way that they can understand.