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GOVERNMENT WEBSITES FALL SHORT OF MEETING CITIZENS' NEEDS SAYS NEW REPORT

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Government websites are falling short of meeting the needs of those citizens most likely to require information and...
Government websites are falling short of meeting the needs of those citizens most likely to require information and services from government organisations. This is the conclusion of a new report published today by the Society of IT Management (Socitm) and Citizens Advice, the charity representing the national network of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

'Better connected: Advice to citizens' reports on the ability of local authority and central government websites to provide relevant information and services in response to enquiries in areas like benefits, housing, health, debt, legal proceedings, consumer complaints and relationship breakdown. These areas were chosen as the focus of the research since they cover the majority of the six million problems reported each year to Citizens Advice Bureaux across the UK.

Assuming the position of a citizen with problems these areas, researchers tested government websites with a series of likely questions. On disability benefits, for example, the Department of Work and Pensions website was interrogated with questions like: 'Does the site explain the eligibility criteria' and 'can the application form (for benefit) be completed and returned electronically' and 'are there instructions on what to do if you do not understand or cannot provide all documentation'. The research methodology was developed from the tried and tested method used by Socitm for Better connected, its annual survey of the UK's 467 local authority websites.

Websites which came under scrutiny in the report included those run by:

Department of Trade and Industry

Department for Work and Pensions

Financial Services Authority

Legal Service Commission

Community Legal Service

NHS

NHS Direct

OFGEM

Trading Standards Central

UKOnline

A sample of 16 local authority sites was also tested for problems where the local authority website should be the first port of call (eg housing benefit). They were also tested for their ability to show community leade rship and demonstrate joined up government by directing users to relevant central government sites for the problems covered in the survey. UKOnline was also tested to see how well this site, heavily promoted as a gateway to electronic delivery across government organisations, actually performs in this role.

Finally, the performance of government sites with Internet search engines was tested. Terms such as 'disability benefit' and 'free prescriptions' were entered into Google to see whether 'search' would take a visitor to government websites with the relevant information.

The evidence from the research shows that government websites have some way to go before they will be able to fulfill citizens' needs for information and services in the areas tested. People entering relying on search engines to take them to sources of official, government information will far too often find themselves led to inappropriate websites if they use everyday language in their search terms, whilst relevant and appropriate sites are ignored. The performance of UKOnline as a signpost to e-government services is disappointing.

Once the right government website is found, its ability to provide the right information and usable services is far from reliable. The ability to access claim forms online is a key aspect of the usefulness and usability of government websites, but the user experience varies widely. Some forms are very easy to download, but others are unnecessarily difficult. Some forms allow you to save them partially completed others do not. And it is clear that many forms have not been redesigned to make them work well on the web.

David Harker, chief executive of Citizens Advice says in his foreword to the report that: 'E-services have the potential to transform service delivery for the better. It is therefore vitally important that public services think carefully about how they design services, and how they provide information through the internet.'

According to Martin Greenwood, programm e manager for Socitm Insight, 'Better connected: Advice to citizens' demonstrates that web managers must try harder to really understand what information people want: 'All parts of government should take as broad a view as possible of the difficulties of citizens and consumers of their services. The Citizens Advice list of common problems and the questions that might be linked to them are a good starting point.'

Read the report here.

Read the summary here.

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