* 'transactional' sites up to 23
* transactions offered up by more than 46% compared with 2002
* a user survey of nine sample local authority sites shows that 83% were likely to make the website their first port of call if looking for similar information in future
* performance in the ODPM's proposed 14 priority service areas is 'patchy' and some proposed 'mandatory outcomes' look certain not to be achieved by end 2005
* report includes findings in nine new topics including use of forms, search engines, and compliance with level A WAI accessibility standard
The size of the e-government task to be achieved by end 2005 has been highlighted in Better connected 2004, the annual report on local authority websites now in its sixth year and published by the Society of IT Management.
The Better connected survey provides a definitive snapshot of local government performance on the web. Every UK local authority website is reviewed and assessed against relevant e-government and good practice criteria and then ranked as - in descending order of desirability - a transactional, content plus, content, or promotional site.
This year's results show that one third of sites have moved up a rank in status, that 23 sites are now transactional (up from ten in 2003), and that there has been an increase of 46% in the number of self-service 'transactions' (eg paying council tax or reporting a faulty street light) available through local authority websites since 2002.
However, when the detailed survey findings are mapped against the mandatory outcomes in 14 priority service areas proposed by the ODPM in its recent consultation paper Defining E-government priority services and transformation outcomes in 2005 for local authorities in England, the results indicate the size of the e-government task local authorities are facing.
While the survey does show evidence of steady progress that, if maintained, should ensure local authorities achieve mandatory outcomes in some areas, like online library renewals (60% already), other services, such as booking sports facilities, have barely started - just 12 instances were found by the Better connected research team. Meanwhile major areas like social housing and benefits have recently been shown in the report Better connected: advice to citizens to be poorly catered for on local authority websites.
In addition, the report is quite clear that the mandatory outcomes in two specific areas - conformance with Level AA of the WAI guidelines for accessibility, and the compliance with e-GMS for joined-up government - will not be achieved by all councils. In the case of the accessibility conformance, the report's conclusion is based on the fact that its accessibility survey carried out on all websites shows a compliance level to just Level A by only 18 councils.
Better connected 2004 contains a wealth of other information, much of it positive, both from the 'mystery shopping' exercise which is the main element of the research and from nine other surveys carried out with a series of collaborators (see below for further information). Key findings from the research include the following:
- Comparison with CPA results in England shows that top-tier excellent councils have website rankings that are 16% higher than the rest (in shire districts the gap widens to 23%).
- Although access to the Internet across the UK is not really growing very much, there is positive evidence to encourage local authorities to invest in their websites.
- According to surveys carried out for Better connected, between 3.8m and 5.7m people visited local authority sites in December 2003, (8.2% and 12.3% of the population, excluding under 15s).
- Feedback from a user survey at nine councils with well developed sites shows that 74% would make the website their first port of call if looking for similar information in future
- The number of technical errors on local authority sites has halved during the year according to the SiteMorse tests.
According to Martin Greenwood, programme manager for Socitm Insight which produces the annual Better connected report, 'the next year, and the one after, will not be easy times for many local authorities implementing e-government, especially in England, where balancing local priorities against mandatory national priorities will be challenging. However, one way of maximising resources is to share lessons learned. The Better connected report is very efficient means of doing so.'
The executive summary of Better connected 2004 is available here.
1. How the research was done
This year's Better Connected survey was carried out between 15 November and 23 December 2003 and involved a team of reviewers visiting all websites managed by 467 councils throughout the UK. Using a structured questionnaire the team explored the ability of websites to respond to the sort of needs a range of typical local authority customers might have, and to test performance in the areas of joined-up government; interactive applications; currency of information; usability; and responsiveness to e-mail.
Using the research findings, the team then classified the websites as 'promotional'; 'content'; 'content plus' or 'transactional'. 'Transactional' means significantly interactive and is seen as the goal to which all local authority websites should be aspiring in order to meet the requirements of e-government.
Using this rating, this year's survey shows that:
- 56 local authorities have promotional sites, (12%)
- 209 have content sites (45%)
- 177 have content plus sites (38%)
- 23 have transacti onal sites (5%)
2 Additional surveys reported in Better connected 2004
This year the 'core' Better connected survey has been supplemented by several additional surveys, some carried out by members of the Better connected team and some carried out by other organisations:
- user feedback (sample of websites only) - results provided by RedSheriff
- use of content management systems - special survey by BC team
- website accessibility - results provided by RNIB
- various technical assessments provided by the SiteMorse benchmarking product
- various tests on the quality of search engines provided by SciVisum
- tests on website readability (involving a sample of websites only) provided by Emphasis Training
- access to the Internet research from MORI
- statistics on use of websites provided by Hitwise
- survey of local authority switchboards to test whether website addresses were given correctly - special survey by BC team
- survey of the use of forms by local authority websites - special survey by BC team
- survey of response to an e-mail enquiry sent from the website - special survey by BC team
- survey of participation - instances of the website being used for consultation and other forms of citizen engagement - special survey by BC team
- survey of news value - special survey by BC team
3. The 23 'transactional' sites identified by Better connected 2004
- Barking & Dagenham
- Birmingham City (from 2003)
- Bracknell Forest
- Brighton & Hove
- Camden (from 2002)
- Corporation of London
- Durham CC
- Hertfordshire CC (from 2002)
- Isle of Wight
- Kensington & Chelsea
- Kirklees MBC
- Maidstone BC (from 2003)
- Borough of Poole
- South Tyneside MBC
- Stroud DC (from 2003)
- Surrey CC
- Tameside MBC (from 2001)
- Wandsworth (from 2003)
- West Lothian
- Westminster City (from 2002)
- Wrexham CBC (from 2003)
5. The most improved sites
The following had only a basic site 12 months ago and have gone up two ranks to achieve a C+ rating. If a local authority has the will to improve and makes good use of surveys such as this that help in the discovery of best practice, it is quite feasible to make this level of improvement. The potential for doing this, however, is less high than it has been as sites gradually move away from being purely promotional. This almost certainly explains why this list is over half the length of the similar lists in the past three years.
East Devon DC
North Devon DC
Shrewsbury & Atcham BC
6. Report contents summary
Better connected 2004 is presented in six parts:
Part A Today's context
This section provides a reminder about the purpose of the survey and in particular the new criteria of 'useful, usable and used' published as part ofthe LAWs national project. the key points about the developing policies for local e-government implementation are summarised.
Part B Overview of this year's results
The first part of the survey results looks at the national picture in terms of overall rankings and improvement trends and includes our lists of transactional sites, our Top 20 and other top groupings.
Part C This year's results - useful content
We turn to the detailed analysis of the results. Firstly, we report here on five scenarios of typical visitors for information content and then focus on currency of information, use of links, response to e-mail, development of forms, provision of services and the practice of participation. All these factors help develop the conte nt of the site.
Part D This year's results - usability
The second dimension of the results concerns usability. This covers ease of finding, use of navigational aids such as A-Z lists, search engines and locational data, general navigation, accessibility, readability and, finally, technical resilience. All these factors shape the user experience.
Part E This year's results - usage
Our third perspective is focused on usage. We report the latest surveys about what people think about local authority websites in principle and compare this with what they actually think just after they have experienced using them. We also examine usage figures for the local government sector as a whole and provide advice about the way in which websites might be promoted, based on the evidence we have collated.
Part F The future
Finally, we look to the future. Nationally, in England, outcomes against proposed priority service areas may well influence website developments. Locally, those councils that do not have the basics in place should learn from the case study of East Devon DC, one of our most improved sites. Those that have well-developed sites need to think about all the new pieces of evidence provided by this report.
6. How the Better connected team rates websites
Socitm Insight has developed a rating system for local authority websites. This rating reflects the potential for local authority websites to pay a major role in the delivery of e-government. On this basis, all local authority websites should be aspiring to achieve 'transactional' status as soon as possible, with the steps along the way being the achievement first of promotional, then content, and then content plus status.
Promotional sites provide basic promotional information about the organisation
with very little scope for interaction. They might typically concentrate on tourism, economic development and basic departmental information, with limited information on individual services beyond an A-Z with telephone contact numbers. Little use will be made of e-mail or online feedback, although a few gateway links might be provided.
Content sites provide useful content and encourage some interaction. They have more sophisticated promotional information (eg accommodation search, downloadable files) and include features such as What's New pages, A-Z service listings and keyword site search facilities. They usually include some basic user interaction (eg clicking on an area map to find details of local councillors) and make use of e-mail and online feedback on home pages.
Content plus sites provide very useful content and offer some examples of more
advanced online self-service features. They allow individual users to define their own search criteria (eg search by postcode for service information, refine searches of local tourist accommodation by type and price), may include links to services such as Girobank for online payment and online databases for items such as library catalogues, planning applications, committee minutes. Service information is comprehensive and makes widespread use of e-mail, online feedback and even discussion forums. Such sites also typically host information on behalf of the wider local community.
Transactional sites are accessible, complete, thoughtful and coherent. They have developed more than one type of online interaction (eg payment, applications, consultation, bookings) and also offer examples of customer recognition (eg ability to check outstanding Council Tax balance). They also provide specific email contacts for different service enquiries and make widespread use of databases, downloadable forms and online form filling (eg for service requests, appointments). They routinely utilise the potential of the Internet for joined-up government (eg OFSTED reports listed alongside schools listings) and offer unique examples of the application of the medium in a local government context.
7. A note on collaborators in Better connected 2004
Socitm would like to thank t he following organisations for their help in contributing to this report. Their advice has helped to add balance with a number of different perspectives:
Office of the e-Envoy in the Cabinet Office (www.e-envoy.gov.uk)
Society of Public Information Networks (www.spin.org,uk)
MORI Social Research Institute (www.mori.com)
Royal National Institute for the Blind (www.rnib.org.uk)
Business2www (suppliers of SiteMorse???) (www.sitemorse.com)
Emphasis Training (www.writing-skills.com)
Institute of Public Relations - Local Government Group (IPRLLG) (www.ipr.org.uk/lgg/index.htm)
LG Communications (www.lgcomms.org.uk)