Why do so many council websites get some basics wrong?

A survey of local council websites I have carried out finds that none of them manage to get two basic things right.

There are 1,001 different ways of judging the quality of your local council’s website, but increasingly I find there are just two, very simple, questions to ask which not only reveal an awful lot about the overall quality of the site (because I’ve yet to see a bad site which scores two ‘yes’ answers) but also in themselves are a key part of what a council should be doing online.

Does the website ask for your email address in a prominent way?

It’s unusual for a politician’s website not to ask for your email address on the front page, but it’s a rarity for a council website to ask for it.

Now if a council already has email addresses for most of its residents and anyway finds communicating with them by other means so easy that it doesn’t need to use email, then of course there’s no need to push email address collection through the website.

But back in the real world … many councils which spend millions each year on trying to communicate with residents have only extremely crude and hobbled email plans – starting with a failure to gather in email addresses  through their website.

Does the website have an RSS feed?

Back in the 1990s, the idea of websites was that you put your content on them and tried to get people to come to them. But in the modern world, you have to take your content to where people are. Make it easy to share, pass on, republish etc and you’ll find far more people reading your content than if you insist on them coming to your site.

And the easiest way of sharing? By providing an RSS feed. Unless you’ve got a very strange back end system it’s not that challenging to produce a basic RSS feed.* Do that, though, and all sorts of opportunities open up, not just for individuals to subscribe but for other local sites to start republishing content.

How do council websites perform?

I’ve done a quick survey of 20 council websites, randomly selected from the list on Directgov.

Percentage of councils with an email sign up prompt on front page: 0%
Percentage of councils with an RSS feed: 40%

That’s a pretty damning set of figures (and far worse than I’d expected).

What does this say about website suppliers?

If a council’s website is not up to scratch, clearly in the end the councillors are responsible for this. But what also struck me in my survey was that many of the sites without RSS appeared to have been produced recently and with the help of an outside supplier.

In each of those cases was the outside supplier really keen on providing RSS but stymied by the council? I suspect the answer is ‘no’ – and that whilst my quick survey doesn’t paint a pretty picture of council websites, it’s also a pretty damning indictment of some of the website suppliers out there too.

Regardless though, if your council doesn’t match up to these two tests then – whether you are a councillor or not – why not contact the council and ask why?

In the case of the questions I’ve asked over the years, I’ve often ended up with a positive response and progress of some sort. Indeed, with the number of different issues that councillors have to know about and the fact that most are of the ‘pre-internet’ generation, I think quite a few are grateful if someone (politely!) provides them with some expert knowledge which they weren’t previously aware of. So ask and lobby away…

* And before Martin Tod comes along, yes – it’s true there is one small RSS feed out there which I still hand write. But that’s because it’s good to keep your hand in with the detail of coding. Or something like that 🙂

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18 Comments

  • They forget how human beings use websites, they ignore feedback and they do not use plain English… Oh I remember they are in Local Government, that is normal!

  • Suggest you take a look at Mash The State.

  • I don’t want an RSS feed, I want to know when my bins will be collected over Easter, and that sort of thing.

  • I definitely don’t want an email prompt – I want easy access to key information, and not some annoying registration process, and a subsequent flood of council spam. I don’t think most ordinary people care about RSS either. It should be just a decent, fool-proof website.

  • Mark says: ” Email sign ups don’t have to annoying and they don’t have to be for a flood of spam.” I always find email sign-ups annoying: that’s just my opinion. And RSS is for news isn’t it? I don’t want to read my council’s press releases – I just want to work out how to access services, check planning apps, or pay bills. Why would the council need my email for that?

    Anyway, I have to say that my council’s website is much, much better than the Lib Dem website, which has now not been updated for a whole week.

  • Do the press team really want to highlight a story about anaphylactic shock statistics for a whole week? I think there must be a mistake or technical glitch. On a slightly different point, it could well be the only political website in the UK with no mention of the McBride scandal. Very odd.

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