SOCITM (Society of Information Technology Management)
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Councils on the Web... Start of a New Era: low-cost, but wasteful

Self-service becomes the major route for delivery of all public services. That has to be the sub-title accompanying the £15bn public sector savings required by the Chancellor in his 22 April budget.

 

The latest figures from Socitm Insight confirm that the cheapest channel by far is the web at £0.27p per transaction compared with £3.22 for the phone and £6.56 for face-to-face. Yet we can also show that, although the web attracts the highest volume of interactions, it also attracts the lowest level of satisfaction and failure to find information or complete a service transaction. This can lead to costly and avoidable contact via other channels, most likely to be the phone as customers look for alternative ways to resolve their enquiries. The web may be a low cost-channel, but unless it works right first time and every time, it just adds costs.

 

As you might expect, there is a strong correlation between failure to find information and dissatisfaction with the website. For visitors who find what they are looking for, Socitm Insight Website take-up service shows that overall satisfaction runs at 74.1%; if they do not, it runs at minus 52.6% (calculated as those satisfied with the experience less those dissatisfied).

 

A major re-think Our annual report on the state of local authority websites, Better connected 2009 argues that to get self-service right, councils need to become obsessive about making online journeys really work for the customer. That means developing a new rigour, based on testing, around design of ‘top tasks’. Our Website take-up service gives us much evidences what these top tasks are, among them, looking at jobs, finding schools information, paying council tax, viewing planning registers, and paying parking fines.

 

Real commitment to self-service means pruning content ruthlessly, focussing heavily on these top tasks and reducing the prominence and space given to information and documents about council organisation, policy and strategy.

 

Need for corporate focus Achieving this cannot be delegated to web managers. Councils must embrace a new, strategic approach to their websites that comes from the top and is managed corporately, within the council’s customer service and channel management strategies. A base set of management information about take-up, satisfaction and costs for all access channels is needed to inform these strategies. Web and contact centre managers must communicate regularly about the volume and nature of incoming enquiries and how they can be handled more efficiently. Managers of front-line services need much stronger direction to become web-focused and to recognise the website as the vehicle for radical service redesign.

Strategic blueprint In Better connected 2009, we set out a strategic blueprint about how websites should be managed based on some clear principles. One example is that governance should recognise that the website is a corporate asset and needs to be managed corporately, otherwise the quality and coverage of its content is likely to be uneven. Web managers need to work within a management framework set by the organisation. If not they will find it difficult, for example to influence the quality and usability of information put up other managers, or to prioritise when all departments feel their items should be given prime positions on the home page.


Following on from governance, the strategic blueprint covers channel management, community engagement, structure, web team focus, service manager engagement, content management and website testing.

 
Website testing and task management
As an example, we can look at website testing. Stronger governance and commitment to reducing failure to find information sets quite a different tone for a newer, more professional and harder-edged approach to website testing. With the need we have highlighted for councils to achieve a major shift by service users to the web channel, we are advocating a new, much more rigorous form of testing that records how quickly and accurately users are able to complete the ‘top tasks’ they come to websites to do.

 

If websites are to deliver what councils need them to deliver, matching, for example the performance of the best airline or insurance sites, they need to start measuring every step of the ‘customer journey’ their users need to make from entering the site until completion of the task. Analysis based on recorded data is what matters here, and this is a process that involves observation, stopwatches and writing up charts.


How long did the transaction take? Where do users falter? Is the wording ambiguous or are they confused by the layout? Have any changes introduced as a result of the testing made a difference to user performance?

 

In conclusion The context for local government on the web has changed. The recession, and the inevitable squeeze on public spending, now confirmed by the Chancellor, means that all public sector organisations will struggle to meet future demand without some radical thinking about service delivery. Developing self-service through the council website must now have greater priority on every council’s strategic plan. The objective is clear. Done right, self-service is much, much cheaper, enables transformation and, above all, saves time and enhances the experience for the general public. Local public services should now be positioning themselves to follow the lead of the best of the private sector.

 

The above extract appears in the latest SOCITM newsletter which can be viewed in full at: http://www.socitm.gov.uk/socitm/News/Newsletter/default.htm