Community portal is a winner

Newtownabbey Council's online offering is more than just another council Web site, writes Karl Cushing

Newtownabbey Council's online offering is more than just another council Web site, writes Karl Cushing

People's expectations of council Web sites are changing. Members of the public increasingly expect to carry out transactions online and gain access to more information and services.

One council that has taken this onboard is Newtownabbey in Northern Ireland. Although the council did not start to implement its Web site until April 2000, it has since made up for lost time. Recognition of the site's progress came in May when it picked up a local government Web site award.

Tracey White, the council's senior marketing officer, says the main reason for the delay was that the council was moving premises. "A lot of IT issues were put on the back burner until we moved," she explains. In fact, the council did not even have internal e-mail until it moved into its new premises.

There were also some major resource issues to be resolved such as content management. Another problem was that certain sections in the council had to be convinced of the importance of introducing a Web site. "I wouldn't say there was resistance to it but some people have not seen it as a priority," says White.

But this delay has turned out to be an advantage. "We had more of an idea of what we wanted and were able to go live with a lot of information," she says. "We wanted it to be a community portal rather than a council site." The site includes local links, advice for local businesses and daily updates of local news items.

White puts the success of the site down to two key areas. As a result of the council's efforts to promote the site internally, she says that staff now believe it is important and are devoting more time and effort to it. The ongoing relationship with local Web site design company Uppercase Communications has also been significant.

Uppercase has been involved with the project almost since day one. The council makes suggestions and the company shows how they can be achieved, such as making the site accessible to visually impaired members of the public.

The council has recently added a local business register on the site. "For some of the businesses it is the first online presence they have had," says White. "It is part of the whole 'reaching out' process." The next step will be to add more services for schools.

The council also intends to include more interactive user services over the next 18 months and include more transaction-based facilities such as the ability to pay council tax online. However, there are a lot of issues here, not just relating to IT.

"There is always a danger of moving forward too quickly and not taking people with you," says White. "But we are not afraid to try new things."

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