Town hall Web sites: not bad but could do better

E-government: A comprehensive survey by the local authority IT managers' body Socitm has found that town hall Web sites are...

E-government: A comprehensive survey by the local authority IT managers' body Socitm has found that town hall Web sites are improving but still only four can be classified as transactional. James Rogers reports

Despite significant improvements to local government Web sites in the past year, council IT departments still have work to do as they approach the Government's 2005 target for getting services online, a report from the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm) has found.

The Better Connected 2002? report provides a definitive snapshot of Web development across local government.

Martin Greenwood, programme manager of Socitm Insight, a best practice division of the society, which conducted the study, said councils are at least heading in the right direction. He said, "The majority of councils are making advances but there is still room for improvement to meet the 2005 target."

The report assserts that e-government is about much more than just building a Web presence. Online services have to be specifically geared towards users. Moreover, successful e-government also involves using IT to improve contact through existing channels such as council offices.

Greenwood said although 2005 is a useful target "it should not be regarded as the 'be all and end all' of Web site development". Councils should think about what their customers want in terms of information and services from local authority Web sites, he added.

Now in its fourth year, the annual study reviewed Internet services offered by all of the UK's 467 local authorities. The survey, which was carried out between November and December 2001, involved researchers visiting all Web sites managed by councils.

Using a structured questionnaire, they evaluated the sites' ability to respond to the needs of typical local authority customers, as well as testing performance in the area of joined-up government. This involved examining interactive applications, community leadership, usability and responsiveness to e-mail. Accessibility for those with disabilities and technical performance were also tested.

The good news is that more than a quarter of council Web sites have shown substantial improvement in the past 12 months. Indeed, one of the most positive findings was that Web sites are generally increasing their levels of interactivity. Researchers found that the number of transactions that can be performed online has increased fivefold in the past year.

However, only four local authorities - Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, London Borough of Camden, Westminster City Council and Hertfordshire County Council - are classified as having transactional Web sites. This is a reminder that it is still early days for UK e-government.

The report warned that there is "a world of difference between a site that is basically a provider of information with a few transactions added to it and one that is truly focused on customer needs". It also suggested that funding could well be a barrier to building transactional Web sites for many councils, especially the shire districts.

Money is, as ever, a factor in implementing new technology. In December 2001 the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions announced that every local authority in England would be allocated capital grants totalling £400,000 over the next two years to meet the e-government agenda.

This funding, which is part of the £350m spending review pledged in 2000, is linked to guarantees that councils meet targets set

out in their Implementing Electronic Government statements, which were submitted last year. It should be noted that £25m of the £350m has already been allocated to Pathfinder projects.

Further announcements about the distribution of the remaining funds are expected with the launch of the National Local Government Online Strategy, which government officials predict is imminent. A number of councils appear to be waiting for this before moving to the next stage of developing their online presence.

Greenwood acknowledged that lack of funding could prove an issue for councils but urged them to focus on managing their Web presence as effectively as they can. He said, "Local authorities must embrace the fact that Web sites are a strategic resource and act on the management issues raised in this report."

A number of councils seem to be taking this advice - the report found that the best local authority Web sites perform technically as well as private sector ones. The top sites even outperformed their private sector counterparts in terms of access for disabled people.

For Greenwood, however, one of the most important features of the survey is that councils must realise the true nature of the e-government challenge. He said, "This report shows us that it is hard work to sustain a good Web site, it requires a lot of hard work behind the scenes to make everybody realise the role they have to play."

Key results of the Socitm survey
  • All but three (out of 467) local authorities now have Web sites

  • Web sites are generally increasing their interactivity with the number of transactions increasing at least fivefold over the past 12 months

  • The number of transactional sites has increased from one in 2001 to four in 2002

  • More than one in four (about 120 Web sites) has improved to the extent that they have moved up one level in Socitm's four-level ranking system

  • London boroughs have improved the most and now have the most mature Web sites

  • The result from Socitm's sample e-mail test is a disappointing "step backwards" from last year's test

  • Local government Web sites are continuing to improve in terms of access for disabled people and compare favourably with other sectors

  • The best local authority sites perform technically as well as their private sector counterparts.

Read more on Web software