This coming Wednesday I shall be standing up in front of 300+ people at Council Websites ’09, an event being held at London’s Olympia Conference Centre.
I’ll be leading a plenary session about the use of location-based information on local council websites.
The number of people doesn’t bother me, I’ve done it before and hopefully will do it again in the future. Wednesday’s challenge is rather more fundamental than audience numbers. It’s about getting back some semblance of normality into my life, another step back towards a realistic prospect of employment following my back injury which has plagued me since last Christmas.
It is not generally well known that local authority websites are rather more complex than your average site. Local authorities provide a mind-boggling array of services to their communities – sometimes this can number around 700 unique service propositions. Compare this to, say, a retail bank like NatWest or Halifax which may have service portfolio of a hundred products at most, and hopefully you can glean that the amount of information a council needs to make available on its website far outstrips your average commercial enterprise.
Organising council websites so that they’re intuitive to use, and making finding information straightforward, plus encouraging the public to access council services online rather than by telephone or in person, is an enormous challenge but the rewards for doing so are both financial and beneficial to an authority’s reputation.
In straitened times, reducing overheads in a local authority can affect the bottom line, which in turn will impact on the amount of council tax an individual householder has to pay each year. Reducing transaction costs for providing services is one way that councils can save money and pass on those savings in the council tax bill.
Moving services online rather than via traditional channels is key to this. It’s worth highlighting, I think, the sums involved. Average service transaction costs* for face-to-face delivery estimated at £7.81, telephone at £4.00 and web at just 17p, reveal significant scope for efficiency gains through making reductions in avoidable contact in favour of customer self-service online.
The subject for my presentation is ‘location, location, location’ and examines how successfully (or in some instances, unsuccessfully) local councils are providing location-based information for local residents.
With that mind-boggling array of information resources provided on a local authority website it can be a nightmare for a citizen to find information about relevant local services or to access them.
Many councils are now introducing a Find My Nearest (or FMN for short) facility whereby you can type in your postcode and the site will tell you about council and other service facilities which are available in your neighbourhood. Salford’s ‘Your Council’ facility is a good example of this (I would say that, however … I designed it!). Try it for yourself at www.salford.gov.uk/yoursalford (sample postcode = M27 4EA).
My presentation will focus on FMNs from a citizen perspective. How easy are they to use in the first place, and to find relevant information? Some councils are better than others in this respect.
Many implement a GIS-based mapping system which is very complex to use, and really better suited to an internal audience than a local resident – turning on/off map layers that show historical data (when it works) isn’t necessarily helpful to Mrs Smith who just wants to find her nearest recycling point! A good example of this particular genre (that is, an unhelpful FMN) is Comhairle nan Eilean Siar‘s GIS-based service which was clearly designed without the customer in mind! Try postcode HS1 2BW for this one.
So the general thrust of my presentation is to encourage councils to examine how effective their FMN implementations actually are. Are they genuinely useful resources for local residents, or have they been designed without taking the customer into account?
I’m looking forward to it. I just hope that my back doesn’t play up on the day, that I can stand on the dais and speak without wincing too much. Medication will see me through I’m sure.
If I pull it off, it’ll be a tremendous boost to my self-confidence (which has taken quite a knock this year) and be – hopefully – the first tangible evidence to me that I can return to employment soon.