“NHS hospital websites lack customer focus”

NHS logoThe following press release has been published by Socitm this morning:

Mini survey of hospital websites highlights lack of customer focus

A survey of the websites of nine top hospitals in England has revealed a distinct lack of customer focus likely to leave patients and visitors struggling to find key information.

The survey, carried out by Socitm, publisher of Better connected, the annual survey of all local authority websites, was carried out in advance of a roundtable discussion to be held at the NHS Web Futures ’11 conference to be held in London on 14 July. Full results of the survey and the roundtable discussion will be published following the conference.

The survey was limited to an assessment of how easy it was to complete five common tasks likely to be high on the priority of every patient, ie

  1. Cancel an outpatient appointment
  2. Prepare for a stay in hospital
  3. Find out visiting hours
  4. Find out about car parking at the hospital
  5. Find out about infection prevention and control

The survey covered nine high profile, city-based hospitals in England: Addenbrooke’s Cambridge, St Bartholomew’s London, John Radcliffe Oxford, Manchester Royal Infirmary, Queen Elizabeth Birmingham, Leeds General Infirmary, Royal Victoria Infirmary Newcastle, St Thomas’s London, and Southampton General.

According to John Fox, an experienced public sector web manager and member of the Better connected survey team, most of the sites surveyed did not appear to recognise that the primary audience for a hospital website should always be the patient and/or hospital visitor. Most sites surveyed were trying to be all things to all parties and this causes major problems. Another issue is that while patients and visitors will be looking for information about an individual hospital, NHS hospital trusts tend to present several hospitals within one web domain, which poses significant challenges for website navigation and usability.

The survey results will be presented for discussion at a roundtable led by John Fox at the NHS Web Futures ’11 event, to be held at Olympia 2 on 14 July. Further information can be found at http://www.headstar-events.com/nhsweb11/

Socitm Insight will publish further information on the survey and the roundtable discussion before the end of July.

About ‘Better connected’

An annual survey of all 433 local authority websites in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Better connected has been carried out since 1999. A lengthy (136 questions for 2011) survey is carried by a team of reviewers in November and December. Around half of the questions test the information content of websites. The remainder of the questions assessed performance around the criteria used by Better connected to assess website performance, including currency, links, transactions, location, navigation, A-Z, search, and accessibility.

Further information

Vicky Sargent, Socitm Press Office
Tel: 07726 601 139  email: vicky.sargent@socitm.net

Martin Greenwood, Programme Manager, Socitm Insight
Tel: 01926 498703 or 07967 383755  e-mail: martin.greenwood@socitm.net 

#TheArchers: a bunting tragedy

It’s been a fascinating couple of days. The Archers, that national institution which is broadcast twice a day, six days a week on BBC Radio 4, celebrated its 60th anniversary on Sunday 2 January.

The double-length, much trailed episode, broadcast just after 7pm was a ‘bunting tragedy’ to quote Twitter’s @AmbridgeView. Well I guess she ought to know, since @AmbridgeView is scribed by Charlotte Martin who plays that doyenne of the community shop, Susan Carter, in the radio soap.

For weeks leading up to the anniversary regular listeners were aware that something ‘shocking’ was going to happen on 2 January 2011. The programme’s editor, Vanessa Whitburn, had forecast some time ago that events in the anniversary episode would ‘shock Ambridge to the core’. The Archers and Twitter are now inextricably linked, with genuine BBC tweets intermingling with totally fictitious (unauthorised) impersonations of characters in the programme. There is a Twitter ID for virtually every cast character, including @HenryArcher2011, just two days old at the time of writing!

Perhaps I should come clean here.  I tweet in the name of two well-loved characters (suffice to say I’m getting well acquainted with regional dialects), but unlike @AmbridgeView I very much regret to advise I have no official connection with The Archers!

As the big day approached the tweets became ever more speculative as regards what was going to shock Ambridge to the core, with the hashtag #sattc being usefully added so that avid fans could keep track of what the latest thinking was. And then the BBC itself, that august organisation we love and admire in equal part to often believing it is mammon, inflexible and unimaginative in large part, realised the power of Twitter as an excellent medium for channelling listeners’ interest in the anniversary events and plot.

The Archers 60th ‘tweetalong’

At the end of last week trailers started to be broadcast encouraging listeners to ‘join the conversation’ and to add the hashtag #thearchers to their tweets. They even told us that on 2 January there’d be a tweetalong to the broadcast of the landmark episode and an analysis conducted of the tweets made with that hashtag before, during and after the broadcast. Listeners were positively encouraged to listen to the broadcast AND tweet along or just follow the progress of the hashtag via the various search features in Twitter.

It was, indeed, absolutely riveting. Whether that’s from the perspective of the unfolding plot or simply the level of interest in the programme and its general storyline, or the sheer fascination of the speculation as to what would happen (or happen next). I listened to the radio programme and I tweeted along like so many others, but I was also wearing the hat of a digital communicator. Beyond the basic premise of an online conversation I was fascinated to see the way the conversation moved and the amount of traffic that was generated. It was, in short, a fascinating social media experiment run in real time.

The results are indeed fascinating to study, whether you have just a passing interest in what happened or something a little more specific in terms of social media development. The Archers‘ blog published a brilliant page yesterday which showed all the tweets from just before 7pm on Sunday until a little beyond the end of the broadcast. A ‘heartbeat monitor’ takes the pulse of the Twitter conversation throughout the playback, so that one can see the peaks and troughs. A tag cloud shows common words that people are tweeting, and mentions of characters’ names is shown in percentage terms in expanding/contracting bubbles.

If you’ve not already seen it, do take a look, (link opens in new window/tab), and be sure to run the tweets run through so that you can follow the conversation as the plot unfolded. To make that happen you need to click the solid right arrow (or ‘play’ button) at the top right corner of the page under the title (see image to right).

Other applications?

I believe there are lessons that can be learned here by all parties interested in the general development of social media and Twitter in particular. I applaud the BBC for embracing Twitter as a communications medium with a difference. As I see it they’ve harnessed the power of Twitter to directly involve their listeners with the unfolding storyline of the anniversary edition. Furthermore, by producing the post-broadcast timeline they have a wonderful source of material for seeing what the audience thought about the storyline, including countless totally wrong predictions of where the plot was leading. If the scriptwriters should be short of copy for future plotlines the listeners have given them a wealth of ideas to work on, and some strong signals about the affection or dislike of specific characters.

This excellent model could be used in a political context, either at local or national level.  I’ve not reached a firm conclusion as yet but whilst the subject’s still ‘of the moment’ I thought I’d put down some initial thoughts.

There might be a council debate taking place. The council could promote the televising or webcasting of the event and encourage local people to tweet along and share their thoughts. Obviously the topic of the debate would need to be sufficiently engaging (or perhaps contentious) in order to generate a broad range of listeners, but the subsequent analysis of that conversation would doubtless provide a good indication of the public mood or buy-in to both the subject under discussion and/or the democratic process generally. Maybe someone has already tried this, but if they have I’m not aware of it.  Oh, and yes, I’m the first to concede that a council debate is highly unlikely to have folk hooked quite as firmly as the BBC managed on Sunday evening, but hopefully you get my general drift.

So, there you have it, my thoughts on The Archers and Twitter. And now before I close, I’d like to share a selection of my favourite tweets from Sunday’s episode and its aftermath (still unfolding):

@potterwigham: Thanks Helen #thearchers for bring us back from our slough of despond by going on about expressing milk.

@jamspangle: At least hearing the news will mean Helen will talk about something other than babies for two minutes #thearchers

@Chainsaw_McGinn: If they’d only taken the time to write a good risk assessment and used correct ppe [personal protective equipment] #thearchers

@NickFitz: Nigel’s scream lasted about 3 seconds: given g=9.8m/s he fell c44m, or 144 feet. Buckingham Palace is 24m high. Big house 😉 #sattc

@jgmcintyre: #thearchers Advert for Thursday’s Borchester Echo: Vacancy for village idiot, Ambridge, following sudden change of circumnstance

@kmflett: Ambridge Socialist Update – questions about who will represent the Government at Nigel Pargetter’s funeral #sattc

@AmbridgeView: Who would have thought it? A bunting tragedy in #thearchers

@Stickings90: This was a dastardly plot by Queen of Capriciousness, Vanessa Whitburn, to instigate a 10yr family feud #sattc

@HistoryNeedsYou I think the banner was t ed with a spur lash. Nigel certainly landed with one … #thearchers

@Ecogray: “There was something of the Peter Pan in Nigel” http://bbc.in/edxl56. Shame it wasn’t the ability to fly. #thearchers

@PropertyJourn: So Nigel definitely dead. It seems to me, he lived his life like a banner in the wind. #sattc

@WorcsPaul: Health & Safety nannies visit Lower Loxley and insist “Beware falling Nigels” signs installed #sattc

@LyndaSnell: Nigel was the Peoples’ Dame

Please share your favourite #sattc tweets in comments in your feel so inclined. I hope you will!

*IS* Foursquare the next big thing?

Well that’s what I’ve been trying to work out for myself over the past couple of weeks. The simple answer (from me at least) is: I don’t really know, but quite possibly!

Foursquare is a location service-based social network-come-game. What it does in effect is to tell you where your friends are and supposedly add a little fun to going out. It’s like GoogleLattitude meets a little bit of Facebook, a touch of Twitter, and a dash of Angry Birds.

How does it work?

The whole system is based around what is known as “checking-in”. You check-in from bars and restaurants and any kind of location (eg bar, club, restaurant, railway station, store), perhaps with a little message about where you are and what you’re doing – all very brief – and the system will then register what you’re up to.

People who you’re friends with will then get pinged a message to let them know your whereabouts and activities, and the idea is that they can then join you if they fancy or just be pleased that you’re out having a good time. From the other side of things, if you’re out on your own somewhere, suddenly mateless in town or stuck at home and bored, you can theoretically see where everyone’s at and get yourself down to the party. All pretty simple.

The other two things you can do are create a to-do-list of places you’ve always wanted to go and add to a Top 12 list of your recommendations for other people.

The clever, or clever-er, part is that you get points for checking-in. The idea is that it encourages you to do so, which then gets the system running and propagates the idea and the ‘fun’ even further. It’s all rather new, even for the developers, and much of the system is still evolving but, at the moment, you get a point for checking in, you get five points if it happens to be from a place you’ve never checked-in from before; a further point if it’s the second, third, fourth etc place of the day; and another still for checking-in multiple days/nights in a row, you old booze hound, you. You’re always eligible for the five discovery points no matter what time of day it is.

It seems to be aimed primarily at the evening, painting the town red crowd, but more and more users seem to use it for everyday life too.

How do I start?

Like all social networks, just head to the foursquare site and sign up with a free and very brief profile which will ask you for your mobile phone number so it can ping you. Then add a photo and find your friends. And you can get a Foursquare app for your iPhone as well.

Foursquare is like Twitter was before it was Twitter

Foursquare’s very much in the same boat as Twitter was three years ago. The early adopters have started to drink the kool-ade, but for the most part it remains a service completely misunderstood, and even mocked from time to time. But here’s the thing, it is starting to catch on and people are starting to sit up take notice, and actually use it. Foursquare is one of the more practical location-based social networking applications, and it’s value can only truly be gleaned by actually using it.

There are also some pretty awesome statistics. In its first twelve months, registered users reached the 1,000,000 mark. But rather more astonishing, its has taken (July 2010) just three months to double that figure. Plus the company behind Foursquare have recently had a cash injection of $26,000,000 from an investor. Clearly someone sees potential for Foursquare.

What’s it like to use?

iPhone app

Like I said, the only way you can get your head round new developments like this is to try it out for yourself. So some weeks ago I signed up, and earned myself a badge (Wow! Oh – just for signing up? I see!). I discovered that I could link my Foursquare account to both Facebook and Twitter. Whenever I check into a place an update would be posted to that effect on FB and TW – neat.

And so I started checking in to places. It just so happened that I was about to go on holiday to Scotland, so plenty of opportunity to check into lots of new places. And that’s exactly what I did. In terms of updating friends on where I was at, or what I was doing, Foursquare saved me a lot of work! Instead of keying out ‘I’m at Ullapool Ferry Terminal’ and tweeting it, all I had to do was ‘check in’ at the ferry terminal, Foursquare recognising my location, and once I hit the green check-in button, Twitter and Facebook were updated for me. Essentially I didn’t have to type anything. Hey, result!

Needless to say I became addicted to the thing. I was checking in left right and centre. And anyone who was following my Facebook or Twitter feed yesterday will testify to that. On a day trip to Sheffield by train I managed to check in at no less than 42 sites, mainly train stations. OK, perhaps a bit on the overkill, but you see I was feeding an addiction (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).

What’s in it for a business?

I can see how certain types of businesses, typically stores and restaurants, be able to use Foursquare to drive revenue and customer retention. Indeed, the potential is enormous.

Foursquare know that I went somewhere, because I checked in.  They can pass that data onto that business, who can connect their web advertising, any recommendations, and social media buzz to an actual person who has walked into their store. Many say that that is potentially the holy grail of the advertising world.  Does money and effort invested in marketing a brand online, actually drive foot traffic? Does that promotion actually hit the mark? Well, Foursquare knows the answer to that and lots of other things too.

Instead of competing in a “global marketplace,” local business owners now have access to geotagging (taking advantage of the GPS technology built into smartphones), local search, and other location-based services. All of which make the Internet more useful to small business than it has ever been before.

Imagine being a hotel owner with several rooms as yet unoccupied at 9pm one evening. You know there are a couple of big events happening in town and people are going to be looking for rooms to “sleep it off.” Because of location-based services like Foursquare, they can now advertise a special for those rooms to people who are close enough to take advantage of it.

A business could offer a loyalty scheme to customers using Foursquare for Business. It keeps track of all the stats and even sends messages to pinpoint who their most loyal customers are.

I was keen to investigate how the Environment Agency might use Foursquare. I’ve struggled, to be honest, to identify a usage. But maybe we could use it a roadshow events, by encouraging Foursquare users to check-in when they visit our stand. Their friends would see that they’d visited us and may feel motivated to come along and find out for themselves what the show is all about. There are quite a number of dependencies there, not least of which is that for it to be fully effective the userbase in the UK would have to be substantially higher than it (probably) is today.

So perhaps the original concept is where it will work best? It is aimed primarily at the evening, painting the town red crowd – so bars, clubs, restaurants and the like.

Your ideas?

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts about other uses for Foursquare. Perhaps there’s additional scope there that I’ve failed to spot.

Did the earth move for you?

PPVote in action

Building Perfect Council Websites ’10, the fifth such annual event and the UK’s largest, brought together more than 350 participants, including local authority webmasters and web teams from all parts of the UK.

Private sector partners; health service, government and other public sector web teams; communications specialists; and others with an interest in the development of efficient, citizen-centred public services online were also in attendance.

This high profile event combines a headline conference with a unique interactive format of round-table discussion groups and pre-arranged one-to-one meetings for structured networking. The event focuses on both current best practice and predicts future trends to keep practitioners ahead of the game, from open data to mobile services.

This year I ran a “live” website review along the lines of the ‘Better connected’ survey Socitm Insight undertakes each year to assess the state of development of local authority websites and their provision of customer-oriented information and services. The survey project team, of which I’ve been a member since 2004, goes to extraordinary lengths to conduct a qualitative review of each website during the annual survey but there’s inevitably an element of subjectivity in the review – we are human after all.

Its not uncommon after the results of the survey are published each March for councils to come forward and tell us that information that we’ve indicated in the survey as ‘not found’ is actually on the website.  But our response to that is simple. The information sought may well be on the given website, but our reviewer could not find it. The reviewer is not saying ‘it isn’t there’ but rather ‘I couldn’t find it’.

Our reviewers have a collective wealth of experience in local government and website management. We know how local government works, including some of the issues relating to silo working and often a lack of customer focus, and we make allowances along the way. Our reviewers try very hard to find answers to set questions and we really don’t like scoring a question ‘No’ if at all possible!

Thus when we do say ‘No’ to a question, it usually means that we’ve tried pretty hard to find an answer. The average citizen probably wouldn’t be that flexible, patient. If the Socitm reviewer can’t find a piece of information, then what chance does an ordinary citizen, unfamiliar with the ways of working in local government?

Earlier this year I thought of a novel way to help council web teams understand better how our annual website reviews are conducted. It occurred to me that, at the Perfect Council Website event in July, a member of the team could perform a live website review in front of an audience and explain as he/she progressed what they were examining, what they found and how the final assessment of the site would look if it was a genuine review.

I put my idea to the event organisers and was delighted to get a green light. I piloted the concept at the Scottish Webteams Forum in Edinburgh in May, and it was a great success – very well received, with lots of great feedback after the event.

I have to say I was a little disappointed to have less than 30 people attend my workshop this Wednesday, but as it turned out I need not have been concerned. I’d like to think that I engaged well with the ‘select’ group that were there, and that they went away at the end of hour-long session with a better understanding of what happens during our real reviews, but also a bit of an insight into how others may see their own website! If that WAS the case, then I’m a very happy bunny.

I invited a member of the group of 30 to be my guinea pig, and was delighted to have a guy called Adrian from a private sector consultancy firm step forward. He’d been working with a London borough council to improve their website, but for my purposes he was technically a genuine citizen rather than a council employee.  Almost the perfect scenario!

I set Adrian to work to navigate to the homepage of the website for West Somerset Council (www.westsomersetonline.gov.uk). And then I explained to him (and the group) that he would be examining this website by posing a number of questions to test just one subject area to see how easy it would be for a citizen to obtain information or a service, and covered off a few housekeeping notes for the group about how the review would be conducted.

  1. I would pose a question
  2. Adrian would try and find the answer to the question and his use of the web browser was displayed on a large projection screen for all to see clearly.
  3. The group would decide whether the question was satisfactorily answered or not.

Thanks to the involvement of my new best mate Jeff from a super company called PPVote (which I thoroughly recommend to all, even if I’m not on commission!), and through the wonders of technology, Adrian’s review was going to be interactive so the group could participate rather than experience an online equivalent of death by PowerPoint.

Adrian would navigate the site as best he could, then when he’d answered the question to the best of his ability we would switch to a slide that posed the question again and gave the audience options for answering it (eg 1 for Yes, 2 for No). They were to press the appropriate number on a keypad they had been provided with on entering the room (you can watch a demo here).

I explained that when they pressed their selection nothing would happen until everyone had voted, when a score would be displayed on the screen in percentage terms. The highest percentage would be the ‘answer’ to the question and, if we were doing a Better Connected survey for real then that would have been the answer we’d record in that website’s review record. Then we’d proceed to the next question and repeat the process.

I said that what I should like them to get out of the session was that they’d leave with a greater understanding both of how our website reviews are conducted but also that they’d be scoring a genuine council website and would comprehend how we might think our website has everything in place but sometimes we may be too close to it to realise that, actually, its not as good as we might believe and that the Socitm reviewer really has tried hard to find the answers to his questions!

Housekeeping over, I posed the first question. The real McCoy survey has around 120 questions and the review can easily take about two hours, of total concentration, to complete. So obviously I had to cut it down to something manageable and relatively straightforward to examine, demonstrate and open for discussion with the group. I had elected to test for food business registration, a statutory obligation upon anyone starting up a new food business (eg a kebab takeaway), and applicable to all levels of local government except English shire counties (eg Hampshire County Council).

“Does the Business landing page signpost you to information about food premises registration? Yes or No.”

Adrian found his way to the Business landing page and struggled to find anything on that subject. The display was switched and the group cast their votes. 100% for No.

“Does the Licensing landing page signpost you to information about food premises registration? Yes or No.”

My guinea pig struggled this time, first he had to find the Licensing landing page and wasn’t having much success via navigation or search, so he tried the A-Z entry for L (Licensing) to reach the right page. But again there was nothing relating to food there. And again, the group cast 100% of votes for No.

“Does the A-Z contain an entry for register food business or similar? Yes or No.”

There was nothing for ‘register food business’ but ‘food business registration’ was found, and subsequently received a 100% vote for Yes.

At this point I detected a bit of a vibe that 100% answers throughout wasn’t exactly setting the room alight. I suspected a few thought the session was a bit of waste of time. So I reassured them that it would become more interesting, just bear with the process.

“Using the website’s own search, can I find out how to register my new food business? Yes or No.”

The website came up trumps again, the very first result was what was required. We didn’t bother voting this time, just went straight on to the next question!

“Does the website inform you that you are required by law to register your food selling business? Yes or No.”

Adrian clicked on the first search result and landed on the right page. He scanned down what is quite a lengthy, rather verbose page but couldn’t find any reference to a legal requirement to register a food business. Lots of useful information but nothing about the law. Well, that is until someone in the group called out that there had been a reference in the first paragraph. Adrian scrolled back up and we agreed that, yes, the site did inform us as the question asked. Over to the interactive scoring, this time the rating was interesting: 96% said Yes, 4% No. So we explore the result a little and it was concluded that the information was easily missed, indeed Adrian had missed it altogether and only found it when it was pointed out to him. Would a real life citizen have seen the statement?

“Am I able to register my food business online? Yes or No.”

Adrian played a stonker here. He scrolled straight down to a mid-paragraph link (appearing below the fold) that led you to an online registration form care of the UK Welcomes gateway on Business Link.  Well done! Back to the group for the next vote, and unsurprisingly it was 100% for Yes.

I pointed out to the group that at the top right of this page about food business registration, there was a prominent link to a PDF registration form that could be downloaded, completed and submitted to the council for the statutory registration.

“If I can/have to download a form to register, is a signature required? Yes or No.”

This question caused a few eyebrows to be raised in query. This is investigating a level of detail that we don’t normally pursue in our reviews, but this was an important question to ask in light of the recently effected EU Services Directive. The group answered the question 100% as Yes.

The requirement for a signature on this form is not a statutory requirement and, technically, could be viewed as an unnecessary block to smooth conduct of trade in the EU. A council cannot refuse a food premises registration, it must accept it when made, and a signature is not required on the form. Further, under the Directive, the registration should be able to be completed online electronically. However, because this form required a signature, it would have to be printed out and posted to the council by snail mail.  All of which would take time, completely unnecessary time.

I posed the next question of Adrian and the wider group:

“Which registration channel did you notice first? Was it downloading a form or clicking a link to the online form?”

96% noticed the PDF first.

As intimated above the online service is supposed to be available for this registration. Not only that but the online service will be more convenient for both the business owner and the council to undertake. Faster and cheaper to administer too. But the PDF was the channel that the website is giving more prominence to.

The online form link is buried in paragraph text, whereas the PDF gets a ‘panel’ all to itself on the right.

Definitely a missed opportunity, but perhaps indicative of a wider service issue. Perhaps this council is failing to maximise the potential for its customers to self-serve online, to use its e-services and thereby help the council cut its costs? If take up of these services is currently low, it may well be because they are not being adequately promoted on the website through prominent signposting as in this instance, and one can’t help wondering whether individual service delivery areas are promoting the e-service as they should.

“Are contact details provided so that I can get in touch if I wish to discuss my registration? Yes or No.”

Adrian really struggled with this one. He came to the conclusion that a reference in the middle of all the text on the page to ‘contact the Environmental Health team if required’ certainly did not amount to contact information, and the wider group decided that the cover-all ‘Contact us’ link at the top of the page did not count as contact information in the context of this question. And I agreed. The vote took place and 96% voted for No.

“Can I find out what a local resident would need to do if they wanted to register a complaint about a local takeaway business? Yes or No.”

This question was intended to test one aspect of the EU Services Directive whereby the service description is expected to include details of how to seek redress in the event of a problem, whether consumer or business. Adrian read through the text of the registration page but it was inconclusive. So he  tried navigating around the Food Safety section of the website, eventually locating a page titled Food Poisoning that explained what someone would need to report such an eventuality.

The question was now put to the group, is this a Yes or a No? 100% voted No and during the subsequent discussion various views were expressed about the food poisoning page including the fact that you might want to make a complaint about somewhere even if you haven’t had food poisoning, yet this website did not tell you how to do that.

That completed the questions about specific aspects of the site content. Now the group was asked to rate a couple of aspects about the scenario just examined.

“How easy do you think it was for the reviewer to find answers to the questions posed?”

The group had a choice of four different answers for this question. They could only vote once. The choice was:

  1. Not found
  2. Poor
  3. Satisfactory
  4. Very good

The highest vote was for Satisfactory with Poor second. Some discussion took place about why people felt it was satisfactory, including considering the information provided, taken in the round (considering the access via the A-Z and search, etc). But the next question proved interesting…

“Rate how well this website enabled the customer to complete the task.”

The options for answering were the same as the previous question. The vote this time was reversed. The highest vote now was Poor with Satisfactory second. If it had been a real ‘Better connected’ review, that assessment would have resulted in a points score for the whole section of 1 (Poor) – the other scores could have been 2 for Satisfactory, or 3 for Very Good.

Discussion followed about the drivers for those who had voted Satisfactory before to have now switched to Poor. Several theories were put forward. A fair amount of discussion had followed the first question and so people had had an opportunity to reflect on the overall score and adjust it down based on the evidence seen and the subsequent conversation. Another suggested that the wording of the actual question was a factor, highlighting the importance of getting the survey questions right in the first place.

The final question didn’t involve a technical wizardry at all. At the end of each section of the annual review survey there’s an opportunity for the reviewer to comment upon what he’s found during the exercise. This might be about highlighting an excellent example of the genre that other councils might wish to view, or perhaps pointing out where something didn’t work, or something else. So the final question posed of the group was hopefully going to be interesting as I wanted to stimulate further discussion about what had been found and what might be changed.

“Do you have any comments to make about what you have found?”

Adrian was given the first go here, as he had been the one using the mouse and answering the questions each time. He started off by saying that he had found the website rather verbose (pages needed to get to the point faster), but thought the search was good the way it highlighted search criteria entered. Overall he found the experience rather difficult, he said. Others joined in saying that they too thought the page about food premises registration had too much text on it, but other aspects of the site looked really good. It was fresh, contemporary in design and felt well managed but that all that’s to no avail if the service delivery aspect of the site doesn’t cut the mustard (ie prevent the customer from completing his transaction online without directly contacting the council in some way.

A couple of questions were asked about the EU Services Directive and aspects of its implementation by local authorities, focusing specifically on the area of food business registration since that was the topic of the moment. I was able to show the group the website of South Somerset Council which is, unsurprisingly, adjacent to West Somerset. South Somerset have implemented the directive well and the required information for food business registration is comprehensive and straightforward to find and use. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than satisfactory.

In terms of look and feel, all were agreed that the West Somerset site, with a fresher, more engaging design, was much better than that of South Somerset, but that unfortunately a great design doesn’t answer questions. In short, South Somerset’s website appeared to be rather more focused on providing better information to its customers than being aesthetically pleasing.

As the session drew to a close, I summed up the experience that I’d just taken them through and said that I hoped that they now had a better understanding of what a website review involves. The general consensus appeared to be very favourable, which I was delighted (and not a little relieved) to hear!

Later that day, I discovered a number of tweets from @Speedball74, @eGovtBulletin@Stephen_Cross and @GossInteractive which suggest that the session was indeed well received, and a delight to read at that! I shall look forward to receiving the official feedback from Headstar in due course!

In summary, West Somerset Council have covered the basics of food premises registration well, but there are a few issues which would benefit from being attended to. Every public sector web manager’s mantra should be ‘The customer is king’ or, more simply, just ‘Think customer’. We need to encourage content providers to write with the customer very much in mind, and make it is a straightforward as possible to complete a given task.

A few tweaks to the West Somerset Council website would make such a huge difference to its overall usability, but on the whole its a website that I really like and is a credit to the individual who manages it on a day to day basis.

And finally, a huge and very public ‘thank you’ to my up-for-it guinea pig on the day, Adrian.  I’m afraid I don’t know his last name or company, but he was the hero of the hour!

Managing brand reputation in the Twitter age

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I’ve been telling corporate folk for ages that reputation management is essential if an organisation joins the Twitterati or Facebook.

Microblogging services such as Twitter and an infinite host of other social media platforms have enabled anyone with online access to communicate instantly with a global audience. As such, we now live in a world of billions of potential influencers.

One person’s opinions about a company, regardless of whether those opinions are based on evidence, speculation or emotional impulse, can spread within minutes among networks comprising thousands, sometimes even millions, of individuals.

Unsubstantiated hearsay about a company can quickly harden into fact – and live on forever, popping up again and again in search engine results. And if those rumors go “viral” – that is, seen and distributed by enough people – it can attract the attention of the mass media, leading to a full blown communications crisis.

High-profile examples include Google’s alleged plans to buy Twitter, followed by another stating Apple would acquire the micro-blogging service for $700 million. As we know now, both rumors proved false, but the wild speculation grabbed the attention of the trade media and undoubtedly impacted industry decision-makers around the globe.

Whether an online conversation involves something unfounded or true, the worst reaction is to ignore it. Instead, organisations should take a ‘Murphy’s Law’ approach, that is, imagine the worst possible things that can be said about your brand and have a plan for quickly and effectively responding to them.

Here are five steps your organisation can take to anticipate and prepare for a communications crisis:

1. Know Who Will Do What

Your senior officers and communications team should create procedures to be followed in case of a crisis. Who within the organisation is designated to respond to rumors? What platforms will they use? Is there a company-wide manual that provides all employees with the dos and don’ts of reacting to online scuttlebutt or inquiries from professional journalists?

2. Anticipate What You Will Say

What are the typical scenarios that the organisation might expect? Do they involve products, services, customer interactions, employee relations, financial markets, industry practices, corporate social responsibility or something else that can impact your stakeholders?

For each area, you can develop general messaging that can be quickly tailored to address a specific issue. Make sure those messages are consistent with the core messaging that your company uses in daily communications through all of its channels. The last thing your organisation should do is send mixed messages.

3. Keep Your Eyes Open

Assign one or more employees to monitor online conversations about your organisation. Make sure to have them monitor both mainstream news stories as well as those that appear in social media. These individuals should bring negative conversations to the attention of senior communications strategists who can then determine if next steps are necessary.

4. Be Responsive

The beauty of the Internet is that it enables two-way conversations. If, for example, your organisation discovers an unhappy stakeholder on Twitter, invite the individual to speak with you via email, phone or some other channel that will enable you to give them personalised attention and address their concerns in detail.

5. If Appropriate, Be Humble

Be humble as an organisation. Show that you’re willing to listen and change. Demonstrating a willingness to learn from mistakes and move forward can generate good will among stakeholders. For example, Motrin, the brand for a popular U.S. pain reliever, launched a new ad campaign implying that mothers use baby carrying devices as a fashion statement.

The campaign prompted an immediate, viral protest, with women denouncing the depiction on Twitter and even forming a Facebook group to boycott the product.

Motrin, which was closely monitoring social media discussions, immediately pulled the ads and apologised, helping to turn a potentially damaging gaff into an opportunity to engage in a positive conversation with its target audience.

Another instance involved a YouTube video of two employees, as a prank, tampering with food at a North Carolina Dominoes restaurant. When the video began spreading on the internet, the company posted its own YouTube video of its president reassuring viewers that appropriate actions had been taken.

No, no … don’t duplicate!

Following the publication today of a story on the BBC News website technology section that includes a quote from yours truly, I was asked a question via Twitter which I said I would clarify here on my blog for interested parties to learn a little more about my line of thinking.

There's much more to potholes than a hole in the road!

There's much more to potholes than a hole in the road!

The questioner (Mash the State) sought clarification over a subsequent Tweet I made that councils should make their own equivalent e-service applications to FixMyStreet or the (sadly now defunct) planningalerts.com, etc., as good as the independent sites.

Another (Kev Campbell-Wright) asked me: “Why does every council need their own fault reporting when FixMyStreet works from everywhere?”

So, to clarify where I was coming from with the original comment and an attempt at clarification in the limited 140 character space available to me on Twitter, here’s my take on the whole thing, starting with the original quote from the BBC News story:

“It’s a short-sighted council that is a bit sniffy about these services,” said John Fox, who helps to monitor the use of websites and social media for Socitm – the professional body for local government IT managers.

“They can see these services as a bit of a pain in the neck rather than embracing them,” he said.

He added that those behind some of the follow-on services should consider the impact of what they were doing on local councils.

“One of the big issues for putting the services on the website is what happens to that information after it has been entered by you, me or a citizen,” said Mr Fox.

For instance, he said, when it came to street repairs some councils had created a streamlined system that, once a pothole is reported, routes information electronically so that the only human intervention is a man pouring tar into the offending chasm.

By contrast, he said, in some councils a report filed via FixMyStreet may have to be forwarded via e-mail several times before it reaches the right department.

Despite this, he said, more and more councils were opening up. Kent County Council has set up the “Pic and Mix” website that allows anyone to take some of its data and play around with it.

Some maintained a presence on social sites, such as Facebook, to reach their citizens.

Salford, he said, regularly ran an online element to its annual debate about budgets to ensure people are involved with how their council tax is spent.

What I said to Mark Ward (BBC correspondent) was that those councils that are a bit sniffy about sites like FixMyStreet are missing a bit of a trick. Many may not have sufficient resources to develop their own integrated online services inhouse, so FixMyStreet provides a zero-cost way of providing online services via an intermediary service and can help to make the council’s own website appear (to the citizen) to offer more transactional capabilities. Good news all round basically.

But, where a council has already developed e-services in house, either bespoke or using a proprietary application with a web plug-in (as I write this I can’t for the life of me recall the name of the highways reporting system that is used at Salford), then a considerable investment has already been made by that council in providing online services and it would not be politic to simply ditch that application and switch to the FixMyStreet model.  Instead, effort should be put into making sure that the internal e-service is simple and straightforward for both citizen and council to use as possible, to drive take-up whilst reducing overall transactional costs for the authority.

So there’s two models. But there’s a third. So let’s assume the council has its own e-service for citizens to report a highway problem, eg a pothole. Just how well used is that e-service? Is take-up e-service good, poor, or non-existent?  Maybe the usability is questionable? Maybe it simply takes too long to complete the task? Or maybe the council isn’t marketing its availability effectively enough and citizens are finding FixMyStreet instead?

It is highly probable that using FixMyStreet: a) takes less time, b) works every time, and c) has additional customer-oriented functionality for the end user to check out.

So if FixMyStreet works better for the citizen than the council’s own e-service equivalent, which isn’t being well used, the council should perhaps be putting effort into getting the internal investment recouped, shouldn’t it?

One could argue that in the final analysis, its all about the citizen – provided the citizen ultimately gets the service they’ve requested (ie to have a pothole repaired) it doesn’t really matter, does it, whether the enabler was the council’s internal system or FixMyStreet?

Well, actually (sticking my neck out), yes I think it does matter!

The council’s internal system will hopefully have been set up to automate as far as possible the internal process, from initial citizen report, to entering the problem report into the highways system and a log number being generated.  Then a work order is generated at the highways depot and a man goes out in his little van and fills the pothole in.  Meanwhile the citizen gets an automatically generated email thanking him for reporting the pothole, providing a log number and further information on who to contact if he wishes to follow up at a later date.

If the system works really well additional customer facilities will be enabled, like informing the customer that the hole has been filled in, or providing details on the website of his problem statement and the subsequent fix. As an aside, in my capacity as a Better connected reviewer, I’d be especially delighted if I received an acknowledgement email that informed me about other online service offerings from that council that I might like to try out sometime.

Where FixMyStreet falls down (in comparison to the council’s own e-service) is that the pothole report is sent in an automatically generated email from the owners of FixMyStreet to a nominal contact in the council. For a council that gets a lot of FixMyStreet reports, that’s potentially an awful lot of reports being sent to a single individual. It’s usually one contact per council, they’ll receive not just potholes but also street lights, dead animals, etc., so they’ll have to farm out the reports to the relevant part of the council for action. I know of one council where the contact is the council’s single press officer, he’s a busy man and the potential for messages to get held up, unactioned, in his inbox is not inconsiderable.

These factors inevitably impact upon transactional costs because extended time and human interventions are involved in passing the FixMyStreet report to the right department, then it has to be keyed and the work request generated before the highway man pops out with his bucket of tarmac.

Essentially, then, the general thrust of my assertion is that the council’s own e-service  is likely (if well designed) to reduce overall transaction costs, whereas the FixMyStreet method might work well for the citizen but it doesn’t work terribly well for the council because there’s no back office integration for the problem reporting, and therefore transaction costs will be higher.

And so yes there is, I believe, a real benefit in making sure that the council’s own e-services where available work effectively, and where they aren’t available, then promote the FixMyStreets of this world and get your internal processes attuned to handling the enquiries you’ll doubtless generate as a result of doing so!

“No Kirstie Allsop”

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Title page (see download)

“Location, Location, Location but no Kirstie Allsop” was one of the tweets made by an attendee at today’s Council Websites ’09 event held at London’s Olympia.

She wasn’t available today, so I was standing in for her. Must say I was sorry that the individual was disappointed at her absence!

I duly took to the stand at 10.35 this morning to present my take on Find My Nearest (FMN) facilities from a citizen perspective, and was then followed by Dane Wright from the London Borough of Brent who discussed that council’s approach to providing location-based information resources.

I’ve included my speaker’s notes in my presentation which is available to download from Slideshare so that you can glean the gist of the presentation if you weren’t there!

I was not in the best frame of mind this morning. My back was hell this morning and despite having popped copious quantities of painkillers it was a struggle. I needed my crutch for support today, the first time I’ve had to rely on it for some time. Indeed, I left the event soon after my session had completed as I was in too much pain to remain for the day. Very disappointed about that.

During the event many people were tweeting commentaries similar to the Kirstie Allsop remark above. Some commented that I was being too negative about certain websites, that I should be focusing on best practice examples.

But I disagree with these views. My approach today was to take the citizen perspective, what the real end user would experience when trying to use a council’s find my nearest facility (if they could find it).

If you were there you probably thought I was being negative about Thurrock, North Down and North Lincs, but I wasn’t – honest!  I felt it important to build a picture, moving from not so good promotion and usability to better examples of FMNs out there.

Both Thurrock and North Lincolnshire councils provide comprehensive location-based resources, and as I highlighted I was delighted to find Thurrock includes cemeteries and North Lincs’ FMN has cross-selling of other website resources down to a fine art. It’s just a shame that neither site promotes the availability better, particularly on the homepage. To illustrate this, I showed homepage promotion examples from West Oxfordshire, Salford, Eden, Harrow, Torfaen and Brent.

I noted one tweet which suggested a degree of bias towards Salford’s implementation. Well, in my defence, I thought it better to declare an interest up front rather than say nothing.

My all-time favourite remains West Oxfordshire’s FMN promotion (particularly the homepage graphic), integration and level of property detail provided. It is, I think, a benchmark for others to strive for.

I duly handed on to Dane and he did his piece. A couple of questions followed from the audience, none directed at me (was it the pained expression on my face that stopped people from asking me anything?).

I did regret having had to leave much earlier than I had planned, but not before I’d had an opportunity to catch up with my old team from Salford (SM, BM and AG), a happy reunion indeed, and Craig Stevens from Incredibly Useful.

Just before I departed I was very pleased to meet Rachel Davis from Medway Council and have a brief chat with her about their own plans for a website development.  I’d been hoping to meet the great Simon Wakeman today, but Rachel more than made up for his absence!!!

A big public thank you to Dane for his help and support and in putting together today’s presentation!