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Are our heads in the digital sand?

Written by Glen Ocsko on . Posted in Our blog

Figure 10: Embracing the digital agendaToday I came across a new report released by Price Waterhouse Cooper entitled The Local State 2014 (you can take a look at it here: http://pwc.blogs.com/files/pwc-the-local-state-2014.pdf). It presents the results of a pretty decent survey, sent to local authority chief execs and leaders and then compared to the opinions of 2000 UK adults; it’s this direct comparison which caught my attention.

There are a number of very interesting points in there, each of which is really enough to write a separate piece on. To start with though I’m going to focus on the digital element of the findings as that was the section which originally drew me in. For those of you reading along at home, turn to section six and have a skim through it before coming back.

According to their survey, “75% of council Leaders and 61% of Chief Executives agree their council is confidently embracing the opportunities new technology offers to deliver better local public services. However,” and this is where it gets really interesting, “when we asked the public the same question, only 29% agreed… Clearly, local authorities still have some way to go when it comes to meeting the digital expectations of the public.”

29%, as opposed to 61% and 75%. I’m no statistician, but that’s quite some difference. In some ways it doesn’t matter who is right or who is wrong, and whether or not the services actually exist; the fact that over 7/10 people thought they weren’t is a damning indictment of where local government is today.

According to the report, when asked “In the last month, have you interacted with your council in the following ways?” less than half (48%) of respondents said that they had indeed. It is not clear whether or not these are interactions that would have been done in other ways normally, or whether the remainder would have engaged online if given the opportunity, so a little more research here might throw up some very interesting nuances indeed.

However, the discrepancy between what is thought by council leadership at Councillor and Officer levels and what the public thinks is possibly the most worrying of the statistics. If you read this report with no wider awareness you might end up thinking that councils are adopting an “if you build it, they will come” approach, building wonderful websites but not telling anyone about them and simply expecting them to be made use of.

Even worse, you could imagine that councils were busy building what they thought were wonderful websites and systems which in fact were hated by users and actively avoided rather than being taken up. This would throw up countless questions: what success measurements were being used? Who was testing these digital systems? What is being measured and given weight when in actual fact the most important factor – user satisfaction – was actually afforded little or no importance at all?

There are literally thousands of different things and measurements you could track for a typical council website, but all too often we get caught up with the basic headline numbers; how many people hit the site and is this more or less than this time last year. No thought is given as to why they visited, and the only tracking of satisfaction is the few people who click on the little smiley faces at the bottom of the screen.

User satisfaction with the online journey is arguably the only thing we should be worried about. Taking a simple process could really test how effective a website actually is:

  1. Could they access every bit of the website they needed to easily?
  2. What did they come to the site to do?
  3. Could they find it easily?
  4. Could they complete their transaction/find the right information easily and at the first attempt?
  5. Would they come back or recommend it to their friends and family?

Knowing the answers to these will form the root of good web evolution, rather than asking whether or not every page has an A-Z of services on it, or whether a page loaded in 0.003 seconds or 0.0029 seconds.

As the report mentions throughout, we are living in tough times and will need to see a significant change in relationships, behaviours and attitudes if we are going to see councils being able to afford to deliver key services to those residents with the most need. Digital services are an absolutely key element of these changes, and need to be not only seen as the cheapest way of delivering as many services as possible but also the best way. If the average, web enabled citizen is not using digital options wherever they are available because they have a perception that they are no good then local government is failing digitally, and we will never be able to start helping those less digitally enabled to get online let alone start saving real money and – more importantly – delivering better services.

And perhaps we need to get some of our council leadership out of the town hall and speaking with the 79% who don’t think they’re doing a good job digitally, despite what their own impressions to the contrary may be. Not as a sales pitch for their good work, not as an educational opportunity for that 79% but as a conversation to help councils understand why they are not hitting the mark online, despite their best efforts.

If we don’t, we might get caught in an awful cycle of loads of excellent digital effort and tonnes of digital work being mistaken for digital progress.

Posted: 2 years 11 months ago by RachaelMack #1255
RachaelMack's Avatar
Great post. I read it moments after the GDS post on digital by default service standards (gds.blog.gov.uk/2014/06/17/meeting-the-s...-regardless-of-size/) and it had me thinking about my authorities past and present and their approach to websites and digital generally.

The web teams are/were buried away somewhere, rarely brought into meetings, so not always kept informed of strategic decisions where they can explain how (or if) proposals would work. Web content is managed by officers in individual service areas, often without receiving training in writing for the web or even in what the website can offer besides displaying text and links to documents.

A decision from the top that everything must be digital by default doesn't always recognise the realities of the infrastructure and resources available. The time-consuming and difficult process that needs to be done is to take a step back and imagine what you'd want a website to be if you started with a blank screen. Involve everyone. Recognise the realities of budgets, resources and infrastructure and take some difficult decisions about priorities. Move away from the decade-old quality standard for local government website uniform basic content menus and ask your residents what they need the site to do (or check your web stats and complaints to find the raw data of what they look for and what they can or can't find). Then put the necessary resources into creating it properly.

Otherwise it's like laying the last brick on a building and then hiring an architect to make it look right.
Posted: 2 years 11 months ago by Glen #1256
Glen's Avatar
Thanks Rachael! I love that analogy of building a wall then hiring an architect, I might use that in future (properly attributed of course...)

The issue is that too many see websites as an online brochure or leaflet, as a one way communications tool and little else. How their face to face service could benefit from a digital approach is the last thing they think about.

It requires a culture change from senior managers and operational staff to get everyone thinking differently and thinking differently.

(Nice link too, will definitely read up on that from GDS)
Posted: 2 years 11 months ago by Jamesgore #1260
JamesGore's Avatar
Interesting article.
The answer to the question, for me, is "No, our heads aren't in the digital sand", it's that the standard methods of measuring customer satisfaction with anything a council does are skewed by an inherently negative response from the public as a starting point.

The statement used by PWC is "My council is confidently embracing the opportunities new technologies offer for better local public services". I'd like to see some baseline comparisons asking people whether their council "embraces confidently" other things too. I suspect the answer will be pretty much the same.

Perhaps I am pessimistic, but the stock, intuitive response of the average member of the public will be "no" to this question, regardless of the merit of what their council does digitally.

This is partly because there's a sense of entitlement (rightly or wrongly) when it comes to council services as these are perceived to be paid for directly out of local taxation (and therefore resented), partly because of an ingrained negativity (supported by local media scrutiny and rarely deserved) that councils are petty, bureaucratic profligate and wasteful, and partly because by answering positively, the responder sends an implied message that nothing can be improved.

Your later point hits the nail on the head for me - we do need to "see a significant change in relationships, behaviours and attitudes", but these are not simply internal changes. Our biggest challenge is actually in PR, as ever, trying to publicise the good job we do in the face of bodies, individuals and organisations who actively profit from undermining it.

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