Review of Council Website (Agenda Item 6)
To receive the report of the Strategic Director – Cabinet.
The Senior Marketing & Communications Officer presented the six-monthly update, supported by the ICT Manager and the Web Officer.
She started by drawing Members’ attention to the new item which now appeared on the Council’s home page: a one-click link to the “Keep Norfolk Local” campaign website.
She then pointed out that the website had been subjected to independent scoring by two bodies: “Sitemorse”, which had concentrated on technical aspects; and the “Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm)”, which had focussed on web page content. Each aimed to look at issues of best practice; to highlight weaknesses; and to give suggestions for improvements. Examples included drawing attention to broken links and the need to provide specialist provision for those with visual impediments etc. Many recommendations had already been, or were in the process of being, taken forward by the Council’s website team.
The Web Officer drew attention to the Sitemorse score which was given in March 2008 and which ranked the Council’s website as 135 out of 460. This was felt to be good, but the six month trial of this software had ended in April so the team were currently evaluating Sitemorse against other companies (some of whom offered a free service) in order to achieve best value future software support on a permanent basis.
The Senior Marketing and Communications Officer then presented key aspects of the Council’s current web pages to Members, starting with the website statistics page which was up-to-date as at the end of October 2008. Among other things, this page illustrated the website’s effectiveness i.e. a measurement of how visitors felt they were being served by the site. The score had been above 99% each month and the Council’s website had received over 32,000 visitors up to the end of October. Members were also shown the list of top ranked pages – with the Home Page, Job Vacancies and Environmental Planning heading the list.
Returning to the report, attention was drawn to key improvements made over the last six months, as listed at para 4.2 on page 6 of the Agenda. Specific mention was made of the fact that the Lagan system had been made easier; an enhanced training programme for web editors was currently under way, as well as a register to ensure continuity of responsibility for each team whenever web editors moved on. Additionally, new items had been added to the A-Z list; further information about recycling was now listed; and wording on the homepage had been changed to make it clearer that a translation service was available.
In response to a query, the Web Officer explained that the Council did not receive payment for any links from our site which connected visitors directly to other sites (for example services provided by other Councils or organisations). However such links were considered a vital part of the signposting process for users and Socitm had stressed the key role which they played in terms of ‘best practice’ for Local Authority websites.
The Senior Marketing and Communications Officer drew attention to the improvements made to the “Do it Online” page, including breaking items down into more user-friendly areas and ensuring that it was generally easier to navigate around the site. In response to recommendations, there was now a feedback facility at the bottom of the “Do it Online” page, which enabled visitors to link directly into a survey and which ensured that their comments were seen and recorded. Additionally a pop-up box, inviting comments, now appeared on screen (once only) at some point during each visit. This was a relatively new feature and it was too early to ascertain whether or not it was going to be a useful tool.
Appendix A to the report listed some feedback points which had been made by Socitm and detailed the progress made thus far to address some highlighted weaknesses. For example, it was now much easier to find details about the Statement of Accounts or Council Tax issues.
The Chairman made the point that great care should be taken about the use of acronyms and jargon, bearing in mind that visitors to the site may not be familiar with some of these. It was agreed that further work needed to be done in this area over the coming months.
With regard to the list of web editors, it was felt that it would be helpful for Members to have sight of this, possibly on their Extranet.
There followed some discussion about the fact that the depth and complexity of the site meant that it was always going to be difficult for everything to be kept entirely up-to-date. Keeping the site as current as possible was crucial: many visitors were deterred by factual inaccuracies as they inspired a lack of confidence. South Norfolk Council’s website was held up as being exemplary, but it was argued that whilst Breckland could aspire to such excellence, this was always going to be harder for us to achieve since South Norfolk had the advantage of a full time member of staff assigned specifically to this area of work. To a large extent therefore, the Council’s website was dependent upon members of the public or staff highlighting anomalies and drawing these to the attention of web editors. That said, in spite of various resource problems, work would continue on the re-design of the Council’s web pages.
The Chairman felt that it was certainly time for the Council’s home page to be updated. Citing the picture in the top left as an example, he said that it could be argued that this was not Breckland-specific.
The Web Officer explained that the picture was currently on a random roll around, working through a selection of photographs. The idea of a more topical photograph - for example relating to a key event such as welcoming home the troops – was one among several which could now be worked through the new test database, a tool which enabled officers to try out new ideas and templates before they went ‘live’. Other options and changes were currently being explored, such as removing some of the data on the home page and converting this into drop down menus across the top band. However it was pointed out that care would need to be taken with this since some visitors might not be familiar with the concept of drop down menus. Overall, it was agreed that it would be a good idea to brighten up and refresh the page, whilst keeping within the accepted corporate colours.
The Web Officer said that the Communications team were planning to introduce custom images against each news item which could be easily updated. He said that he would arrange for Members to receive a screen image showing some of the ideas currently being explored.
The Planning site in particular had come in for some stark criticism. In spite of earlier promises and some initial ground work to enable planning applications to be viewed on the website, this project was currently frozen pending the decision on the future of the Planning Department. The ICT Manager said that they should have a steer on this in mid December.
The Chairman said that as internet access to the planning application process could be argued to be vital to the smooth running of some Council business, and since this was something which had initially been proposed five years ago, it was important to keep this under active review. He felt that if the result of current discussions meant further delays on website improvement, then this was something which should be specifically brought to the attention of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission in the near future.
Finally, there was some discussion about what was meant by the Socitm term “transactional ranking”. This was the next level which the Council was aiming to achieve. The Web Officer explained that this related to the levels of “inter-activity” which a website offered. Examples now on our site included the new “Do it Online” pages and various feedback options, as well as the presence of more signposts for visitors. He drew Members’ attention to the last sentence of Appendix A where the Socitm officer said that he “didn’t think there were quite enough well presented transactions available to give our site a Transactional ranking”. The Web Officer felt confident that recent and ongoing improvements should ensure that this higher rank would be reached at the next assessment.
The Chairman concluded by thanking the members of the team for their work and report, saying that he liked what they were doing and their future proposals.
(1) that the report be noted; and
(2) to RECOMMEND to Overview and Scrutiny Commission that the development of the on-line planning application process should be kept under active review.