How Birmingham City Council ditched ‘vanity projects’ and transformed its white-elephant website
Council’s assistant director of customer services tells PublicTechnology how Europe’s largest local authority asked youthful citizens to help it build an online home that is fit for purpose
The new-look Birmingham.gov.uk site has stripped back the content and tried to group and classify information in a way that makes more sense to citizens Credit: Birmingham City Council
A population of one million people, speaking almost 150 languages. And not only one of Europe’s most diverse cities, but its youngest, with about two in five citizens aged under 25.
All served by an expensive and overly complicated website that was no longer fit for purpose.
Those were the circumstances facing Birmingham City Council – the largest local authority in Europe – when it came to completely revamp its online presence last year, ahead of a wider digital transformation drive.
The council’s previous website had been in operation since 2009, following a four-year development project whose cost skyrocketed from an initially budgeted £580,000, to a final total of £2.8m. The site’s launch – which came months behind schedule – was greeted by a public response that could, at best, be described as mixed.
By the beginning of last year, this lumbering white elephant was over five years old. The site was not mobile responsive – a major hindrance in such a youthful city, whose appetite for mobility is evidenced by the fact that 58% of traffic to the site now comes from mobile devices.
But when the council, alongside Leicester-based SME sister companies Jadu and Spacecraft, began work on redesigning the website in early 2016, it was the language, rather than the functionality, that it looked at first. And the conclusion was that responsibility for writing the content should be taken away from the relevant service-delivery team.
Paula Buckley, Birmingham City Council’s assistant director for customer services, tells PublicTechnology: “We centralised the content-writing team. On the old site, there were long, overly technical explanations for things, that I would almost describe as vanity projects concerned with demonstrating how complicated the service [in question] was. But customers just want to know whether they are entitled to a service and, if so, how do they get it, and what they have to do.”
She adds: “I brought in people that were experienced in writing for the web, but not [necessarily] in local authority, and that was really powerful. Content is now totally under the remit of the web team.”
Part of that remit has been to simplify the language, and use words in conjunction with more pictures – something Buckley says is crucially important in a city where more than one in seven people speak something other than English as their main language.
“There is a lot more plain English – we were really trying to get rid of the jargon, and not use as many words as some people [in the council] feel is necessary,” she says. “One of the things we have also done is use graphics, and understand how we could use a picture [to illustrate a concept]. We have also kept the language simple, and the sentences short.”
When it came to the site’s technical design, the “first step was to make it mobile-responsive”, Buckley says. She adds that, while an app might have been “very good for small and discrete transactions”, it was not the right choice for the council’s longer-term plans to give citizens the ability to manage their council transactions from a single account.
The layout of the new website was planned following research into where people’s gaze is naturally drawn.
“Jadu did a lot of work with us on eye-tracking,” she adds. “They got people to sit in front of computers and tracked where their eyes moved. What they found was used to help determine what the design was going to be.”
The citizen panel is very good at telling us what doesn't work
The people who took part in the eye-tracking exercise were among those who formed a “citizen panel”, that has been involved from the beginning in the design of the new site. The panel is, Buckley says, convened in groups of 20, with members swapped in and out according to their need for and experience with various services offered by the council.
“They are very good at telling us what doesn’t work,” she says.
One of the findings of the council’s research is that it was not just the site’s language that needed streamlining, but also the location and classification of information.
“There were a number of different services that had developed their own sites,” Buckley says. “We had lots of little websites for different areas. One of the things we are trying to do now is to move all of those microsites back onto Birmingham.gov.”
She adds: “Previously, content was more structured along the lines of our internal structure, rather than how people see services.”
Number of unique visitors to Birmingham.gov.uk each year
Length of time the old website was in operation
Number of residents who speak a language other than English as their main language
Amount of money invested in designing and building the new Birmingham.gov.uk site, compared with £2.8m on the previous site
An example of this is a section of the old site that contained information for and about young adults who are about to leave or have recently been in care. This area bore the opaque header ‘Transitional services’.
“Most people won’t know what that means,” Buckley says, before flagging up the fact that this content is now grouped under the much more self-explanatory banner of ‘Children in care and care leavers’.
According to the assistant customer services director, another exemplar of how the council has striven to bring together information in a way that simplifies citizens’ interaction with the website is the introduction of a page called ‘Moving to Birmingham’. This section has information designed to help soon-to-be residents of the city in six key areas: finding a school; registering for council tax; renting a garage, local attraction; refuse and recycling services; and contacting the council.
To expedite the website’s launch, it went live in August 2016 with “85% of the content completely rewritten”, Buckley says.
“We prioritised in terms of number of hits – what are people looking at or searching for?”, she adds. “The plan was to [finish] the remaining 15% by December – but it was done by the middle of September.”
The success of the new-look site in helping people find the content they need is, Buckley says, best illustrated by its page dedicated to the intricacies of registering a food business in the city. Prior to the redesign, the equivalent page on the old site garnered an average of about 350 hits a day. This figure has now ballooned to a mean of 11,000 and, on particularly high-traffic days, as high as almost 18,000.
The next step
Having pared down the content and redesigned how it is laid out and organised, the next step will be building and rolling out a new and improved range of online services. But Buckley says that “it is not just about putting services online”, but rather about ensuring that doing so improves the citizen experience.
The council already processes “lots of payments” digitally, she adds. But the plan is to introduce a “more enriched” experience.
“We are in the final stages of design of an online account that will have services behind it, so people can look at their council tax, or view or apply for their benefits, or report necessary repairs or register a business, [all from one dashboard],” Buckley says.
The all-new Birmingham.gov.uk site has, it seems, been more warmly received than its predecessor. Earlier this year it was even recognised by the annual Webby Awards for outstanding websites, where it was named as an Hounouree in the Public Sector and Activism category.
But Buckley concludes: “I think, for me, the main achievement is that the website meets the needs of the people of Birmingham.”
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