Councils’ building control pages written for ‘professionals’ and risk ‘alienating’ residents
Less than half of UK local authorities’ websites have good or very good information for people planning to carry out a building project – and some are using web pages as a “hard sell” for council services, a survey has said.
Councils need to improve their provision of building information - Photo credit: Fotolia
The Better Connected survey, run by the society for IT professionals in local government, Socitm, looks at the ease of use of council websites for a variety of tasks, with results for each task being released over the course of the year.
The latest release, on building control and building standards websites, found that “too many web pages…appear to be written by professionals for professionals, when the assumption should be that the website visitor has little prior knowledge of the subject”.
In addition some of the sites in England and Wales – where building control is an area in which councils are in competition with the private sector – devote too much space to a “hard sell” for council services, “in lieu of useful information provision”.
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According to the survey report, the assessors – who carry out the testing by trying to use the site to complete a task from beginning to end – said that this risked putting users off.
For instance, it said, the propensity to invite site visitors to call the council for information could have been “driven by a desire to use personal contact as a means to secure building control business”.
This approach was “more likely to alienate people used to being able find answers to their questions 24/7”, it said.
The assessment was carried out in two parts – one covering the Scottish unitary councils and the other looking at the shire districts, London boroughs, English and Welsh unitary councils and Northern Ireland Districts – because the rules are slightly different in Scotland to the rest of the UK.
It found that just 34% of Scottish unitary councils and 43% of the rest of the UK’s councils achieved a 3 or 4 star rating, which equates to good or very good status.
In addition, a third of the Scottish unitary councils did not meet the condition of the “essential” question on whether users can easily find out if building work needs building standards approval, meaning they could score no higher than a 2 star rating.
Some 44% of Scottish sites, and just over a third of the rest, successfully answered a question about whether the whole compliance process from beginning to end is clear, and Socitm said it was “surprisingly difficult” to find information about certification, inspection and enforcement.
This includes the information that there people starting work without a building warrant could incur a fine of £5,000, which “hardly any” sites make clear, Socitm said.
The results show there is “considerable room for improvement”, Socitm said.
Areas that councils should work on include the way they link to external sources for further information, with Socitm saying that people are sometimes exposed to a wide range of inconsistent content that can be confusing for users.
“Using external content only worked where much attention had been paid to the overall customer journey and the pages linked to,” the report said. “Relying on links to lengthy pdfs, often provided by third parties and filled with advertising, were rarely a good solution.”
It added that councils should also ensure they are not relying on PDFs, that they explain clearly what the regulations are, what work requires them, how to apply and what charges and inspections will be needed.
The Scottish government will implement a “tough” assurance process for digital projects, mandate the use of common technologies and offer training to make sure civil servants “get digital”.
Individual councils could save up to £80m on IT spend alone over the next decade by adopting common platforms like GOV.UK Verify, according to government estimates.
The government’s Common Technology Services team is pitching itself as a central support and advice service for departments exiting both large and small IT contracts.
HMRC has said that it will develop its identity assurance solution to replace Government Gateway when it ends in March 2018 – rather than using the government’s flagship GOV.UK Verify.
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