Monday, July 21, 2008

Why do some local councils in the UK have better websites than some Commonwealth agencies in Australia?

The question in my title is of course a little provocative - who is to say whether a website is better or worse?

The answer, in my view, is our users.

For some reason in Australian we have never, to my knowledge, asked our citizens to compare government websites against universal categories such as awareness, ease of task completion, information depth and quality, findability, usability or design aesthetics.

There are few objective standards or comparison processes in use in government - although Global Reviews has a good stab at rating local council sites. Having worked with them before, their methodology is robust and well developed.

Users aside, I do feel safe in saying that the UK is far ahead of Australia in the field of egovernment. While some Australian Commonwealth agencies are still struggling to introduce Web content management systems some UK local councils are now adding advanced Web 2.0 features as below (and it's not the only example, just currently the best one).

Redbridge Borough's website is a leading example of user customisable government websites in the UK and is recognised as a world leader.

As a London Borough with roughly 250,000 constituents, Redbridge's site was developed on the basis that the public own the local administration and should have the ability to comment on services and engage on an ongoing basis with the council.

It drew from best practice private sector websites, incorporating features from sites such as Amazon, Google, eBay and Facebook.

Part of the design philosophy was to allow the public to decide what was most important to them. Therefore, except for a fixed space in the upper right, the website's homepage can be reorganised as desired by individual citizens, with sections able to be dragged and dropped to other locations on the page and content hidden or show.

The site can also be customised by postcode to show the services most relevant to individual households.

Another decision was to continuously innovate, develop and release new features and let citizens decide how valuable they are. This taps into actual citizen behaviour, rather than anticipated behaviour and provides a uage-based measure of what the website's users will use than do focus groups and wishlists.

One particularly successful feature of the site are the forums supporting community consultation. Councillors are active at responding and use the forums to identify comment trends and useful stakeholders to inform council decision-making processes.

The site also has a growing transactional function and has demonstrated cost saving by transferring business from phone and face-to-face channels.

The site was developed in-house over a nine month period by a team of up to 6 people, with up to 500 staff consulted about the development, and released in 2007.

The best way to learn to learn the site is to play with it. It really is easy to use and effective at task completion.

More information about the site is available from the Innovation in local government services awards page.

A very good 5 minute video about the Redbridge-i website is available at


  1. I think you could potentially ask the same question but replace Commonwealth agencies with UK Central Government.

    I've been thinking about this recently and one of the arguments I would put forward would be a smaller group of staff empowered to make decisions for more effective sites devolved to them. It's also in their interest to do so - unlike central government which develops policies that impact on virtually every citizen, I think local councils have a semi-captive audience that instinctively lends itself to citizen led activities. If they don't focus on good facilities and some kind of transactional web presence to represent them, people can move to other boroughs. Whilst a citizen could equally move to France to avoid similar central government policy - a localised move would seem more achievable.

  2. Fair point Justin.

    I actually feel that one of the key reasons government doesn't do better online is due to lack of competition.

    There's no strong hunger to outperform when there's no competitors pushing you.

    For councils there's certainly more competition than for national governments.

    This could also explain why often the best national government sites are often those focused on competitive areas - such as tourism.