What is “the right approach” to public service website design?

socitim finger pointSocitm have recently reported on their 17th survey of local authority websites, Better Connected 2015, and the picture still isn’t great. Although rising expectations are said to be driving improvement, there are still significant gaps in performance. The key highlights from the report illustrate this:

  •    Slow and intermittent progress in improving their websites in the past year.
  •    Advances in accessibility – 43% providing satisfactory features for the disabled.
  •    Increases in number of responsive sites – increasing to nearly 50% (easy reading and navigation).
  •    8% now reach the 4 star ranking.
  •    Public satisfaction fell by 30%.
  •    The gap has narrowed by over 9%, between satisfied and dissatisfied.
  •    Slow progress in mobile performance experience – only 1/3 passing the assessment, especially customer journeys for top tasks.
  •    Only 37% of councils passed the top tasks standard, a slight improvement on last year.
  •    Nearly 50% of new sites launched didn’t improve the 1 or 2 star ranking.

Martin Greenwood (Socitm’s Insight Programme Manager) said shortcomings are due to councils having limited resources and not taking the right approach to designing websites. He highlights key barriers to improvements:

  •    Lack of resources and skills.
  •    The need to simplify.
  •    Focus on mobile, getting this right helps with the website as a whole.
  •    Addressing what makes the website poor, such as standards, digital governance, and management of content, before making the same mistakes.
  •    Not having strong editorial control, to ensure consistency.
  •    Not having a national structure for budgets, third party software and information sharing.

So what is the right approach? Information on how individual councils perform is available in the full report, but 34 councils achieve the maximum 4 star. In the past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of councils that have implemented a responsive site, up from 107 (26%) to 198 (49%). Many of the issues highlighted are the same for all websites, and ownership, clarity of purpose, clear user journeys are key to all websites. So how can all websites be improved?

  •    Have clear editorial processes and accountability.
  •    Really focus on the customer journey and remove any distraction.
  •    Make the information architecture clear and consistent, prioritise top tasks.
  •    Design for mobile devices first.
  •    Keep content relevant.
  •    Make sure all forms have context, such as the process or service which can be expected.

and specifically for local authorities Socitm highlights:

Should local authority websites be a priority in today’s efficiency saving climate? Ipsos Mori shows that 85% of the adult population now use the internet, while Ofcom found that half of internet users use government websites, including local authority ones, and this is growing rapidly. With 45.3m visits each month to council websites already, this will continue to grow, but will sites be resilient enough to cope? 30% of visits end in failure, even the best performing sites have 15% failures, and most failures lead to other modes of contact, such as calls to already busy call centres. DCLG found that 65% of local authorities said they had made savings as a result of implementing digital services, with an average saving of £1.4m, and also the added value of greater efficiency and transparency. The digital trends which are emerging across the public sector are driven by technological solutions to create efficiencies, as well as a better use experience, for a more digitally aware customer. Part of the solution to this efficiency is strategic use of content, simplified and used across the whole organisation. Technology will be used more and more in service delivery, better use of call centre information and feedback, and improved searching functions for information. The results of Better Connected, although promising, have some way to go. Although failure to meet, what are essentially customer service standards, may not be having a direct monetary impact currently, it will in the future if local authorities do not keep pace with the principles of user-centred design. Idox agrees with the report’s findings, especially that user-centred design is key to online services. As a company we are taking this forward within our business strategy. We have found that there is a an eagerness to develop and improve web experience, but with constraints on financial budgets, public sector clients are prioritising the improvements which are absolutely necessary. The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on digital service delivery, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us. An example of other resources we can offer to meet the challenge facing the public sector: Better Connected 2015 (Press Release) Local Digital Today Digital Trends in the public sector Digitally positive: an essay collection Technology Manifesto Internet Citizens 2013: use of citizen-related online content and services

Grey men dreaming of vibrant cities?

Image by Neil Howard under Creative Commons

Image of MediaCity, Manchester by Neil Howard under Creative Commons

By Morwen Johnson

They control combined budgets of over £10bn, deliver 24.4% of the combined economic output of England, Scotland and Wales, and are home to over 21 million people. What are they? The Core Cities of the UK – and as pre-election lobbying ramps up a gear they are at the forefront of the devolution debate.

Last week I attended the Core Cities Devolution Summit. This event, hosted in Glasgow, marked the launch of a modern charter for local freedom. It also gave those interested in the current cities agenda a chance to hear from the city leaders on the potential benefits of reform.

I won’t summarise the charter, or the main recommendations of a new report from ResPublica which argues for the fullest possible devolution of public spending and tax raising powers to the UK’s largest cities and city regions. Instead, here are a few reflections on the day.

Bespoke devolution

The hype over Manchester’s recent devolution agreement with the Treasury shouldn’t distract from the fact that devolution is not a one-size-fits-all model. The idea isn’t to try and mimic Manchester’s journey – what’s on the cards is an approach that takes account of local circumstances.

I’m not sure that the end result of this – potentially radically different priorities in revenue generation, service delivery and spending between neighbouring metropolitan areas – is being communicated in a transparent way. Ben Page from IpsosMori shared some interesting survey results which suggest that public opinion also lags behind the political agenda:

ipsos survey 1

ipsos survey 2Leadership not bureaucracy

Mention devolution and one of the immediate responses of naysayers is to complain it’s just yet another layer of governance – more costs, more staff, more vested interests. This was raised during Q&A and the panel responded by saying that what they are proposing doesn’t require massive reorganisation – it’s about effective leadership. The same pots of money are used but funds can be accessed in different ways for different purposes.

This was only half-convincing. Repeated reference to place-based decision-making (breaking down functional /organisational silos to ensure services are focused on outcomes and those residents with complex needs) didn’t really explain how you build the trust and political capacity that’s needed to roll out transformation across multiple agencies/workforces at the same speed and scale.

Equalities

Presenting a different perspective on the day was Professor Lesley Sawers, who highlighted the risks of unintended consequences from devolution in terms of social justice and inequalities. She argued that so far localism has led to an approach to investment that has not been particularly effective in tackling equalities issues.

Cities should be great agents of social reform but the rhetoric around growth has a tendency to focus on infrastructure and macroeconomics – ignoring social challenges such as skills, poverty and under-achievement. And it may seem an easy point to score, but running an event with only 3 female speakers out of 25, didn’t really send a great message to observers. Don’t even mention the lack of ethnic diversity on the platform.

What now?

The devolution agenda may be the ‘only show in town’ but whether the core cities can take advantage of this to benefit and engage their own populations remains to be seen.


The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on governance and city regions. Members receive regular briefings as well as access to our Ask a Researcher enquiry service.

Knowledge insider…. a Q & A with Jonathan Breckon

jonathan_breckon_150x150In the latest of our series of Q&As with leading advocates of the use of evidence in policymaking and practice, we talk to Jonathan Breckon. Jonathan is Head of the Alliance for Useful Evidence – a partnership which champions the need for useful evidence, providing a focal point for improving and extending the use of social research and evidence in the UK.

Jonathan, what led you to a role about promoting and improving knowledge development? 

There are two ways in which I am interested in knowledge development; professionally I have always worked around universities, loved doing and finding out new research and working within research in UK. I have always been conscious however, of the gap between research and front line services, even when research is relevant to the service, and felt this was a great loss and disadvantage to public services.

My personal interest, as a user of public services, with my kids going through services such as schools, health and sports, I have been desperately aware that things are business as usual rather than continuously striving for innovation and change. The debate is now all about money and reductions when it should be about improvement and future proofing.

We don’t always know what it takes to bridge the gap between what we need, and what services can provide; research can actually help that. The What Works approach is really important but very hard, as it’s difficult to stop doing things we have already invested in. An evidence-based research approach can challenge and support this evaluation and we have a moral duty to do it and not continue to invest in services which don’t work.

What do you think the main benefits of developing your knowledge are?

The challenge of seeing if things work or not, why they work, where they work and who they work for – developing your knowledge is the critical aspect of improving how you do things.

It’s also important for a whole host of other benefits. I particularly like Carol Weiss’ work, which is instrumental – this ‘enlightment’ operational research should not be dismissed. This approach can support the ideas of learning continuously through research; it implies a continuous review of theory, methods, practice and we should always be striving to improve our methods and outcomes.

When people are talking to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

The most common one is that investing in evidence is just rhetoric; politicians, charities, parties etc will never really be informed by the research agenda, and I agree. We aren’t in a super-rational culture, it’s about our wider culture, values and beliefs as well. But it’s a fundamental misunderstanding that research trumps anything. It is part of the mix, part of the overall democratic and rational approach to doing anything.

The Behavioural Insights Team has a massive role to play in understanding the biases in how we make decisions, whether in prisons, police, policy etc. We don’t work rationally all the time and evidence can help us understand the messiness of policy making. We just need it to be a bigger part of the mix.

Everybody has this view that they use evidence but we don’t really understand how effectively they use it.

What are the hard to spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, which you really need to avoid?

The main one is that not all evidence is equal; that you have to make judgements about it. This is hard for those writing the research – it’s not about the quality of the research, and it’s about the point of view from demand. They need some things and not others.

The big challenge, if you are looking at impact, is you need different approaches, experiments, systematic reviews – one study is not enough. Such as when you see studies reported in newspapers – until replicated we don’t really know if it is robust. You need to avoid literature reviews where you cherry pick, go to something which is transparent and is systematic. This is true of both policy makers and researchers’ point of view; we underestimate the challenges facing both sides.

Need more about impact. We are very good at qualitative – world class – but we are behind in quantitative methods. It is being addressed but it will need to filter through.

How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?

What Works Centres will, I hope, be a key part of the evidence ecosystem, in the way that NICE have done, helping providers and policy makers make decisions. Although it doesn’t do research itself it sucks in research and uses it well.

There will always be critics of them, even of just the name, but they will change the system. Some have been around for a while and are well established, but others are new and are just about to be. As well as synthesising research they will commission new work. For instance in wellbeing, we know a lot about the correlation with health and wellbeing but don’t know a lot about what will work in improving it.

Technology makes it very difficult to guess about the future, who would have predicted the work in social media research? Big data is emerging now and in 5 years’ time might be a standard tool. The fundamental principles like statistics will be there but we will have to adapt to the possibilities offered by technology

If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?

Just because you have done a social science masters and PhD, does not make you an expert in evidence, partly because people over-specialise. People need open their minds to different methods and how people do it in other places. The Department for International Development have an amazing range of techniques, nothing like anything you have seen, with a database of all the research they have funded or delivered.

Emerging opportunities such as social media research – still early days and fundamentally new, and could have a huge impact. Most people’s default though is to go to an expert and be frightened off journals and academics; I don’t think you always have to commission something new, it’s about variety, breadth and developing your understanding in as many ways as possible.


 

You can also read Q&As with Tim Allen, Local Government Knowledge Navigator; Clive Grace, Local Government Knowledge Navigator; Sarah Jennings of the Knowledge Hub; and Kim Ryley, recent Past President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.

 

How to effectively sustain change

“The only constant is change” – Heraclitus

The public sector in the UK is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of change. Increased demand and budget cuts have resulted in large-scale transformation programmes. Change has become a constant feature of the landscape, and being able to effectively implement, manage and sustain that change is fast becoming a requisite skill for public sector managers at all levels of the organisational hierarchy – not just a job for those ‘at the top’.

However, despite the increased prevalence of change management initiatives, research has shown as many as 75% of organisations fail to sustain their change initiatives over time.  Poorly prepared and trained managers were found to be a key factor behind the high failure rate.

In our latest briefing, we look at ‘what works’ when implementing change initiatives, drawing on key pieces of research and the advice of prominent change management experts.

We provide an overview of the different types of change that may be experienced, set out a step-by-step framework for introducing, managing and sustaining change in your organisation, and highlight the common features of successful change management initiatives.   We also look at some of the most common reasons for the failure of change initiatives, and how these can be avoided and/or addressed.

You can download the briefing for free from the Knowledge Exchange home page.

Performance-related pay in the public sector … does it work?

English moneyBy Donna Gardiner

Pay accounts for a large proportion of public sector expenditure and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that in the current context of ‘do more with less’, there has been renewed interest in using pay to help drive performance improvements.

Indeed, as part of last year’s spending review, the government announced the introduction of performance-related pay for all civil servants by 2015-16. It is also working towards the removal of automatic pay progression in schools, prisons, the NHS and the police. In his Budget statement, the Chancellor called progression pay “antiquated” and said it was “deeply unfair” to others within the public and private sectors who did not receive it. Continue reading

Big challenges – and rewards – for Big Data in the third sector

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

Image from Flickr user JustGrimes, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

By Stephen Lochore

‘Big data’ is big news! Along with its close relative ‘open data’, it’s part of the latest thinking about how managing information can help bring about better services. The rough idea is to use new technology and approaches to understand, analyse, link and where possible share large complex datasets to generate new insights and improve decisions.

In 2012, the UK government identified big data as one of eight ‘great technologies’ that support science and business, and since then has invested in a range of big data initiatives through the UK Research Councils. This includes the ESRC’s Big Data Network, whose current phase involves establishing four academic research centres to make data from local government and business more accessible.

In Scotland, an industry-led data lab, backed by public funding, is due to open late in 2014 to develop new data science capabilities.

Most of the focus has been on private sector innovation, higher education research capabilities and public sector datasets. Little has been said about the third or voluntary sector, which is surprising:

  • Third sector organisations provide a wide range of services – policymakers need to understand the sector’s structure and capabilities;
  • Many third sector organisations gather information that could help improve the design and delivery of services – they work directly with local communities including vulnerable groups who can be reluctant to engage in formal consultations.

Fortunately, there are a few initiatives which are looking at these issues.

On Monday 13 October I went to the first of a series of workshops organised by Scottish Universities Insight Institute into the opportunities and challenges of using data for Scotland’s third sector organisations.

Continue reading

8 ways local authorities can support community empowerment in an age of austerity

community signby Stephen Lochore

Austerity measures implemented by the UK Government since 2010 have reduced funding for some public services and aspects of welfare.  Although local government has attempted to absorb real-term reductions in funding, for example by sharing corporate functions, the scale of the cuts is reducing direct delivery in some service areas.  Discretionary community-level support services have been disproportionately affected by austerity measures. Continue reading

The act is a year old but what does social value actually mean?

people forming a circle

by Alex Addyman

On 31 January 2013 the Public Services (Social Value) Act, or simply the Social Value Act as it is more commonly known, came into force. The law was a turning point for many organisations, particularly social enterprises, with Social Enterprise UK considering it to have: “the potential to transform the way public services are commissioned, requiring public bodies to consider choosing providers based on the social value created in an area and not on cost alone”. Continue reading

Using service design for user-focused, cost-effective public services

business people reviewing plans

by Laura Dobie

Faced with growing demand and reduced budgets, public services are increasingly looking for innovative ways to meet user needs with declining resources. Ahead of this weekend’s Global Service Jam, here’s a quick look at how service design can transform public services. Continue reading

Co-production and the changing relationship between citizen and state

Big Ben in London at night against blue sky. London traffic

by Laura Dobie

The past week has seen much discussion around the relationship between citizen and state. On Monday 10th February, Ed Miliband delivered the Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian building in Kings Place. He made the case for a new culture in public services, moving towards “people-powered public services”. In this model, individuals are not simply the consumers of services, but have a voice as well Continue reading