Council web costs

A recent “study” for the Daily Telegraph brings both the Freedom of Information Act and that newspaper into disrepute due to the lack of rigour in the quoted study. The report about council website spending with interactive maps and a table of results also appears to claim that current spending on web sites is at the cost of frontline services. A similar report, though slightly better reported, appears in The Grauniad.

However, when one looks at the data revealed in the tabes and considers the questions that were asked, the results become clearer. Despite this being in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, there are far from a complete number of responses, thus skewing the graphical representation. There is also a great deal of difference in the make-up of the numbers between councils. For example, Barnsley spend £399, whilst Blackpool claim £ 140,820 – how do we account for the difference? It has to be the questions, which I believe were -

“1. For each financial year 2007-08 and 2008-09, and as per the definition given in the above paragraph, a description of each website service arranged by your Council.
2. For each year 2007-08 and 2008-09, and for each individual item listed in question 1, the cost to your Council of each website service. Please also include a total expenditure figure on website services for each financial year.
3.  For each year 2007-08 and 2008-09, and for each individual website and/or web page included in question 1, the number of hits received for the websites and/or web pages.
4. Describe and give dates for the research you have conducted or guidelines you have followed that led you to believe that the website services outlined above were necessary.
5. Describe how your Council appoints external website support agencies or contractors, the selection process and the key criterion on which you make appointments.

The said definition is as follows – “External website services” includes, but is not limited to, services such as website design and website development. “External website services” refers to projects or ongoing contracts outsourced to third-party agencies or contractors.

As one of those on the end of such FoI requests, this does nothing but display the lack of value of FoI requests! They have become the tools of undergraduate and commercial researchers with limited skills and foresight, along with a small number of academic researchers prepared to pressurize overburdened senior council staff with additional tasks.

The questions are frequently vague, the answers resulting are thus variable and dependent upon the ease of access to the original information. The requests themselves are often ungrammatical, full of misspellings and typos and requiring a deal of thought to ascertain the intentions of the “researcher” and provide the requested “information”.

How does one truly measure the cost of a website? The cost of the Content Management System licence? The salary of any web manager or the IT staff supporting the hardware – what if support is externalized or responsibility for content spread throughout the authority? Does the cost include any metatagging resource, the speech facilities, applications delivering data to it such as planning, mapping or benefits systems? An exercise such as this is comparing apples and oranges and ending up with a load of bananas!

It becomes even more complex if one considers the goings-on with e-government for the past ten years. If councils were expected to make 100% of their services available electronically, how do they do this without maintaining a web site in the face of continual legislative and procedural changes from central government?

It becomes further complicated if one wants council web sites to be consistent nationally to plug into central government. Each one must comply with the LGSL, LGNL etc and that means 700+ services, so no out-of-the-box solutions.

I’ve held some responsibility for council web sites for over ten years now. It’s not like putting up the sh**e somecommercial companies can get away with…councils are expected to comply with disability discrimination legislation and be accessible to the majority of their potential users. We are now asked to provide data on-line and core services online, whilst continuing, largely, to maintain face-to-face and telephone services.

I’ve mentioned before the need for a universal, accessible CMS with all the necessary plug-ins, at a reasonable cost, that can be hosted, maintained and supported by the minimum of staff. I don’t believe it yet exists – one can look at Drupal and other open source solutions but they require support that may not be available  internally to the council, and so then add to the costs.

OK, there’s the odd silly mistake when developing council web services, but out of how many hundreds of web sites in the UK? In the words of the old phrase “you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t”.

(Any opinions expressed in this piece or any other on this website are purely those of the author and can bear no reflection upon his employers)

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4 Responses to Council web costs

  1. Mick
    I’m just back off holiday and am about to post a Socitm response to the Telegraph focussing on the fact that councils actually need to invest more (and of course, better) in their websites in order to reduce costs of service delivery, while not denying that there is plenty of room for improvement in getting VFM from spending on the web. Your contribution on costs (with details way beyond the attention span of the average Telegraph reader or most journalists for that matter) is really useful addition to the debate. Since I read the Telegraph piece I’ve been discussing with Socitm colleagues how we might work with councils to achieve some benchmarking of web costs to come up with a breakdown of key cost areas and some average/range figures around them. Obviously the ‘data’ collected by the FoI exercise was meaningless, as you point out, not least because of the multiplicity of ways that councils deliver websites and the fact that responsibility (and budgets) may be split between IT, comms, customer servcies and individual departments. Keep an eye on our Web Improvement community in the IDeA CoP for news of developments on this front.

  2. pete says:

    Mick

    Nicely filling out your GovLoop post.

    I guess one might argue that there is no need for every single council having its own website. After all, a lot of the statutory licensing and planning stuff will be the same for all authorities. Why don’t we just use Directgov?

    Then again, before my time, we put our eggs in the Devon portal basket. It was supposed, amongst other things, to deliver common content to all Devon authorities’ websites. In reality, it only ever covered one service. The content was never updated. The code didn’t validate. It relied upon 100% up time of the hosting council: not.

    In the end, we had a week’s notice that the common content was to be switched off because the hosting authority decided – without consulting us – that it wasn’t cost-effective.

    Directgov is getting better. However, it’s sister site – Business Link – is a pile of junk with out of date and inaccurate information. And, don’t get me started on the Planning Portal’s continual url musical chairs.

    We’re stuck with local sites. There has got be a better CMS solution. We’re launching a CMS replacement project. Open source is tempting. I hope we can record our progress so that other can learn lessons.

    Pete

  3. One reason why your talk of a “National CMS” is doomed, chequerboard services and the Balkanization of services is the leit-motif in LG IT circles.

    http://paulgeraghty.posterous.com/can-we-have-our-data-back-please

    Perhaps this is not the case your district though? If that you’ve coughed up the “Socitm tax” then perhaps you can now login and check your own councils’ Balkanization score, seeing as nobody else is able to do so since Soctim took it out of circulation and stuffed it behind their paywall.

    So sadly, even if your council does not deliberately Balkanize your IT suppliers, you cannot prove it.

    Welcome to open data Con/Lib-style, apparently.

    • The Balkanization of local government supply will have commenced with the Poor Law Act of 1834, if not 1601 when local government commenced. In most cases IT applications are decided up by the services, not the IT managers. Further, transparency is required in any procurement process and unless a council’s Standing Orders permit that route and supplier, the purchase can be challenged.

      In terms of the Register of IT Applications; all the time I’ve been involved in Socitm, the Register was a mutual aid service for IT managers. If you contibuted to the database, you got to see the database, which still very much applies now. The data has never been completely reliable since it depends upon the good will of IT managers acurately maintaining the data. The data doesn’t cover all councils, nor is it accurate it terms of suppliers since some, for historic reasons have a variety of titles e.g. Idox applications may be listed under Uniform, Uniform 2000, Idox and various other titles. In fact, in that sense, it’s a bit like the product of some of the FoI requests I’ve moaned about.

      In Yorkshire & the Humber, there are 22 authorities and we have been encouraging them for some years to help in maintaining an up-to-date list so that we can seek opportunities for supplier negotiation, shared services, platform sharing and support. This same theme applies nationally since the Local CIO Council is looking to use some of that national buying power with suppliers.

      What good making the data public in its cuurrent state will do, I don’t know. However, if we can get it up-to-date and maintain it as such we have a practical tool to de-Balkanize government IT and break the stranglehold of ‘divide and rule’ that some suppliers have!

      I realise that Brent had published a copy of this some time ago and also maintained and developed it quite well (although it was still full of errors), but the main use is to assist in shared services and supplier contracts, by those who are trying to deliver them.

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