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)