Councils don't have websites, they ARE websites

"Your council used to have a website - now your council is a website", social entrepreneur and founder of mySociety Tom Steinberg told yesterday's Building Perfect Council Websites 2012 event in Birmingham.

Most people contacting their council want a quick interaction such as requesting a new recycle bin, Steinberg said. Increasingly, the website will become the sole point of contact and interaction, and the quality of user experience - "the extent to which the council is simplifying their lives" - will become how people judge the entire council, just as they do for commercial sites such as Amazon.

"Worldwide, Amazon employs far more people than you do working in warehouses and offices but as far is the public is concerned, Amazon is a website. And if the website is down, Amazon does not function at all."
In future, the council will become the website: "If the website is shiny they will see a shiny organisation, if the website is broken they will see a broken organisation. I fully admit this is unfair - you could have good people working behind the scenes- but most people don't have time to learn that you are good in a deep and slow way."

One key implication of this is that senior managers must have or be given the skills and responsibilities needed to deliver digital services, Steinberg said.

User-centred design means turning down many competing interests, he said. It can also mean breaking apart long-standing business processes and completely rebuilding them, "just to save two clicks" on the website. Both these actions take strong leadership. "No organisation has ever built a truly excellent website when the people leading it did not know what an excellent website is.

"The bad news is that this is difficult. The good news is lot of people in this room need to get a lot of big promotions."

ICT people need to be freed from the dark dungeons where they are usually held to the sunlit uplands of the executive suite, he said. There, they need to help train the management board, helping people understand what the web is good at and bad at, Steinberg said. They also need to be part of rebuilding those boards as people retire and move on - "you need to be part of job interview boards, writing the job adverts."

In the process, he said, councils need to acquire chief executives and management boards who are familiar with terms like device-agnosticism or APIs. "Those of you struggling to explain YouTube to the chief executive might think this seems farfetched", he suggested, to general vigorous nodding.

What's the answer? "You need to endlessly make the case, run demonstrations about what is missing. Be explicit about the need for board changes, and make it clear why this matters."

In the end what is at stake, he said, "is nothing less than the legitimacy of government as an institution".

If public bodies persist in running out of date websites and digital services, they will look less and less like normal organisation, "and when something becomes less and less normal, it becomes less and less comprehensible."

Building Perfect Council Websites