Dan JellinekEditorWednesday 6 February 2013

Jargon still a plague on devolved council websites

UK local authority websites are plagued by jargon and poorly written content, preview findings from this year's annual UK website survey by the Society of IT Management (Socitm) have shown. This makes them hard to use; loses councils money; and calls into question the common practice of devolving the writing of web content down into service departments, according to the survey's director.

Better Connected 2013 is a survey of all 433 UK local authority websites, carried out by a team of reviewers using a structured questionnaire with 225 questions focused on how easy it is to carry out a series of service tasks. The results are due to be published on 1 March, but preview results released by Socitm reveal huge variations in the quality of written online content and ease of website use.

In a preview of responses to questions focused on the task of objecting to a planning application online, reviewers found a widespread lack of guidance on grounds for objection and how to carry out the task. Many sites also insisted that people register before being allowed to comment, a barrier that is not legally required and which other councils using exactly the same third party planning software did not require.

"We are largely assessing how well third party software is integrated," said one reviewer. "What we are asking is not that hard to achieve. Help files within third party software are poor and merely technical. Clearer, easier to use and more customisable help pages from within the task are needed."

Another said: "I was shocked by the number of councils which did not have information on how to object to a planning application and what are the grounds I can object on. Some used jargon e.g. "Material Considerations"... This is an area which can be easily improved with some thought and a few links."

Similar problems of jargon and poor integration of third party software - in this case, library catalogue software - were uncovered in the preview of the survey section relating to renewal of library items online.
"I was surprised by how poorly many of the catalogue searches worked - returning irrelevant items and random formats", said one reviewer. Another said: "The same software was not implemented as well in one area as another."

Of equal concern were online services relating to getting help at home for older people from adult social care services - another field dogged by jargon and often requiring the download of files converted from printed leaflets rather than copy designed to work well on the web.

"I don't understand why the worst [website] content is aimed at one of the most vulnerable sections of the community", said one reviewer. Another said: "This is another area that would benefit from less jargon. I got confused between home care, care homes, home help and then Service Directories. Few councils provide strong descriptions of the service coupled with clear instructions of how to request and carry out an assessment."

In a statement accompanying the survey previews, Socitm warned: "In unprecedentedly harsh economic times, councils must always remember that poor website usability equates to lost money. Apart from the inconvenience, failed web enquiries also cause councils unnecessary cost. The reason for this is that frustrated web users will turn to the council's phone or face-to-face facilities to answer their enquiries, and these cost the council significantly more to support than their website."

Better Connected programme director Martin Greenwood told UKAuthority.com this week: "In all these areas - planning, social care, housing - there is far too much jargon. People are assuming knowledge."

One of the reasons for this is likely to be the common practice of councils devolving management of online content to individual service departments, despite a lack of widespread skills on how to write effective web content, Greenwood said. "People out in service departments are writing this content, but to write things simply on the web is not the easiest thing to do. There are always examples of people who have got it right, but they arevery much in isolation. It is a major issue, and calls into question the devolved content model."

Better Connected 2013 will be published on 1 March on Socitm's website, and can be accessed free by any employee of a council that subscribes to the society's research and publishing arm Socitm Insight. A list of subscribers can be found at: http://www.socitm.net/info/214/socitm_insight/91/

Non-subscribers can buy a copy of the printed report, available from https://www.socitm.net/forms/form/83/better_connected_2013_snapshot_of_local_authority_websites
This year for the first time, non-subscribing councils will not be listed in the results by name, except where cited for good practice. All results are included, but a few will now be anonymous.