The new Better Connected report shows there has been intermittent progress, but advances in responsive sites and accessibility
Local authorities have made slow and intermittent progress in improving their websites over the past year, with disappointing results in mobile use and more of the public expressing dissatisfaction, according to the new Better Connected report from public sector IT organisation Socitm.
But there were advances in accessibility and an increase in the number of responsive sites - those designed for easy reading and navigation - and two more achieved the four star ranking than in the previous year, taking the number to 34 and 8% of the total.
Public satisfaction with the sites, measured by the Socitm user survey, fell by 30%: although most people were satisfied, ranking their user experience 4-5, the gap between them and those giving 'dissatisfied' rankings of 1-2 fell from 28.6% the previous year to 17.4%.
Martin Greenwood (pictured), programme manager of Socitm Insight, said this was largely down to rising expectations and a lack of affinity with local authorities, and that the Better Connected reviewers were more positive about the user experience.
The slow progress was attributed largely to the performance of sites on mobile devices, with only 32% passing Socitm's general assessment of the experience, up just 1% from last year, and just 57% being judged as 'mobile friendly'. In addition, nearly half of the 66 new sites launched in 2014 did not improve on the one or two star ranking of their predecessors.
The more positive news was in a rise of the number of councils implementing a responsive site, up from 107 to 198 to account for 49% of the total, and in those providing satisfactory features for disabled people, up from 105 to 173, 43% of the total.
Greenwood said the shortcomings are due to a combination of councils having limited resources and not taking the right approach to designing websites.
Resources problem for mobile
"For mobile, councils are lacking resources and perhaps the skill to respond quickly to what's needed," he said. "A lot of them have not had the time to sort out mobile.
"There's no magic answer to it, but it could be used as an opportunity to simplify what they are doing. If they get mobile right it can help with the website as a whole.
"We also think some councils have not addressed the causes of what made their websites poor in the first place. If they had issues around standards, digital governance or management of content and these were not absorbed they were going to repeat the shortcomings."
He said East Riding Council provides a good example of how to approach the relaunch of a website: "They took time over analysing why their old website was poor, and sorted out things internally before designing the new site."
Consistency, governance and standards
Greenwood said that councils can take some steps themselves to improve their website's performance. These include ensuring that someone has full editorial control to ensure consistency in the content and how it is structured, and that appropriate digital governance and standards are in place.
But he also expressed the need for a nationwide strategy, echoing the call in the report's preface from Jason Kitcat, leader of Brighton & Hove Council, for a Local Government Digital Service.
"It's a major issue affecting everybody that can only be sorted out nationally, particularly on issues like budgets, the use of third party software and sharing information," Greenwood said.
This is the 17th time Socitm has surveyed local authority websites, and the first time it has taken in web governance and management practices. The reviewers examined 439 sites and submitted a survey of 317 questions that received responses from 164 councils.
In addition to the 34 websites receiving a four star ranking, 180 achieved three stars (up from 159 last year), 112 received two stars (down from 132) and 115 had one star (up from 87).