This makes the council website pivotal in the arsenal of engagement tools. Used intelligently it can be a very powerful tool in the ongoing quest for informed decision-making and better community outcomes.
Think of a website as a drop-in centre where people go to share information, discuss concerns and contribute ideas about issues of community interest and importance. In other words a place where there are real conversations and active listening takes place that influences decisions and outcomes.
In this context how well do council websites rate? To be fully effective as an engagement tool websites would need to go beyond just information sharing to include listening tools together with tools that enable data to be analysed for use in decision-making. The initial design of the website would need to be an “outside-in” process to ensure that the look, feel and content reflected the main priorities of the affected and interested communities. To get a sense of this all council websites were visited to find out how they rated.
Top of mind questions included:
- How do council websites deal with consultation and engagement?
- What opportunities are provided for communities to enter into conversations?
- How much influence has the community had on the design of the website based on how it looks?
- How well does the website respond to both text and visual preferences?
- What social media tools are used?
To begin on a positive note, all 78 councils have websites, some more than one. However, for the purpose of this exercise only the main website was visited and the focus was on the Home Page to reflect what a visitor first sees and how easy it would be to make sense of the layout, content and features for engaging.
According to the experts, first impressions are critical. People have low tolerance and short attention spans. The first few seconds count and if a visitor to the site doesn’t immediately see what they are looking for then they will bounce and go looking somewhere else. As important as this would be to a business selling a product is it as important to a council? About 60% of councils apparently say yes, as they have a tab or link on their home page which made finding the consultation page very easy.
The other 40% splits into two groups. Two thirds just bury the links and make the consultation page hard to find while the other third have no consultation page or area at all.
Only 10% of councils appear to use forums and some of these are not making best use of the opportunities these offer.
Over 70% of councils use some form of social media. Facebook is the most prevalent followed by Twitter and YouTube. Amongst others are LinkedIn, Flickr, Google+ and Vimeo. 33% of councils have RSS.
Some councils are known to have community panels but these do not appear to be referenced on their websites.
So, what conclusions can be drawn from this? Firstly, there is little consistency between websites. Finding information can be quite challenging and must be frustrating for visitors. Some websites are well out of date. One website page viewed which carried a “last updated” date was over a year out of date. The language used to describe the process of online engagement also varies with the most frequently used terms being “Say it”, “Have Your Say” and “Consultation”.
Secondly, most websites appear to be used to push out information and it is difficult to know how what is shared aligns with what communities want or need. Some websites have “Quick Links” which may align with visitor preferences.
Thirdly, few websites have listening tools. Only eight councils use forums and other interactive tools and some of these were hard to find and under-utilised.
Overall, there is a sense that the development of council websites is an inside-out process rather than being outside-in. What is meant by this is that there is insufficient user input into the design of the websites. The only way to find out what the community would like on the website and how it should look and feel is to go out and ask them which of course has not happened. As a result as a potentially powerful engagement tool most council websites have some way to go.