digital engagement stars as socitm's better connected published

Socitm Insight’s annual snapshot of the state of development of 432 UK local council websites, Better connected 2014, is published today.

by John Fox

This year’s report includes analysis of a special survey that examined digital engagement.

Engagement is vital to help promoting channel shift, but also for securing citizen focus and encouraging citizen feedback into services. Promoting online services is just as critical as providing online services that work and are easy to use. In fact, marketing is a key component in achieving cost-saving channel shift and ensuring the success of ‘digital by default’ strategies.

One element in the marketing mix that is increasingly important is how well councils promote their digital engagement with its customers. One aspect of this special survey examined the councils’ promotion of their Twitter accounts for general customer service enquiries and what the council would do in the event of a major emergency locally.

What the survey found

We focused on some specific topics to identify how councils are using digital communication to engage their customers. In order to track changes over time we based the survey on one that we developed for the first time in 2013.

Some 133 sites (32%) have an online customer account facility, a 14% increase over 12 months ago. However, only 78 of those (59%) explain the benefits at the right point, ie to help the user decide whether to sign up. The three most common applications were council tax (27%), e-mail alerts (26%) and fault reporting (22%).

At least 195 sites (36%) use e-mail alerts, an increase of 24% over 157 found last year. There may be more, but they are not always easy to find. The three most common applications were jobs (45%), council news (41%) and planning (23%).

Social media are well promoted on the home page in 360 cases (88%). However, in only 61% of local authorities are social media promoted across the site. Only 33% promote them on the ‘Contact us’ page and only 19% on emergency pages, although they are surely two places where they should be promoted. Only 45% of sites have an overview page listing all the council’s social media accounts.

Finally, all these figures are modest improvements over last year.

We also asked about the existence of the council’s policy for social media and acceptable use and found that only 19% of councils promote such a policy, compared with 16% last year.

Only 11 councils were rated as very good in the way in which they promoted their digital engagement and 40 in their actual engagement with the public, whereas 263 councils were rated as poor in promotion and 214 in their actual engagement.

Finally, one of the most disappointing results in this report lies in the continuing failure, by 25% of councils, to promote their website through their out-of-hours messages. Failure to address this easily resolved issue (which we first raised in 2004) illustrates a continuing lack of corporate commitment to channel shift.

What Socitm recommends

  • Consider introducing a facility for customers to register for a corporate online account, in order to encourage greater and more effective use of the council’s online activities.
  • Make sure that any benefits of such a facility are clearly explained in the same place where visitors are invited to register for the facility.
  • Make full use of an e-mail alerts service for a range of purposes.
  • Promote the use of social media consistently across the whole site.
  • Provide an overview page listing all the council’s social media accounts in one place.
  • Ensure that the council’s policy for social media and acceptable use is clearly promoted.
  • Overall, ensure that the council’s use of social media and other techniques of digital engagement are fully integrated and promoted on the website.
  • Embrace social media as alternative channels for customer service rather than as an adjunct to council news.
  • If your council does not yet use social media, now is the time to reconsider.
  • Check that all answerphone messages include suitable references to your website.

More information about Better connected 2014 is available at www.socitm.net/betterconnected. If you work for an organisation that subscribes to Socitm Insight if you are registered on the Socitm website with your work email address you will have free access to the full report and associated documents.

In keeping with the policy of open data, we have published the results of our assessments (Appendix 1) as open data on www.socitm.net and made them available for re-use (non-commercially).

John Fox is a reviewer for the Socitm Better connected report. Socitm is the Society of Information Technology Managers.