Following the spending review and the government’s current goal to close 75% of their websites, Tony Heywood, CEO at YoodooMedia looks at where the government have been going wrong in terms of their web offerings and how they can improve their online communication in the future.
The government are currently aiming to close 75% of their websites. This follows the spending review and results launched by The Central Office of Information recently of an audit looking at the costs of government’s online spending. The audit found that the most expensive public sector website was the UK Trade and Investment site, costing £11.78 per unique visitor. There is clearly a tension here. All government spending is under review. There is a natural resistance by the general public to government activities which might be seen as PR or spin. And there’s certainly good reason to rationalise the sheer number of government websites.
Yet online is the obvious medium to extend the reach of the “Big Society” agenda; the economies of scale for online delivery of public services and citizen self-service platforms are well known; and digital inclusion policies mean that even traditionally hard-to-reach constituencies are coming online.
So what’s gone wrong? Why are these sites failing to attract enough visitors to justify their cost? The first lesson to learn is that the mass-market consumer doesn’t usually have any incentive to engage with government. Where they do have an incentive (for example, feeling sick), these websites are a resounding success (NHS Direct). However, there is a litany of initiatives which have failed because consumers were not given a reason to care.
Take for example, “Together for London” a social network created by Transport for London in 2008 to encourage people to behave more courteously on London’s public transport. Roundly criticised, (ComputerActive editor Paul Allen simply said “Transport for London have completely missed the point with this”), the social network was quietly taken down. Social media may be cool, but public sector organisations are not – and they need to try much harder than sexy brands in order to engage.
That’s not to say the public sector should give up on online. The Government has a responsibility to educate and raise awareness on topics as varied as filling in a tax return to buying a house. Successful campaigns (say, against drink-driving or obesity) would save much-needed tax money. What’s required is to make these messages engaging, pervasive and fun; as well as educational.
Given that public sector websites must achieve this whilst handling large amounts of complicated messaging, an engagement checklist might look something like this:
Government web presences should be…
• Media rich: using video, audio, quizzes, demos and walk-throughs. Video, for example, will engage more effectively with most constituencies than pages of text can ever hope to achieve.
• Entertaining: varied, enjoyable, even fun. There is no official rule that government information has to be stodgy – and it is entirely possible to remain a credible source of information without taking citizens back to school.
• Bite-sized: the internet generation wants answers now; not a mire of statistics and text.
• Accessible: web platforms for the mass consumer must be easy to use and instinctive, in order to reach traditionally otherwise media-deprived citizens.
• Relevant: consumers come in all shapes and sizes; and they demand knowledge that’s tailored and personalised to be just right for them.
• Useful: critically, anything less than an outcome which yields gratitude and satisfaction from the user can no longer be deemed a success.
• Manageable: both the public and commercial sectors are all too good at launching websites… and then forgetting them. To avoid a stream of “404 – redirecting you to the homepage” errors, the information in these sites must be scalable and easy to manage, maintain and update. Well-designed interactive sites also maintain their value for longer, thereby extending ROI.
Nobody quite knows yet what the Big Society is going to look like; but if it’s going to involve civic participation, online surely has a major part to play. It would be a desperate disappointment if public sector engagement – whether at national, regional, council or grass-roots level – remained as disappointing as some current case studies suggest.
The public is fickle and apathetic – thirty years of diminishing voter turnout figures bear testament to that fact. Government therefore has to go far beyond using online merely as a repository of information; and must embrace the subtle art of engagement in order to change the behaviour of citizens whilst walking a tightrope of dwindling budgets.
By Tony Heywood