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Birmingham council website to get £225,000 ‘jargon-free plain English’ makeover

Birmingham council website to get £225,000 ‘jargon-free plain English’ makeover

🕔10.Mar 2016

Birmingham council’s much criticised website will be given a new “jargon-free” look later this year with an emphasis on replacing local authority-speak with plain English.

Officials have revealed the site is being completely re-written by outside experts who have been told to make sure that access is “citizen friendly”. The cost of the makeover is £225,000.

Details of the project have been kept largely under wraps until now.

The scale of what is planned was reported this week to the corporate resources scrutiny committee in an oral report tagged on to the agenda at the last minute. Councillors were shown mock-ups of what the new site might look like.

Responsibility for redesigning the website has been given to a Leicester-based software company, Jadu Continuum, and the new version is expected to launch in August.

Chris Gibbs, an assistant director at the council, said a team of external web editors had been hired to “write for the citizen rather than the council”.

We are at a critical stage with the website project and have put forward ideas to cross-party backbenchers as well as the corporate leadership team and the executive management team.

City councillors have been told that the finished product will be “much more robust about the quality of information” and will feature direct links from the home page to topics that the public are interested in “rather than topics that the council thinks people are interested in”.

However, the current revamp will simply concentrate on presentational issues – improving the look of the website. A second phase, making it easier for customers to make financial transactions via the website, will follow later.

The www.birmingham.gov.uk website has been the subject of criticism since it was installed seven years ago under the former Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration. Costs shot up by almost 400 per cent to just under £3 million and the project was three years late in completion.

In June 2010, the council ordered an investigation into the way the website had been procured.

Consultant Leigh Evans, who was asked by the council to investigate the ambitious scheme, pointed to the lack of a “clear and robust” command and control structure, ineffective management, frequent changes to specifications, and the absence of a single figure with the power to ask the right questions, give orders and drive things forward in a 64-page report in June 2010.

After speaking to more than 60 local authority officials, the authors of the report were forced to admit: “We remain unclear who is actually in overall charge of the web within Birmingham City Council.”

Making the website user-friendly is crucial to the council’s aim to save money by encouraging more people to engage and pay their bills electronically rather than at neighbourhood offices. Achieving the so-called ‘channel shift’ has proved extremely difficult, with most residents preferring to telephone the contact centre and speak directly to an operator rather than go online.

The scrutiny committee was told that Jadu found the experience of asking customers what they thought of the website to be “excruciatingly embarrassing” such was the level of criticism.

A council spokesperson said:

We are replacing the existing website because it does not provide a good user experience to our citizens.

The new website will be more modern with easy to access information that works well on mobile and other devices.  We have procured a content management system from Jadu Continuum.

By re-writing and re-structuring the site content it should greatly improve the experience of those using it and will bring a fresh new look and feel to the council’s website. Over the lifetime of the contract it will provide cost savings over the existing solution.

Citizen feedback has been used in the work that has got us to this stage and we intend to increase the opportunity for people to provide feedback as we develop the website through a blog and events that will take place in council offices.

This will be the first stage of a project and in a future piece of work the council’s online transactional forms will be improved and aligned to the new website.

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