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New web front for Council, but channel shift challenge remains

New web front for Council, but channel shift challenge remains

🕔01.Sep 2016

As miracles go it’s not quite up there with the loaves and fishes and feeding of the 5,000, but even so the fact that Birmingham city council has managed to redesign its much-criticised website and produce something that by general consent is rather good is extraordinary, writes Paul Dale.

Let’s face it, the website of Britain’s largest public authority has until now been a disaster zone.

Even experienced councillors and council officers have been known to weep a silent tear and give up when faced with the challenge of performing what should be a simple online task.

Seven years ago, the then Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in charge spent £3 million installing what was triumphantly described as a state of the art website. It was a state, yes, but art, no. The project ran almost 400 per cent over budget and was three years late in completion.

The council was stung badly by that experience – an inquiry pointed to the lack of a “clear and robust” command and control structure, ineffective management, frequent changes to the website’s specifications, and the absence of a single figure with the power to ask the right questions, give orders and drive things forward.

Ever since then, subject to the tender mercies of Service Birmingham, council leaders have been attempting to make the website user-friendly. The need to do so is driven not just by an obvious desire not to be a laughing stock, but more seriously by the council’s requirement to save a lot of money by encouraging citizens to engage via the internet.

The ultimate aim of this ‘channel shift’ programme is to arrive at a stage where most people pay council tax, council house rents, and order a vast range of council services online rather than by telephone or in face to face meetings, eventually delivering millions of pounds in savings based on the premise that it’s a lot cheaper to run a virtual council than it is to hire staff.

Unfortunately for deputy council leader Ian Ward, who has overall responsibility for delivering this online transformation, the channel shift figures are lagging way behind target and the required savings are not yet being made.

The new-look council website has cost just £225,000 to put together and the project is being handled by Leicester-based software company, Jadu Continuum. However, this is only the first stage and concentrates on improving the ‘front end’ of the site.

My colleague over at Urban Communications Hannah Green, who knows a thing or two about digital communications, has cast her eye over the site and gives it the thumbs up here.

City councillors were told the first phase would be aimed at making sure the site was “much more robust about the quality of information” with 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”.

The eight sections on the new home page cover off the topics that are thought to be of interest to most people using the site – paying council tax, waste and recycling, roads and parking, schools, local services, benefits, housing and a link to council agendas, reports and a list of councillors.

The second, more important phase will improve customer experience when attempting to make online transactions with the council and it is hoped deliver that much sought after channel shift after all.

On this, the first day in charge for new council communications supremo Eleri Roberts, it’s one less headache to at least be welcomed by a functioning website.

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