A council is a body of democratic representation and not just a service provider. At a time when local authorities are under huge financial pressure, it may seem tempting for councils to spend as little as possible on information and services relating to local democracy. Not only is this approach undemocratic, it may also represent a false economy. As we enter a time when community resources are becoming more and more important to the effective functioning of ‘place’, citizen engagement has never been more important. Facilitating that engagement in the most basic way, by ensuring people have easy access to information about who their councillors are, which political party is in control, when the next elections are, and how to access the decision-making process, is simply a no-brainer.
February and March 2018
English district councils and Northern Ireland districts
It is disappointing that 40% of councils we surveyed expect people to know the name of their ward in order to look up details of their representative (ie local councillor). It's a fair guess that most people probably don’t know what ward they live in. How difficult is it, really, to provide a postcode lookup? This finding is even more disappointing given the fact that, when we last asked this question in 2015, the figure was near enough the same. Councils are also not good at providing information about which political party is currently in control of the council, although the percentage that do is now 57% compared with 33% in 2015. Overall, nearly 40% of councils provide a good or very good service in this area, slightly fewer than the 46% that did so in 2015. Although the survey this time is more extensive, this is still a poor result, not just for council websites, but more importantly, for local democracy, where election turnouts can be as low as 20% when there are no co-inciding parliamentary elections to bring citizens to the polling stations.
Check ‘coverage’ to see if your council has been surveyed. Go to councils page and select your council. Look for link to task report under 2016-17 results
Provide a good or very good online service based on this survey
Better connected rankings
*Discrepancies in the figures are due to rounding off
As we remark in the ‘overview’, a disappointing 40% of councils surveyed expect people to know the name of the ward they live in before they can look up the name and details of their democratically elected representative. A postcode lookup is essential, and if a map is provided, it needs to be more than a simple diagram of wards as shapes within the council boundary, so that residents can see on an underlying Google, OSM or OS map where they live in relation to ward boundaries.
Some councils present councillor information in a separate microsite, which does not always provide a good experience. For example, the three district councils that provide microsites linked from Dorset for You perform much less well than the three other Dorset districts which present information on D4U’s web pages. Where microsites are used, as with other information and service provision reviewed in our surveys, they must be well integrated with the main sites and at the very least provide clear links to and from it.
One council covered in this survey uses a microsite which doesn't offer a postcode or map search, while the main website does provide a councillor map with ward boundaries and links users through to their ward members. The two sites are inadequately linked and this duplicated effort is wasted. It is hard to imagine that those who set them up have ever subjected these customer journeys to user testing.
Councils surveyed are generally not good at providing an introductory overview of the people who, as a group, are running the council on behalf of the local population. On only 57% of council websites is it possible to find out easily which party is in overall political control, and it is rare to find a page that explains, all in one place, when the next elections are, how many councillors will be up for election, how to find out results of previous elections, and how closely fought these were.
Gedling and Broxbourne are examples of councils that present more information than most, including who is the leader of the council. This is something that can be surprisingly difficult to unearth on many sites. Regrettably, neither of these sites offer a postcode lookup to ‘find your councillor’.
The presentation of ‘council and democracy’ information is very much centered on the individual councillor, rather than the elected body as a group. When reviewers were looking for details of councillors’ interests, it was usual to have to go to individual councillor profiles to view pdfs, or worse, images of handwritten declarations. Surely, in the interests of transparency, there should be a centralised register of interests where citizens might be able to read information and reap data about the employment, directorships and other interests that councillors must put on record when offering themselves for election?
When it comes to re-election, most sites tell you when an individual councillor was elected, but there is often no link to information about how long their term is and when they might be up for re-election.
In terms of engaging the public with council decision-making, sites are good at the straightforward business of listing meeting dates and providing minutes. But they are less good at providing narratives about how people can attend meetings, either in person or remotely.
Larger councils sometimes have webcasting but few explain, on for example, a council and democracy landing page, what rights or arrangements are in place for citizens to participate. According to our data, only 39% of sites make it clear whether and how members of the public can attend council committee meetings.
Finally, we were hoping that ‘council and democracy’ pages would be full of prominent links to encourage visitors to register to vote. Sadly, this was only the case for 29% of sites.
Note on reporting elections: these survey results are being published in the run up to the council elections of May 2018. We recommend that web teams read and act upon advice published by the Local Government Information Unit in its Guide to Local Elections Communications 2018.
The guide points out that on average, around two thirds of voters don’t vote in local elections – despite the fact that in many ways local government touches people’s lives far more than central government does. Part of the reason that people may not be bothering, suggest LGIU, could be difficulty in finding out who to vote for, or even who is running, and, once results are in, who has won and how close the elections were.
The Guide provides advice on how to make elections communications better so that local people can access all this information easily.
The Guide does not mince words: the most important thing is to have clear communications on your website it says, continuing with further advice about publishing information for each election, including what seats are up for grabs. All election information, including statements of persons nominated and results should, it says, be findable from the ‘Council and Democracy’ landing page or equivalent - if not from the main council home page itself.
After the election, councils websites should be:
In addition, publication of election results should be available as open data in a standard format, something LGIU, LGA and GDS are currently working together to achieve for all key election data. Find out more from this recent blogpost from GDS.
Adur & Worthing
Very easy to find out who the councillor is for my ward and their political affiliations. The site design ties together the councillor and their committee activities. The Register of Interests could be more prominent than a small link to a spreadsheet.
Basingstoke & Deane
Information clearly presented in the councillor profiles.
Lots of detailed information about each councillor and links to committees
This site should be the template that others follow. It is very easy to use the tabs and links to get to the relevant information; of particular note is the online search for registers of interest for a councillor or policy area. One of the few councils to encourage a site visitor to register to vote.
Site has nearly all the requisite information and is easy to navigate with links on the left hand side of the screen.
Hinkley & Bosworth
A fantastic user experience! Information was clear and concise, navigation was intuitive and I found all the information I was looking for. The third-party system used to hold councillor information and the main council website are so well integrated and the user journey between the two is very well done with clear links and consistent look and feel.
I was easily able to find my councillor, as well as information about committees and meetings, through clear content and useful search, navigation and A-Z. The website and the third party system which holds the councillor information are skinned to look the same and are largely well integrated, with some links back to the website, giving a consistent user journey.
Very simple to complete this task, with intuitive navigation and well-designed, plain English content.
I was easily able to complete this task. Plain English content, logical navigation with seamless integration between the website and third party system.