Paying council tax is a legal requirement and the revenue helps fund services. Paying the tax should be quick and easy, to minimise the perceived ‘pain’ to residents but also to ensure the money is collected as efficiently as possible. Normally, full council tax has to be paid if two or more adults over the age of eighteen live in the home that is subject to tax. However, a range of discounts are available for people who meet certain criteria, for example being permanently disabled, being a carer or care worker, doing an apprenticeship or other formal training or education. Again in the interests of efficiency but also fairness, so that those eligible make claims, it is important that councils make the rules very clear and enable ‘self-service’ by those applying.
English shire districts
Last year we assessed the straightforward ‘pay council tax task’ when 63% of councils tested (all but counties, Welsh unitaries and Northern Ireland Districts) met or exceeded our standard (ie achieved three or four stars). This year we have explored the slightly more complicated territory around discounts, testing shire districts in England. 60% achieve three or four stars, compared with the 57% of districts that did so for last year’s task. There were more questions – 15 compared with 12 - and on the basis that this year’s question set is a bit more difficult, it is possible to claim an improvement. However, there is work to be done: more than one reviewer noticed how many different ways the same information was presented across the sample of sites. Too seldom did sites strike the right balance between a simple statement covering the single person discount and the more detailed explanations required around exemptions and ‘disregards’. Many sites also found it a challenge to get the information leading up to an application in the right order for customer journeys starting at different points, or to join up the information and application components in a logical way.
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
The starting point for helping visitors to achieve this task is explaining in simple terms how council tax discounts work.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The single person’s discount (one adult only living in the home on which council tax is payable) is straightforward. But it becomes altogether more complicated if there are other adults living in the same household whose status (eg as students or carers or people with severe mental disabilities) means they may be ‘disregarded’ for council tax purposes, or where the household becomes exempt (eg because everyone in it is a full time student).
Council tax departments may take the view that the important thing is for relevant people to realise that they are entitled to some sort of reduction, and if they then need to call the council to check details, or ask which form to use to apply, it is not such a problem.
Better Connected takes a different view. The purpose of our surveys is to identify and promote web practice that enables self-service to be maximized. For this to happen, website visitors must be able to find the information and services to carry out tasks like applying for a council tax discount from beginning to end, getting things right first time without having to recourse to any human intervention. The reason being of course that all human intervention tends to be costly whereas the marginal cost of ‘right-first-time’ web-delivered services is zero.
The difficult line between providing too much and too little information for this task is illustrated by question 5: Is there information or links to information about how 'student' is defined for Ctax discount purposes? 41% of our district councils failed this question, and there was much variation in the quality of answers.
The trick is to put enough information for most people to assess quickly whether they or people in their household qualify or not. The information provided on the GOV.UK council tax pages does seem clear and sufficiently concise to cut-and-paste or link to.
GOV.UK does not tackle the next question, however, which is which form to use to get your discount if you are, for example, a single adult living with a qualifying full-time student. For all the discounts/exemptions it describes, GOV.UK simply lands its visitor on the council tax landing page of whichever council is linked to the visitor’s postcode.
Corby is one of the few councils that seeks to explain the differences with a narrative: If there is more than one adult in the property, and all but one are 'disregarded' the council taxpayer will still qualify for a 25% discount. However, this would not be a single person discount, but a disregard discount.
Some councils seem to assume that people will get the hang of this distinction and therefore find their way to the correct form without further assistance. Others simply arrange the customer journey to the forms in such a way that the visitor will be directed to the correct form as the next step in their journey.
This works where forms are well integrated with the council tax pages, but things don’t work so well if the visitor is just dumped onto the home page of a forms package and needs to decide between the single person discount form and a ‘disregard’ form.
If you’ve found out that everyone else in your household is disregarded for council tax purposes (assuming you are confident in your understanding of the term ‘disregarded’) aren’t you then, effectively a single person for council tax purposes? So wouldn’t you use that form? Or do you need to fill in the single person form AND the disregard form(s)? And who has to complete these forms – the person responsible for council tax or the student/other ‘disregarded’ person? These things are rarely made clear.
Reviewers commented that ‘disregarded persons’ is borderline jargon and if it is felt important to use the phrase, surely it could be explained upfront as meaning ‘does not count’? This is the approach taken by GOV.UK on its council tax pages, informed as they are by its extensive research on writing for the web (presented in the comprehensive – if hard to navigate – GDS style guide).
It was rare for councils to tell site users ahead of being linked to it, what information they would need to fill out forms to apply for discounts – just 12.1% of our sample of district councils. This was OK where forms were well integrated into the page but more problematic where users are taken off to a separate forms site, particularly if there was no easy link back to the information pages.
Vanishingly few councils – just 5% - bother to set people’s expectations about how long the council will take to process their form – something that must surely lead to resource-wasting avoidable enquiries. In contrast they can be rather heavy handed about telling people they have 21 days to tell the council about a change of circumstance that may give rise to the discount, or to its ending.
Either way, council tax administrators understandably don’t want a backlog of tax payments or discounts to build up, which will likely cause problems all round.
But a likely scenario is that at least a proportion of applicants find out about discounts by accident, from word of mouth, so telling them they must apply in 21 days of the change may unfairly deter the less confident from applying, if they think they have missed some sort of applications window. Reviewers also found little information about dates when discounts awarded would come into effect.
63% of district councils offer an online form for discounts, but the quality varied wildly. The benefits to the user of forms being integrated into the web page have already been referred to. 50% of district councils have a council tax account – no change on 2016.
Unsurprisingly, the findability of council tax pages on council sites, both from Google (99%) and council home pages (89%) was very good. Some councils persist with hiding council tax behind a home page/main menu heading ‘Advice & benefits’, practice that was falling out of use for its opacity more than a decade ago.
Warwick District Council
Detailed information which is clearly presented.
This is excellent. The information is easy to find and comprehensive. The form is a change of circumstances form so it can be for people claiming single person discount or giving it up. So it makes the form more intelligent and responsive eg asks me why I am not applying ie someone left or died. There's a good explanation of students but this information about how to count people in the house should be linked to earlier when I am working out whether I count as a single person in the home.
The information is easy to find and clearly presented. Most information appears to be provided apart from evidence needed to claim a discount for a student.
Very well done. Great to see residents informed how long the process will take, and that it can be backdated. All information clearly written and presented. I would like to have seen a definition of a qualifying student, and whether evidence for a full time student can be attached to claim form - if necessary.
Well signposted and structured and clearly written information. Good information about qualifying students. Information is needed about the claims process- communication, elapsed time, retrospective claims. Good to see that you could end single person discount online too.
This is well presented and the information provided is clearly written. Pity there is nothing about the claims process before you open a claim form but this and the evidence needed is at the beginning of the form. Good to see the ability to claim any sort of discount online
Makes good use of gov.uk. Clear menus make for an easy customer experience. Done well.
User friendly, easy customer journey. Well-developed account registration and functionality.
Done well. Clear supporting information, easy to navigate. Offers online application in context.