Socitm outlines usability concerns over council digital housing services
Separate surveys raise common challenges around ensuring simplified and clear user journeys for online functions among majority of UK councils
Public sector IT managers group Socitm has argued that local authorities across the UK are failing to provide sufficiently user friendly social housing and building control services online.
Detailing separate findings from its Better Connected survey, which measures online performance at local authority level, Socitm has released several service-specific reports detailing successful and unsuccessful digital projects undertaken in local government.
From the perspective of presenting local authority building control services online, Better Connected’s findings said more simplified approaches to presenting information were needed for construction projects to prevent potentially significant setbacks for users.
Taking into account testing of 353 council websites, concerns were raised that the majority of web services could lead to householders facing additional costs, fines and complications for not being correctly informed of requirements and responsibilities by authorities.
“Too many web pages covering building control (building standards in Scotland) appear to be written by professionals for professionals, when the assumption should be that the website visitor has little prior knowledge of the subject,” said Socitm in a statement.
In reviewing the services, Better Connected looked for clear and simple explanations on complying with regulations and standards around building on official council webpages.
In total, 34% of sites in Scotland and 43% of remaining sites across the UK, were rated as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in this regard.
“In all, only 44% of Scottish sites and just over a third of the rest got a ‘yes’ answer to the question about whether the whole compliance process from beginning to end is made clear. It was surprisingly difficult to find information specifically about certification, inspection and enforcement, issues of significant interest to householders,” said the findings.
Links from the councils’ sites to information held on external sources such as Planning Portal, GOV.UK and eBuilding Standards in Scotland were also raised among concerns due to “inconsistent content” that can further confuse users.
“Using external content only worked where much attention had been paid to the overall customer journey and the pages linked to. Relying on links to lengthy PDFs, often provided by third parties and filled with advertising, was rarely a good solution,” said the findings.
Socitm noted that councils were collaborating with other authorities to reshape building control services, but highlighted the importance of end-to-end customer journeys that fully explain when users are being switched to external sites.
A separate case study of 36 metropolitan authorities found there were similar concerns about complex or cumbersome online functionality to search and apply for social housing.
Despite praising Dudley and Kirklees councils' approach to online support, the Better Connected survey again highlighted a need for simple to use and understand services for individuals when looking at housing needs, while also setting out the likliehood of successful applications.
“The last time Better Connected tested this task was in March 2016, when the 33 London boroughs were tested with a near identical question set. This showed just over half providing a good or very good service. Metropolitan districts do less well, with 39% performing at the same level,” said Socitm.
“London councils did much better in answering the survey question about the likelihood of applicants being successful in getting housing via the council, 63% of London councils scoring a ‘Yes’ answer, compared with fewer than 20% of metropolitan districts.”
However, the findings suggested that the severity of the housing crisis in London had pushed councils in the city to push relevant information online, as well as being able to better handle demand management by outlining likely outcomes for user applications.
“In general, our commentary for London councils following last year's Better Connected applies across the board for metropolitan districts, only more so, with the best sites requiring those seeking to join the housing register to go through a pre-qualification assessment,” said the findings.
Further third party service concerns
Concerns were again raised in the survey about linking through to information or services from third party housing organisations without detailing information over the role the council may play in administering services.
The findings also criticized sites for not putting vital information on their sites, as opposed to downloadable PDF documents, which was seen as being problematic when applying for social housing that can prove difficult and stressful or users.
“People seeking social housing may well be in temporary accommodation where a mobile device or a public access computer is their main means of accessing information, and in both cases, pdfs can be problematic,” said the survey,
“We do not expect all information to be on web pages, and acknowledge that with housing, there is a lot of information about details of eligibility and how to apply. But key information needs to be explicit on web pages.”
As part of trying to simplify application processes, Better Connected also recommended authorities provide information on types of document or details a user may need before commencing an application to reduce inconvenience later on.