In our accessibility analysis of some local authority websites that are failing their site visitors, we at AccessEquals detected a hidden trend. While we were very surprised at the low level of web accessibility of the 65 one star council websites we were able to review, they are by no means the worst. Our analysis shows that the worst performing and most inaccessible council web sites are usually those run by local authorities that don’t subscribe to the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm).
To put it in context, local authority websites undergo an annual survey by Socitm, who organises this massive research project and compiles the “Better Connected” report of survey findings.
For Better Connected 2015, 407 Council websites were ranked using a star rating system. Three and four star sites are counted as performing satisfactorily; one and two star ranked sites are either inaccessible or fail to provide the type of service that council tax payers have a right to expect.
Socitm is a subscription service that provides councils and other public bodies with information, consultancy, and access to best practice and guidance to help them offer a quality online service to their council tax payers. That’s fair, as grandma says, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”.
However, some local authorities don’t seem to think that they need this kind of support and advice. Socitm-subscribing councils make up around 75% of the 407 surveyed for the report. 112 UK local authorities aren’t subscribed to it.
We weren’t able to do an independent check of the unsubscribed councils’ website accessibility as they aren’t named. However, we could, and did, compare the results of subscribed and unsubscribed councils.
Comparing the ranking
The Better Connected star ranking is a measure of overall performance, including accessibility, usability and service provision. The stats for the councils awarded 3 or 4 star ranking, (performing satisfactorily) show:
- 54% (158) of the subscribed councils give satisfactory online service to their residents.
- Only 23% (26) of the unsubscribed councils perform satisfactorily.
So the people living in the areas covered by the unsubscribed councils, which includes nine London Boroughs and no fewer than 62 Shire Districts, have a 77% chance that their council’s online performance is well below what it should be.
Comparing performable tasks
The star ranking is computed from a number of different factors, including a check for the type of task that you might reasonably expect to be able to do online at your local authority’s website, such as report a missed bin collection. The Better Connected assessors have a list of these tasks and report on how many of them they could successfully complete.
- 74% of tasks attempted on subscribed sites were successful.
- 53% of tasks attempted on unsubscribed sites were successful.
Computerised handling of enquiries is both more cost-effective and more efficient than manual methods. So you’d think that budget conscious councils would be as keen as mustard to get as many of these tasks online as possible. But almost half of those who don’t subscribe to Socitm are also unprepared to give council tax payers access to economic means of communicating with them.
There are two factors that convince us that the assessment contains no bias against unsubscribed councils, the first we know from several years experience as assessors and the second is published on the Socitm website:
- The Better Connected survey assessors have no idea of the subscription status of any of the councils under assessment.
- All councils have at least two months after the end of assessment to either subscribe or unsubscribe from Socitm.
Our analysis suggests that there is a significant ‘Socitm Effect’. The correlation between Socitm subscription and website accessibility and usability is evident and we believe, linked to the quality of the advice and guidance available to subscribers. It’s not possible to establish beyond doubt that subscription is the only or primary factor. But what is obvious is that councils that don’t invest in a subscription seem equally reluctant to invest in web accessibility and the provision of the most cost-effective services and best online experience for their constituents.