In recent months I’ve written critiques of a series of different websites, including traders’ associations, local guides and more local guides. This post will examine and compare the 8 local government sites (listed below) that cover approximately the same geography as the 10 local news sites I publish for inner city Melbourne.
Councils deliver many essential services to ratepayers and local residents, such as building roads and operating libraries, but they don’t identify the delivery of news and information as an essential community service or devote adequate attention to it. Their sites are usually poorly designed and irregularly updated and are not designed with users’ needs in mind. In a fascinating recent case, the city of Birmingham in the UK spent lots of money building a rubbish site and the community was so annoyed they built their own council site in response.
I decided to conduct my own brief survey of local government sites in Melbourne based on activities I do regularly or think are important, and these are primarily information based, like reading news, or interactive like searching the library catalogue, making a payment or contacting council. I selected 15 sites features and compared the 8 local government sites using these criteria. When I consider whether I can ask council to remove graffiti, for example, I mean whether I can do it online, not merely whether council performs this task (such as by contacting them by phone).
The 15 criteria are:
- an events list
- an events calendar
- a news page
- news provided in an RSS feed
- press releases
- news in audio
- news in audio in a podcast feed
- a PDF newsletter
- library catalogue
- planning application search
- document alert (receive an email when council documents are updated)
- council agendas and minutes
- submit questions for council meetings
- request graffiti removal
Below is a table presenting the comparative data, followed by screen shots of the local government site homepages, so you can compare their graphic designs.
|News RSS feed||no||no||no||no||no||no||no||yes|
|News in audio||yes||no||no||yes||no||no||yes||no|
|News in audio (podcast)||no||no||no||no||no||no||yes||no|
|Planning application search||yes||yes||yes||no||yes||no||no||yes|
|Council agendas and minutes||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes||yes|
|Submit questions for council meetings||yes||yes||no||no||yes||no||no||yes|
|Request graffiti removal||yes||no||no||no||no||no||no||no|
The Yarra and Boroondara sites feature mores content in more formats than the other sites. Yarra contains more of the features I list than any other site. It also contains 2 unique features. First, I can subscribe to a service that emails me whenever new documents, such as meeting agendas and minutes, are published. This is extremely useful.
Second, I can lodge a request for graffiti (on private property) to be removed (for free) by the council. To be fair to the other councils, Yarra is perhaps in far greater need of swift action on graffiti than any other council, and so it encourages removal requests to be submitted by email as well as offering free removal from private property (most other councils offer free paint to property owners but don’t offer free removal).
Of the 3 sites that provide news in audio files for the sight impaired, only Darebin offers it in a podcast feed (albeit one that contains only 1 item) so people can subscribe to it without repeatedly visiting the site. Of the 6 sites that have a news page, only Boroondara offers a (functioning) news RSS feed.
Moreland and Phillip offer RSS feeds for their news but both were broken when I was conducting my research. I posted a comment to the Phillip site pointing this out, waited a week and tried it again, but it was still broken. Obviously no one reads the comments they receive (or acts on them).
Phillip and Melbourne, the two sites with the most sophisticated and contemporary graphic and structural designs, were the worst in terms of publishing content. When a site is created by programmers, content gets overlooked. Phillip and Melbourne are is also the only site to not offer a PDF newsletter (this is usually a PDF of a print newsletter). The Melbourne one is so hard to find I failed to find it when researching this story (see the comment below).
Melbourne is the only site not to have an events page. They obviously don’t think there’s anything happening in the CBD or Carlton. Few sites list their events in a visual calendar format (and none offer them in the ical format, so you can’t subscribe to them using iCal, Outlook or Google Calendar.
Boroondara appears to be the only site that does not offer direct online payments (you can use PostBillPay). 3 councils don’t provide a searchable database of planning permit applications. This is such an important tool to use if you are concerned about development in your area.
Only half the councils encourage ratepayers to submit questions on notice for future council meetings online. The harder you make it, the less people will do it. That is evidently their thinking.
Only two features are common to all 8 sites: access to the library catalogue and to council meeting minutes and agendas. Most sites contain only about half the listed features. Assuming that the basic features required by local communities are consistent across metropolitan Melbourne, the differences between the features offered by these sites suggests that they have evolved in a haphazard, rather than a strategic, manner. They don’t consistently provide what audiences need or want. All the sites have poor information architectures. Content is badly organised and poorly cross referenced.
Phillip and Darebin don’t provide press releases as a distinct type of information separate from news or events. My opinion on this is divided. Just because most do does not mean this is good or even necessary. The press release is an archaic format that is designed to be sent to print newspapers; they mean far less as a format online. The information they contain is important, but there is insufficient reason to separate this information from other news content.
As all these sites have limited or no dynamic features, they are all fundamentally out of date in terms of their platforms. Most don’t seem to use current content management systems. Content management systems use metadata to organise content. A content item can be tagged ‘news’, and if it is a press release it can additionally be tagged ‘press release’ so it also appears in that section. Everything should be in accessible text so people using text to speech or screen reading tools can interact with it. A news item should not appear in a PDF if it is not also available as text.
Given the current tools and techniques available for publishing information online, I see no need for so many separate content formats and sections. News information should not be provided in a partial and fragmented way in the ‘news’ section, the ‘events’ section, the ‘library’ section, in the PDF newsletter and in press releases. News is news. If a piece of information is news it should be in the news section. Residents should not have to monitor 5 separate pages simply to discover all the news that is available. Publishing content in 5 different formats is not better than 1 if this makes it harder for audiences to access the content.
Websites should not be considered static destinations that users must visit in order to gain access to content. Sites should dynamically disseminate content in forms convenient to users so they can access that content in the places and platforms of their choosing, such as their feed reader, iTunes or their calendar. RSS, ical and podcasts are all common standards that many free applications can read.
The fundamental change councils need to make is to stop listening to the so-called ‘experts’ who are responsible for building these clumsy sites and to instead start listening to the community about what it wants (in my case some functioning RSS feeds would be a good start).