Vicky is programme co-director for Connected Local Government Live and the Boilerhouse series of Digital Innovations Showcases. She is programme director for Socitm - Better Connected and a board director of Boilerhouse Communications Limited@vickysargent
When councils outsource local services like leisure centres, libraries or bulky waste collections why is it that securing a high quality user experience for the associated online service is so often overlooked?
This issue, which comes up frequently when we survey the usability of council online services for Better Connected, has been highlighted once again in our most recent report on the experience of ordering a bulky waste collection.
356 councils (English, Welsh and Scottish unitaries, shire districts, Northern Ireland districts, and metropolitan districts) were surveyed by our team of reviewers, who asked a series of questions like ‘Is it clear that the service will remove a mattress?’; ‘Am I told how many items can be collected for a single payment/booking?’; ‘How far in advance I should book the collection?’; and ‘Can I order the collection online?’
The survey found that a number of councils no longer collect large unwanted items like beds or sofas themselves, but have outsourced the activity to recycling charities or businesses. In many cases providers will collect things free of charge if they can be recycled, charging only to take away items if they can’t be recycled.
Although Better Connected describes this development as ‘an excellent move’, it also points out that some of the outsourced services are seriously lacking when in comes to providing information about the service online, let alone online booking and fulfilment.
It is possible that managers outsourcing these and other services take the view that once the service is outsourced, it is no longer their responsibility and up to the service provider to decide what level of online service is appropriate. But it seems unlikely that they would take the same view of the quality of the physical as opposed to the virtual service being offered.
Bulky waste collection services could be made much more efficient and user-friendly by following the best practice from councils highlighted in the Better Connected survey report. Where local authority waste teams enter an outsourcing arrangement they should, it says, make the provision of the digital service part of the discussion from the outset.
These days it need not be expensive to set up a straightforward online ordering and fulfilment facility for a single service. This should be within the capability of even small providers or charities, which will also stand to make efficiency gains from channel shift and the automation of bookings.
Where the outsourcing of large-scale services, like culture or leisure facilities are concerned, then provision of high quality online services should be built into specifications for the service to be delivered. It is not acceptable for councils to say to Better Connected (as they do) ‘Oh, that service is outsourced, so what is provided online is nothing to do with us.’
To be fair, where this comment comes from a web manager, it is very likely that they have not been consulted by the service department that delivers the service, about how a library, leisure or rubbish & recycling service appears online. This is something that clearly needs to change.
Results of the bulky waste (rubbish & recycling) survey are now available. Individual councils can find their results from the council index page at https://betterconnected.socitm.net/councils. The ‘all council’ report can be found by following links from https://betterconnected.socitm.net/services .
The rubbish & recycling survey report follows reports on accessing library e-resources; applying for housing; and using building control services. The next service-based report is on adult social care assessments. Results of stage one of the Better Connected accessibility testing was published in early January.
Better Connected Live will feature a workshop dealing with key issues in rubbish and recycling sponsored by Yotta