ANALYSIS: Reputation boost looms for web-savvy councils

The growth of transactional council websites affords public sector PROs a fresh opportunity to boost their authority's reputation. But there are barriers to overcome, says Peter Simpson.

By 2005, the Government expects all council taxpayers to be able to log on to council websites and, with a click of a mouse, navigate through a slick, user-friendly website. The vision is of citizens able to use scores of services, from ordering a parking permit to securing school placements for children, after first reading online performance reports. We should also interact with local democracy and marvel at the efficiency of our respective local authority.

For council taxpayers used to hearing phones ring off the hook as they wait to hear why garbage has not been collected, it marks an unprecedented chance for unpopular local authorities to boost their public image.

But unless you live in the London boroughs of Westminster and Camden, in Manchester's Tameside, or in Hertfordshire, fully transactional local government e-communications remain a hit-and-miss affair.

Two local authorities have yet to publish a single web page (PRWeek, 5 April 5). One of them, Bridgnorth District Council in Shropshire, is developing its first foray in e-communications. Bridgnorth head of IT services Tony Brown says: 'As a rural authority, we appreciate the opportunity of having fully transactional web services. We are working on developing a site and working with other nearby districts to ensure we create a long-term solution compatible with present and future systems.'

The top four councils listed in the Society of IT Management's 'Better Connected' 2002 report boast 'fully transactional e-services'. They are changing the way their publics deal with the necessary and often mundane chores of community living.

These services are proving a sound way of enhancing local authorities' reputations, says Carl Welham, chairman of the IPR's local government programme, and incoming marcoms head at Sheffield City Council.

'Transactional local government e-communications is essential to reputation,' he says. 'People now expect businesses to offer transactional services via the web 24 hours a day.

It exemplifies an organisation's professionalism by allowing people to access and make transactions from the home, the office or public access point.'

Taxpayers will expect full transactions, but councils face certain restrictions on how many services they can offer via the web. Whereas private sector organisations tend to offer only a handful of products, councils offer dozens, from applying for rent rebates to handling squash court bookings.

The rise of transactional sites will therefore dictate that councils pick those services that do duty to the website's existence and funding.

Moreover, councils will be tied by the legality of confidentiality and security, since many documents and council forms require a signature.

But, say some local authority PROs, for areas where fully transactional sites is deemed unworkable, printable forms and other information should be made available to speed up the process. 'The site should encourage all the community to use the web as a first point of contact,' one says.

Best practice, that breeder of robust local authority reputation, is not limited to the four fully transactional services. Web users living in Knowsley have a unique way of reporting council dwellings' repairs to their council; they enter a virtual house and click on the troublesome area (a window, say, or a leaking tap). The works department responds.

London's Camden is especially keen on web services - it is 'bringing the council into the heart of the community' according to councillor John Mills, chairman of the borough's finance and resource management committee.

'This is how the council of the future should be presenting itself to the community,' he adds.

Offering one of the nation's few real-time e-service packages has enthused Camden councillors, and the authority's growing image as a slick and modern operator makes it easier for them to look taxpayers in the eye.

In addition to the benefits to council reputations achievable through the web, PR departments can also benefit as it allows them greater direct communication with a given person or organisation.

Westminster City Council head of comms Alex Aiken says: 'The web is a brilliant delivery mechanism, but you have to ensure the services offered meet expectations. There's little point in offering constituents transactions via the web if the services they then receive are second rate.'

And if service delivery is one barrier to reaping PR rewards, access is another. Authorities have to ensure the whole community can access a fully transactional website, including the homeless, the unemployed and ethnic minority groups where access is comparatively limited. E-training is increasingly made available to these groups, with public computers in libraries, council offices and leisure centres on the rise.

Despite these caveats, the trend towards local authorities maximising the PR potential of transactional websites is set to grow. In the 2003 report there will be many more than four councils shown to offer a full service.

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