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Spin to win

February 12, 2010

Peter Barton, head of web and information governance at Lincolnshire County Council, has posted an interesting response on his blog to our UKA story on Socitm’s latest report criticising council websites: ‘Poor website design could be costing councils millions’

Barton believes that Socitm’s reports, “though factually correct (ish) are swayed to portray a blacker picture. A picture they can help lighten of course.”

Says Barton in a blog post entitled ‘Web mangers are saving upwards of £44million a month for their councils’, “Firstly to draw out £11million losses per month from such vague data is laughable. That said there is of course no benefit to Socitm of saying that nearly 80% of visitors actually ‘find’ what they want – thereby saving some £44million per month (which is of course the corollary of their quote).”

Of course, ‘Web mangers are saving upwards of £44m a month for their councils’ would be a great headline – one that Barton believes is justifiable from Socitm’s figures.

Barton points out that the services highlighted in the report as helping councils to improve from this ‘loss’ situation are indeed provided by, or through, Socitm. “What makes this report even more galling is the data from which they have mined this negative and misleading nugget is collected by them on our behalf as we pay for that service.”

He adds, “I have argued for some time this ‘society’ is working against us at times, in order to further their own development, but to no avail.”

In defense of council websites, Barton further points out the difficulties of comparing criticism given by anonymous box ticking on the web rather than face to face at the service counter: “The British are inherently civil and have no great desire to be confrontational or rude so when talking to an individual we are going to say nicer things than in reply to a machine. It stands to reason. At least to most of us but not it seems to Socitm. The oversimplification is breathtaking.”

A previous post from the web team at Lincolnshire County Council calculates a £1.25m a year extra cost to the council if the web service were to be removed – and that calculation only applied service replacement costs to the major services.

Solid evidence of the costs and benefits of council websites is hard to come by – there are just so many variables involved and so many unknowns (what, for example, about all those customers who had to call the council rather than check term times and refuse collection dates on the website?).

However, Barton’s comments pose an interesting question. Is Socitm’s primary goal to help its IT manager members develop best practice? Or is its primary goal these days to sell services to its membership base? With the recent appointment of a Head of Commercial Development one has to wonder.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2010 9:46 am

    Do you think we are ever going to see an answer to Helen’s question of the 23rd Feb.

    Any chance of some of that openness and provision of information which Socitm expect on LG web sites flowing from them?

  2. February 24, 2010 5:10 pm

    Hi there,

    I’m another Better connected reviewer (we’re everywhere) but I’ve worked on quite a few different Insight publications, though not this particular one. In my experience at the coalface so to speak there isn’t a close link-up between Socitm Insight, which is self funding through subscriptions, and Consultancy. The driving force behind our work is always about what is going to be useful and beneficial to the subscriber base. As far as I am aware all the steering groups etc are separate too, but I’m not the official person to talk about that.

    It’s never been suggested to me to spin anything I’ve produced!

    I did enjoy your ‘Let’s Turn off the Web’ post Peter. I thought it was a fresh angle and very thought provoking. However you choose to look at them, gathering hard facts of costs of different channels is a very worthwhile exercise.

    • February 24, 2010 6:08 pm


      Thanks for your reply. Martin Greenwood admits in this blog he spins the report to produce the most impact. Now, he argues that helps me in some way. He argues it helps me by making my superiors take notice. Thanks, but that sort of inane help I can do without.

      And what about “A world denied” a rider to a previous Better Connected suggesting LG sites are not accessible and yet the facts seem to indicate otherwise. Another helpful headline I suppose. Again one I could have done without.

      Negative spin by Socitm seems the norm. Shame really as I’m sure Socitm do good work but I, and other LG web managers, are tired of being beaten with a Socitm stick especially, as in this case, the stick was self fashioned.

      Glad you liked my blog on “lets turn off the web”. Huge following and lots of comments on how helpful it was. Nowhere did I insult or in anyway besmirch the efforts of others – even by implication. Isn’t that how it should be done?

      8 years of watching how Sitemorse did it and watching the reactions of LG Managers to those reports didn’t seem to teach you anything.

    • February 24, 2010 6:23 pm

      Sorry I have just remembered…. A while back after the release of one of your better connected reports there was a circular e-mail from your consultancy people offering to help. No Connection? I think that’s being economical with the truth.

  3. February 23, 2010 2:14 pm

    Apologies … duff link inserted in last comment.

    It should be

  4. February 23, 2010 1:56 pm

    @ helenolsen

    Firstly, I declare an interest … I’m a ‘Better connected’ reviewer!

    You ask about the target audience for ‘Better connected’ reports.

    I think we would hope that the report is read by all interested parties in a local authority, though its pretty unlikely that the chief executive would have it for bedtime reading unless they took a particular interest in the development of the council’s website.

    It is my belief that the report provides a useful guide to the state of development of local authority websites generally and a snapshot of individual websites as of November/December each year. I would hope that the web team would take the data regarding their own site, and contemporaneous sites in the same geography for benchmarking purposes, and disseminate this information to appropriate audiences within their council – website contributors, authors, management reporting, lead member etc. I did this to very positive effect when I was web development manager at Salford, with something comprehensive resources on the intranet and a report to the appropriate lead member (eg

    ‘Better connected’ can be used to leverage additional resources for the website by illustrating where the website stands in a national context. From my experience no chief executive wants their site to be bottom of the class, and the executive summary of the annual report is a great document to give to a chief executive and/or lead member to set out the headline results and our team’s recommendations for short, medium and long term fixes/changes.

    • helenolsen permalink*
      February 23, 2010 4:24 pm

      Hi John. Thanks for your reply. I am indeed looking forward to the next Better Connected report!

      I was wondering though who the audience was for the Customer Access Improvement Service report that Peter Barton is referring to specifically.

      I agree that an annual snapshot can be useful. I guess it is the headline grabbing statements that accompanied the customer access briefing that caught attention in this case though!

    • February 24, 2010 6:49 am

      Thanks for that John. And thanks for putting your head above the parapet.
      However yours was a fine drum banging piece from a person with a vested interest in Better Connected. But, as Helen says what about somebody at Socitm answering the question which is the main thrust of this blog? Here is what she asked…

      “what though is Socitm’s response to the question that Peter raises: is socitm using these reports to ‘help solve a problem’ with its consultancy services? His main complaint seems to be that he is being sold to by using figures that he has paid to generate.

      Who is the audience for this report? Web managers or chief executives? And what is its purpose?”

      We, your clients, need an answer.

      • February 24, 2010 4:53 pm

        Reading Helen’s response made me realise that I’d not actually answered the question; instead I had interpreted it differently and answered accordingly, so my apologies for that!

        I really don’t think it is for me to get too deeply involved in this particular discussion. I’m a reviewer not a policymaker. However I’ll do my best to get an appropriate response to the question for you.

  5. Martin Greenwood permalink
    February 15, 2010 1:58 pm

    Even Peter Barton (an old sparring partner of Socitm’s) must be able to see the inconsistency in saying our figures are ‘laughable’ and then using them for his own conclusion that websites are saving upwards of £44m a month for their councils.

    In fact, the data behind our calculation of £11m a month losses to councils from web failures (calculated from the cost of the consequent additional, avoidable, enquiries made via other council channels) is extremely robust, but, as Peter says, it could equally be expressed as savings made through websites.

    However, just as Peter’s comments would hardly have been picked up elsewhere if they were full of praise for Socitm’s data and its conclusions, nor would our story have received the widespread media attention it did, had it focussed on the good news.

    As Peter knows, it is still very difficult to get the powers-that-be in local and central government to take websites seriously. Most top managers and decision-makers in central and local government still have no idea of the volumes of council enquiries coming into websites or the consequences of web failures. It is only by telling them the bad news that we can get them to sit up and listen and take action.

    As for suggesting that ‘anonymous box ticking on the web’ is somehow not valid, we must disagree – respondents are asked, simply, did they find what they wanted or not? Answer options are yes or no, or partly. Website take-up service data makes no comparison with anything customers might say in a face to face situation.

    We are not attacking web managers: anyone who has read Better connected knows we have been calling for many years for websites to be appropriately governed and properly resourced. On the other hand, there is no room for complacency either. We don’t think it is good enough to settle for an average of one in five web visits each month failing completely (ie between 15,000 to 20,000 for a typical county council site). There is surely more work for everyone to do?

    • helenolsen permalink*
      February 16, 2010 9:07 am

      Hi Martin,

      The angle taken over the figures is, of course, always your perogative as report author/publisher.

      However, I am not sure that it might not be more useful – in terms of engaging with chief executives et al – to focus on solid evidence of how their investment in the council website has paid off. As a starting point, surely highlighting the success before pointing out that still more savings can be delivered might be more productive?

      That aside, what though is Socitm’s response to the question that Peter raises: is socitm using these reports to ‘help solve a problem’ with its consultancy services? His main complaint seems to be that he is being sold to by using figures that he has paid to generate.

      Who is the audience for this report? Web managers or chief executives? And what is its purpose?


    • February 19, 2010 2:24 pm

      In a recent reply to a blog on UK autority…

      Martin Greenwood says…”the data behind our calculation of £11m a month losses to councils from web failures is extremely robust”.

      I beg to differ. I don’t believe it is robust at all, which is why I described their results as laughable but lets continue.

      Socitms figure is calculated from some 20% of questions as being shown as unanswered by LG web sites. This they derive from respondees to the online questions who said they were unable to find what they were seeking on the site.

      Setting aside that 80% did find what they wanted – and I am pleased that Martin Greenwood agrees this shows an annual saving of over half a billion pounds for councils – lets see what the 20% Socitm commented on was made up of.

      I can of course only discover our own “missing information” and that is from the same information Martin Greenwood uses.

      In January we had around 460 respondents who said they couldn’t find what they were looking for. What they said in their reply was also shown.

      It is intriguing that even using Socitm’s own logic and figures it shows that 11 of those expressed frustration in finding something because the online questionnaire interfered with their quest. Now if my calculations are correct that is 0.24% of the respondents. And that as a percentage of the annual “losses” according to Socitm would equate to .SOCITM WEB SITE SURVEY COSTS COUNCILS £320,000 A YEAR IN DISGRUNTLED CLIENTS’

      And, of course there are many others that were not weeded out of Socitms figures. ‘Could not finds’ that are unanswerable and yet included to justify this, yes, laughable, report.

      Here are just a few of some from our January report. This is the information people were looking for according to Socitm. Information Socitm seem to think we should provide and are somehow remiss for not doing so. These reproduced below are shown as they came in. Names have been removed.

      • 16th century handwriting information
      • kjhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
      • Looking for a convict born Lincs but tried in London
      • aircraft pictures
      • could not download logo for This is Art
      • couldn’t find the tables and then computer froze when downloading a pdf
      • “Details of my ancestor Rev’d (name removed by PB) of Gedney parish.
      • Does LCC think that is OK to transport primary school children four in a taxi, but only three can sit on a booster seat due to lack of room across the rear seat.
      • I am looking for an ancestor named (Name removed PB) who moved to Elton, I think because of the railways
      • I am looking to research the history of cottage in New Bolingbroke
      • I am researching a convict to Australia, (name removed PB)The website gave me an overview of his crime. Now I need to get a detailed report of the court Assizes.
      • I am trying to find out about a local paper which on Thursday 3 September 1942 reported on the parade at Cranwell for the National Day of Prayer. A letter from my uncle (who was killed in 1943 and whose life I am researching) says that Paramont took pictures for the news and that there would be picutres in “Friday’s Sketch”. I don’t know how to find the Sketch and back copies. I thought this site might be worth a try, but I can’t see anything to help – but it was a long shot!
      • I could not find details about a possible ancestor born in Billingborough
      • I could not find why Branston was called Branston Allotments in the early 19th century. Ancestors come from there and this detail is on the census forms of the day. I will try the records office which we have previously visited to great success.
      • i found the events section but nothing at all for Woodhall Spa
      • I found the information on your holdings to be excellent. I was hoping to find church records online. Since I live far away I cannot access the archives.
      • I found the service but was dissatisfied by the outcome.
      • I need to talk with someone who will be able to answer the rest of my problems
      • I wanted a small holiday touring through bulbfields,I think I will have to go to Holland.
      • I wanted to find a list of allotments in Linconshire. I will contact SKDC direct
      • I was looking for an inquest from 10th Oct 1936 for one (name removed by PB)
      • I was looking for discussion notes on a book I have just read.
      • “I was looking to see if my grandmother’s obituary was published in the local newspaper. She died in 1964.”
      • I work for another COuncil, and have been browsing a number of Council sites and this was just one of them – so is just part of the picture.
      • info about eating facilities at the Plowright Theatre.
      • It didn’t tell me what i wanted to hear!! Not your fault, not enough snow to close the school!
      • Looking for a convict born Lincs but tried in London
      • NOTHING!
      • still want to know history of why we came from france to work in castle as armours for the king
      • you had my g,g,grandfather named in one of your pages but could get nothing further this would have been a bonus plus for me infinding something.

      I’m not saying we are perfect but neither is Socitm’s report or the logic on which it is based.

      Now if in some way I have this wrong I am sure Mr Greenwood will enlighten me.

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