Select Committee on Public Accounts Sixteenth Report

 
 

 
1  Progress in improving the management and quality of government websites

1. For many millions of people, the internet has become the preferred way of conducting many every-day transactions, from banking to booking a holiday. It is often faster, easier to use and more convenient, with services available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The internet has also become an important way of improving the delivery of public services. The Government spends an estimated £208 million a year on delivering services and related information online, such as the filing of tax returns, the matching of applicants to jobs, and the renewal of vehicle excise duty.[3]

2. The number of government websites has grown rapidly, driven by a Prime Ministerial target set in 1997 to provide access to all relevant services in electronic form by 2005, and the trend in the wider economy to provide services and information over the internet. There has been over ten years of uncoordinated growth in websites and the Government does not know how many government websites exist. The National Audit Office estimates there may be as many as 2,500 sites.[4] The number of websites in existence has contributed to making information and services hard for users to find.[5]

3. In 2002 our predecessors identified a need for improved knowledge on the costs of website provision.[6] However, in 2007 nearly a quarter of departments and agencies were still unable to supply the National Audit Office with this data, and even where they could, over two fifths gave only estimates (Figure 1).[7] The Cabinet Office has tried to improve knowledge on the costs of websites in departments and agencies, but it has proved difficult because websites are funded and accounted for differently across government. Some organisations fund websites through communications budgets, some through IT budgets, and others from policy budgets. In some cases, website provision is included with other IT services in a larger contract, making it harder to disaggregate website from other IT service-related costs. The Cabinet Office plans to issue guidance in early 2008.[8]

4. The Committee's previous report recommended that departments should monitor the usage of government websites.[9] There are some examples of good practice in tracking use in the public sector. For example, Transport for London analyses data on how people use its site to help change the design of its website in the light of patterns of usage over time.[10] Direct.gov.uk combines user data with information from regular customer satisfaction surveys.[11] However, one in six government organisations still gather no such data and many of those that do, do not use it to improve their sites (Figure 1).[12]

Figure 1: Quality of information on usage of main corporate websites and the cost of website provision and support returned by departments and agencies


All figures are percentages

Data on costs of website provision  

Data on number of unique visitors to the website
 
TOTAL

(%)
 
 
No data
 
Partial data
 
Full data
 
 
 
All
 
Depts
 
All
 
Depts
 
All
 
Depts
 
All
 
Depts
 
No data  
7
 
3
 
11
 
11
 
9
 
11
 
27
 
24
 
Partial data  
6
 
16
 
20
 
17
 
18
 
13
 
44
 
46
 
Full data  
3
 
3
 
7
 
8
 
19
 
19
 
29
 
30
 
TOTAL (%)  
16
 
22
 
39
 
35
 
45
 
43
 
100
 
100
 
The column "All" includes the dataset for the whole population of organisations responding to the survey (N = 129). The column "Depts" includes only Ministerial departments and non-ministerial departments (N = 37).

Technical note: The NAO asked organisations to provide annual cost figures for the most recent year and previous five years. Each response was assessed using the following criteria. Full data - organisations could provide at least 4 out of 5 years including the most recent and could provide full data for the breakdown for the current year. Organisations less than five years old were required to provide full data for each year of existence. Partial data - organisations could provide 1 to 3 years of data and at least a total for the current year. None or negligible - no data provided or figures that seemed grossly unrealistic. A judgement was made on borderline cases between Full and Partial in favour of Full (i.e. benefit of the doubt).  

Source: NAO survey of departments and agencies

5. The public are generally satisfied with government websites, although overall the quality has improved only slightly since 2001 and one in six sites has become significantly worse (Figure 2).[13] The public also compare government websites unfavourably with commercial sites, particularly those of banks and travel companies.[14] The Government's own service transformation strategy requires services to be designed around the needs of the customer or citizen, rather than the service provider.[15]

Figure 2: There were slightly more higher scoring websites in 2006 than in 2001

Source: NAO Census of government organisations' websites

6. Research in 2006 found that a third of government websites fail to meet the government's own accessibility standards.[16] These include making it possible to adjust the size of text, providing text alternatives for non-text content and making all content readable and understandable. Direct.gov.uk and businesslink.gov.uk meet these standards and the Central Office for Information is consulting with representative groups about ways in which other government websites can be made more accessible. This will be a priority for the Central Office for Information in 2008.

7. Search engines to help users find services and information are generally poor on government websites. The Direct.gov.uk search engine, for example, only searches within the site itself, whereas the US Government search engine covers the whole of the US government (from Federal to state to local and tribal levels—over 22,000 sites).[17] The Cabinet Office is working with Google to develop a stronger search function as part of the wider strategy of reducing the number and complexity of government websites.[18]

8. Government websites should offer facilities to enable users to provide feedback about public services and information made available online.[19] The National Audit Office found that many government websites have yet to adopt approaches now commonplace among leading private sector websites. These include allowing users to post content onto websites and to provide comments about the services and information provided. Fewer than 4% of government sites inform users of the most popular sections of their site or of the most commonly downloaded documents.[20] Some government sites are piloting such facilities, and some are well established including the online petitions facility on the 10 Downing Street website and the Department of Health's feedback and testimonials site for NHS patients.[21]


3   C&AG's Report, para 14 Back

4   Qq 2, 96-97 Back

5   Q 96 Back

6   Committee of Public Accounts, Progress in Achieving Government on the Web Back

7   Q 28; C&AG's Report, para 2.47 Back

8   Q 30 Back

9   Committee of Public Accounts, Progress in Achieving Government on the Web Back

10   Q 14 Back

11   Q 12  Back

12   Qq 12-14 Back

13   Q 17 Back

14   Qq 14, 17,41-42; C&AG's Report, para 4 Back

15   Q 17 Back

16   Q 18; Adam Field, Southampton University, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4853000.stm  Back

17   Q 16 Back

18   Q 56 Back

19   Qq 48-49 Back

20   C&AG's Report, para 1.17 Back

21   C&AG's Report, para 1.17 Back


 

 
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Prepared 29 April 2008