Just 39% of metropolitan councils provide a good or very good service for people to apply for housing online, according to the latest results from Socitm’s Better Connected survey.
Socitm, the body that represents public service ICT professionals, regularly surveys councils’ websites to assess how well they allow their residents to complete certain tasks.
The latest survey assessed how well metropolitan district councils’ websites performed on the task of finding out how to apply for housing in the area.
Reviewers use the websites as a citizen would, asking a series of 14 questions to establish whether relevant information is available, if content is out of date and that it is easily accessible.
Overall, the survey found that 39% of the 36 metropolitan councils provided a good or very good service – ranked as 3 or 4 stars, respectively. The average star rating being just 2.1 – only slightly above the unsatisfactory ranking of 2 stars.
“Too many councils are making it unnecessarily difficult for people seeking social housing to find out if they are eligible and then apply,” said Socitm.
Some 56% of councils provided information on eligibility, which was the essential question for this test and must be met in order for the council to meet the standard for a 3 or 4-star ranking.
Many sites were marked down for failing to put important information on their webpages rather than on PDFs. Just 19% offered an indication of the likelihood of success of an application on the website, and the same percentage indicated on their website how long the application would take to be processed.
“Better Connected makes no apology: high level information about process, eligibility and timing must be set out simply and on web pages,” a statement said.
“This should be the case for all council services, but is particularly important for services used by people in potentially difficult and stressful situations.”
The report said: “People seeking social housing may well be in temporary accommodation where a mobile device or a public access computer is their main means of accessing information, and in both cases, pdfs can be problematic.
“We do not expect all information to be on web pages, and acknowledge that with housing, there is a lot of information about details of eligibility and how to apply. But key information needs to be explicit on web pages.”
Learning from London
The metropolitan councils also performed worse than the London councils did when they were assessed earlier in the year – 63% of the London cohort gained a good or very good rating.
As such, Socitm said that it would be “instructive” to look at the main differences, which it said were on whether the housing web pages – not a PDF – set expectations about the likelihood of being successful in getting housing. Some 63% of London councils provided this information, much higher than the 19% of metropolitan councils.
“It would be hard not to assume that, bad as the housing crisis is everywhere, it is its severity in London that has prompted housing managers to highlight this information on their pages, and that a similar urgency is not felt in most metropolitan districts,” the report stated.
Other areas of discrepancy include having information on eligibility and prioritisation of applications on the website, not a PDF.
“The largest common denominator this time around, though, was the incidence of council websites that appear to have completely abdicated any sense of ownership of ‘applying for housing’ by the council itself,” Socitm added.
This included sites saying that council properties had been transferred to another organisation, referring people to that organisation’s site but without any information about the role the council plays in administering ongoing applications, and sending people to a third party site without sufficient information about why they were being redirected.
In addition, although the reviewer said that the latest cohort of sites were “refreshingly jargon-free”, the names of some of the housing schemes or initiatives were “bizarre and uninformative” or did not explain that the organisation was the council’s housing provider.
However, Socitm noted that metropolitan councils outperformed London councils on ensuring that information was up to date, with just 3% of metropolitan councils having out of date information online – something Socitm refers to as a “cardinal sin”.
The report also sets out some best practice guidance for councils, including that the task is prominent on the landing page for housing; that the information for additional housing options – renting or buying – is clearly signposted; and that content is presented in a step-by-step way for people going through the process.
Three councils were chosen as exemplars of best practice, ranking as 4-star sites that held no out of date content or jargon and that were rated positively for 11 of the 14 task questions.
These were Doncaster, Dudley and Kirklees, with the assessor saying that Kirklees was “proof that applying for social housing needn’t be overbearing, complex or cumbersome”.