Five sources of channel shift failure from councils

Written by Anthony Peake on 24 June 2014 in Features

Five critical weaknesses are seriously compromising the success of channel shift initiatives for UK local authorities. Anthony Peake lists them and suggest some solutions.

Most UK councils now have a channel shift strategy. By funnelling visitors away from expensive phone and face-to-face interactions, and towards efficient and user-friendly digital services, local authorities can serve more customers, more of the time - while significantly reducing costs.

But despite the huge effort that councils are putting into channel shift, a surprising number of those initiatives are failing to deliver improved customer service and the required cost savings.

At GOSS we recently reviewed just under 100 council websites (councils who weren't currently GOSS clients) to see how channel shift is working on the ground. In doing so we found five serious weaknesses that are - without a doubt - preventing these councils from realising the full benefits of channel shift.

1. Content

Can visitors easily find what they need on your website? In many cases there is far too much content - sometimes split across multiple pages, or so poorly-worded as to confuse the visitor.

For instance, a visitor may want to find out bin collection days, but if this information is listed under "Refuse", they may not know where to look. Asking questions like "was there any side-waste?" or "what did the bin weigh?" are certainly not going to help the process. Unclear or jargon-laden 'council-speak' will cause people to abandon the website and make a call instead. That not only increases the transaction cost (from 15p to £2.83, according to Socitm), but also means the visitor is less likely to use the website next time.

Many 3-star council websites lost out on a 4-star rating this year due to not paying enough attention to the content and wording on their sites.


Content mobile failure
 Content failure on mobiles

2. Personalisation

Are services tailored to the visitor's location? Many websites still don't have functionality that helps visitors find their nearest council services. Instead, they ask users to look though long lists of properties, recycling centres, schools, libraries and other services to find what they're looking for. This is confusing, takes a lot of time, and leads to high drop-off rates that could be avoided with an account login or postcode entry form. Personalisation delivers a dramatically improved experience for the citizen and significantly increases channel shift savings for the council.

PDF content failure
Searching a PDF for information

South Tyneside Bins Best Practice
Personalised content success

3. Forms

Can visitors easily complete your onsite forms? Are you asking for too little information that will inevitably require the council to call the client? Are you providing large, complex, multi-part forms that require so much information that a call seems easier? How will the form work on a smartphone or other mobile device? Approximately 80% of forms we tested didn't work properly on a smartphone - either the content wasn't optimised for mobile, or key fields did not display, preventing visitors from completing the form.

Form failure
Poor language on a form

4. Payment

Most of the council webpages we tested that require a payment process (e.g. paying for a recycling bin, booking a bulky waste collection, paying a parking fine) comprise an online form integrated with a legacy payment service. In most cases the payment service did not work or wasn't optimised for mobile use, causing the process to fail.

In many cases, the whole look and feel of the legacy payment process was fundamentally different-looking from the council's website style guides, resulting in a confusing and less intuitive experience for the citizen. In some cases we saw examples where a user was asked to remember a complex code halfway through filling in a form and then to enter this code on the next page, which demonstrated poor integration between the front-end and back end system - and significantly increases the likelihood of errors.

Payment tablet and mobile failure
Payment problems on a mobile, and a reference number to "remember and add to the next screen"

5. Mobile

Our research on close to 100 council websites revealed that support for mobile devices is not only hampering channel shift efforts, but has actually reduced customer satisfaction with council websites in the last year. The use of mobile devices to access council sites has increased from 30% to over 40% of visitors in the last 12 months (and will extend to over 50% of visitors in the next 12 months), yet we still see service descriptions taking up to two desktop pages, or four tablet pages, or 16 mobile pages before you get to the form to request the services.

Many council websites are yet to engage responsive design architectures, and so there are still far too many examples of pages that are not optimised for a mobile device and thus require lots of zooming and scrolling, making it hard for citizens to read.

Mobile form failure and success
Form not optimised on a mobile, and form successfully optimised on a mobile

As discussed in points 3 and 5 above, we have seen many examples of forms and payment processes that still are not designed with mobile in mind and so deliver a very poor experience, significantly reduce the take-up of channel shift self-service, and in many cases fail to work completely.

Surprisingly, the situation is not getting better over time - quite the opposite! Socitm's Website Performance service surveys 170,000 council website visitors annually. At the beginning of 2013 the success and failure rates for online transactions were:

  • 60% successful transactions
  • 20% complete failures
  • 20% partial success.

However, by the end of 2013, the success rate had actually FALLEN:

  • 50% successful transactions
  • 30% complete failures
  • 20% partial failures

At the beginning of 2013 this equated to 6m failed transactions every month. By the end of 2013 this had increased to 9m failed transactions per month. This does not include the high volume of transactions that could only be partially completed.

The decline in successful transactions is almost certainly down to the growing number of visitors using a mobile device (currently at around 40% of transactions, up from around 30% at the beginning of 2013) and the failure to adapt legacy processes and systems to a mobile-first world.

With each failed transaction costing the council at least £2.83 in call centre costs, the five points of failure could be costing the UK's 433 local authorities a combined £289m - or a staggering £668,000 each annually.

The importance of user-centred design

Finally, it's worth talking about User-Centred Design. In too many cases, council web services don't provide a closed loop process that has been designed with the end-user in mind. The user may be able to book a service, but they don't get any feedback or updates on how their order is progressing. They may feel forced to call the call centre for a progress update - which racks up costs and creates a poor customer experience.

Many councils have done a great job in designing a website that delivers lots of useful information, but have not spent enough time mapping the processes before digitising them, or have not spent enough time actually testing the end-to-end process from the citizen's perspective to see if the questions being asked are relevant and clear, and if the integration between forms and payment services are working and present a good user experience.

What's the solution?

There are lots of ways to fix these problems and start realising the full benefits of channel shift. Some of them are quick fixes: for example, one UK local authority found that by revamping its online process for finding out recycling collection days, including a mobile friendly postcode lookup service, it increased the volume of online self-service enquiries from 200 to 2,400 a month, saving £59,500 annually on call handling costs for a project cost of less than £6,000.

Others may require a bit more time (e.g. fixing integration problems between front-end forms and back-end systems). But for any council that's serious about getting the full benefits of channel shift, and delivering improved self-service, the best solution can only be to carry out a thorough review of current online processes and create an action plan to address them.

Anthony Peake is marketing director at GOSS Interactive

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Sarah Hall (not verified)

Submitted on 10 July, 2014 - 16:13
Have you guys seen this app? It was just presented at the Local Government Association conference as part of the digital and technology exemplars.

Malcolm Davison (not verified)

Submitted on 23 July, 2014 - 17:19
Some very useful information and observations here, Anthony. We all love our phones don’t we? But have you considered the way we use them? Research seems to be telling us that perhaps too much effort and expense is being wasted in meeting this audience's needs. Let me explain. Within the ‘mobile’ statistics we must first distinguish between smartphone and tablet users. Most tablet users can happily view the majority of websites without a redesign. According to Adobe’s 2013 Mobile Consumer Survey tablet users view 70% more pages than smartphone users. And Google in their presentation ‘The New Multi-screen world’ revealed that 90% of people who access information on a mobile phone will continue their reading on another device. Marketing websites find smartphone users buy less than PC users. So for local government websites that means that smartphones are less persuasive and effective. So just how important are smartphone users? Certainly we need to cater for simple payment / apply for it / report it / library opening times, etc. These can be accessed by brief link trails from the home page. But beyond that? Considering the severe financial constraints they are under government users need to concentrate on getting their PC websites working at full efficiency, before adding what may be needless expense. As for apps - they are great - but have you space for any more on your phone and would you download one to access your local council website? GDS has a policy of resisting apps. And I agree. Maybe not a fashionable view, but based on increasing evidence perhaps website publishers should pause and do their research before making substantial investment in this area. Malcolm Davison

Anthony Peake (not verified)

Submitted on 16 October, 2014 - 09:00
A well crafted argument Malcolm, but unfortunately the data does not back you up. Of the 75 local government organisations who work with GOSS Interactive to deliver their websites and channel shift strategies, we are seeing from 35% to 58% access via mobile devices (average 48%) and this increases to over 70% for many police forces. The breakdown of visits from mobile devices is currently averaging at 49% smartphones and 51% tablets. This means that a quarter of visitors to local government websites are currently visiting on the very small screens of smart phone. Additionally, for Accessibility, the other 25% of tablet users do expect a different and enhanced experience than simply giving them the desktop version. At the very least the website should aim to be responsive and optimised for every screen size. Additionally, the argument that many people scan something on a smartphone and then read it properly on a desktop is often correct for the private sector, but not so correct for the public sector where citizens want to report something, pay something, find local information, and they want to do this quickly and are unlikely to switch between channels within the same transaction. So, the data clearly highlights that upwards of 50% of visitors to council and public sector websites are using a mobile device, and that at least half of these are attempting to complete a transaction on a smartphone with a small screen and so the user experience needs to be designed with these users in mind if organisations want to engage their citizens, improve customer service and reduce their transaction costs. Finally, writing for the web should be about getting your information across clearly and succinctly. I have seen many examples of a page that enables a citizen to report dog fouling or broken street light or issues with graffiti that have two desktop pages of information before the citizen is able to access the link to the form that enables them to report the issue. Two desktop pages equals four tablet screens equals upwards of 16 smartphone screens. Surely no one can argue that it is helpful for anyone to have to scroll down four let alone 16 screenfuls of information before you can report an issue. This is an important topic, it impacts 30 million online transactions in local government every month, and thanks Malcolm for your participation in the debate. It would be great to hear from others who can either support or counter this discussion.

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