A little local difficulty

Summary–this post describes:

  • why there are some particular challenges to overcome in making online local government services findable and usable
  • what Local Directgov is and where it came from, and
  • …and wonders where all this might go next.


I spotted a question within the LocalGovCamp tweets at the weekend:

Who are local directgov & what do they do does anyone know?

There’s a pretty dry and factual explanation quickly visible at the top of a Google search: here. It talks about an “application”, and uses a lot of localgov-type words.

Hopefully I can put a little more colour around the story in this piece, and illustrate the complex and interesting nature of the problem that Local Directgov was invented to try and solve.

Let’s set a bit of background texture first:

In any type of public service delivery, there’s a tension between “just getting it done” and “seeing who’s getting it done for you”. (There are other tensions, but for brevity, this is the one that is most relevant in this discussion.)

“Just getting it done” involves helping a user to accomplish a task as quickly and painlessly as possible, ideally using low-cost channels (such as the Internet), and steering away from the need to make phone calls and visits to check on how the task is getting on (sometimes known as “avoidable contact”).

“Seeing who’s getting it done for you” might seem a lesser priority: something that’s only going to get in the way of JGID, but there are some good reasons why it needs to be considered, no matter how much your customer might prefer to cut to the chase at their actual point of need. (There’s also the fair point that–taken too far–having your local authority keep telling you about the hard work they’re doing on your behalf looks like the most awful, wasteful showboating.)

In the private sector, knowing who you’re dealing with builds brand trust and loyalty. Assuming the services go well, that is–there’s a whole separate discussion to be had about “hiding” who’s really behind the crapper ones. But that’s for another post.

In the public sector, there is the small matter of local democracy to contend with. If your local services are rubbish, then by rights you should be able to express your discontentment, or otherwise, with your elected representatives on a regular basis. They are there to make choices that may be able to make a difference. (What happens if they really can’t make a difference, because of centrally-imposed funding cuts, for example, lies beyond the scope of this post. But again, there are interesting nuances about visibility that lie therein.)

So the argument goes: if you “mask” who’s providing the services–even though you may actually make the citizen’s task experience much more standardised and straightforward–you’re harming local democracy. Imagine a “national missed bin collection reporting site”, perhaps surfaced through a central website like Directgov. Just one place to get the task done, with someone else mopping up all the interfacing to the various local authorities behind the scenes. What’s not to like? (Apart from the uncertainties of who pays for all that mopping, of course…)

Well, a passionate advocate for local democracy might well stand up and say: “What about localism? Where’s the connection between that citizen and their own local services and decisions? A little crest in the corner of an otherwise nationally-uniform [orange] website doesn’t really cut it!”

Maybe they’d be right. The householder with the festering bins may not give a hoot in the short-term, but have they lost an important connection to local policy-setting? Even, in the extreme, to their right to have festering bins (and a cheap refuse collection contract) so that they can pay for better adult social care? Their choice.

And the other killer argument away from nationally-aggregated super-sites of local government services (all your environmental health inspection information and contacts in one place!) is that they are expensive and take forever to agree even simple standards. And basically, just don’t work.

And yet, and yet, people want to search by the problem they want fixing, not the authority they think/know/guess will be able to help them. A problem that Alphagov has put front and centre with its focus on information served up–wherever possible–around where the user is.

So, to the issue of Local Directgov. (Thank you for your patience.)

Having taken an information architecture decision that bundling local stuff all together in one place and style is most likely going to be a waste of time, and possibly counter to a fundamental principle of local democracy, we also note that almost all local authority services already have a web page somewhere, for good or for bad.

So the challenge then becomes: how can we get someone who searches, centrally (could be Google, could be Directgov, could be anywhere…) to the best online page to meet their needs?

We’re not going to try and re-present the local authority content, or dress it up with nice orange borders. We’re just going to link to it.

And to link to it, we need to be able to reference it.

Fortunately, a nice piece of work was done a few years ago to classify all local authority services using a standard referencing system (the Local Government Service List). “859” stands for “request a collection of clinical waste”, “59” for “apply for a discount on council tax”–you can find the whole list here [opens an Excel file].

And the other reference is of course, place: which local authority is responsible for the question you are asking? And that just needs information on local authority boundaries, ideally behind a front-end which can cope with a few variants on the way people describe “place” (town, postcode, local authority name, etc.)

So the building blocks are all there for a simple database that takes three pieces of input data: Place, Service, and the type of Interaction with the Service (get information, pay, etc.), and returns a web page. It’s a little bit more complicated than that; some parts of the country have two-tier councils, responsible for different services, and the database has to cope with that. But it does.

This is Local Directgov. I’d describe it as a database service, rather than application, but that’s just my opinion.

It takes some maintaining, of course. Those pecularities of boundary and service provider have to be taken care of. Links will change over time. They should also improve over time, as a basic “we don’t have a page for this, so here’s their homepage” response matures into “here’s the service page” and even to “here’s the task page”. There are some tools to allow councils to manage their own links, but it still has a small team to keep it running smoothly, run out of DCLG.

So that’s the paradigm: getting people who look centrally, to a page provided locally. Simples.

If I have a criticism, it’s that its use has been very much pointed at councils, rather than developers. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it hasn’t been better used? I see this is changing, with some forthcoming developer engagement and hack days, which is a Good Thing.

It has an API (though it sometimes seems like it’s trying to hide the fact). At the time (and this is going back around three years now) when we were starting to cotton on to the fact that government should be opening up APIs to its data so that more use could be made of them, why wasn’t this one blazoned out there as an early example that actually existed (and worked)? Properly documented, and made as usable as possible.

The Local Directgov team describe it as:

Links in the The Local Directgov application is constructed based on a set of parameters taken from these lists. Each service is matched against its Local Government Service List number, for example ’57’ for Council Tax, and its Local Government Interaction List number, for example ‘2’ for paying for something: http://local.direct.gov.uk/LDGRedirect/index.jsp?LGSL=57&LGIL=2.

…I’m thinking more could probably be done to tell its story.

So, it’s a value-adding data-rich service. It is the data that the Directgov family collects and holds from local authorities. A table of links. That’s all. And it is freely available, via that API, ensuring an up-to-date and usable service is maintained. I think it’s an unsung success story.

Years ago, people like the team at Hampshire County Council were innovating using it to identify services around their boundaries provided by other authorities, and ensuring people could get as smooth a journey, via the best links, to what they needed.

Will it be the way forward under Alphagov? Is there a better way of connecting a central request to a local page? Will we tilt back into trying to produce more service aggregations “in one place” for local services? Perhaps there’s a completely different approach that will crack this issue of findability with the need to preserve local visibility that we just haven’t tried yet?

What do you think?

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14 Responses

  1. there have in the past been issues with currency in the local direct gov
    pages – ie out of date links, sometimes to 404s.  I experienced this
    more often than i should on a multi-million site.  the reason given to
    me privately by local govt officers was ‘it’s not worth keeping it up to date it for the

    there’s a supply v demand issue here – the information people seek about local govenrment services is available online but maybe doesn’t show up in google.  so how can it be made to show up better there?

    how many people ending up at alpha/beta.gov are in fact looking for local information?

    also, how much web traffic do local authorities on average receive from local direct gov as a proportion of their overall traffic – ie what percentage of traffic comes from local direct gov? is it indeed worth the candle to them?

  2. Paul Clarke says:

    I agree, the statistics aren’t impressive (not last time I looked, anyway).

    I wonder if there’s a bit of chicken & egg with that though? Conceptually, I like the way that a simple standard search is available which connects need & place with service. And that it can be deployed anywhere – not just on Directgov.

    I’ve always found it curious that more developers didn’t pick up on the existence of a proto-API and build in better routeing functionality to relevant LA web pages from all sorts of local sites?

  3. Ah, I knew there was an API, thank you for confirming that I’m not going completely mad. I was looking for it last week and Google has drawn a blank. Any ideas where they’re hiding it?

  4. if the figures aren’t great then you would have to question the VFM and whether this can in fact be done much better by external search engines. 

    there is a real reaper/sower/external benefits issue here that is hard to crack 

  5. Anonymous says:

    However conceptually satisfying something may be, there is no getting away from the fact that if its performance is very low, it is failing. And can’t justify the money spent keeping it going. Especially when it’s had years to establish itself.

    I wonder where we can see the figures? Presumably, as with all things CLG, these things are now published openly somewhere? ;)

  6. Sam says:

    There was an additional problem that the service worked less well than putting a postcode into directionlessgov.com and what you were looking for (it probably wont work any more unless your council hasn’t changed name/postcode/sites in about 5 years).

    As for an API, well there’s a funny story about that… ;)

  7. Sam says:

    if you already know where someone is, can you get out of the API the page that they should land on, or must you go via the interstitial DirectGov page where people click on what should be the one link on the page?  This was just one of the problems I remember from when this was first introduced.

    The spreadsheet is lovely, but not directly useful for a vast swathe of tasks (or, at least, any tasks I cared about at at the time)

  8. Anonymous says:

    I don’t recall ever seeing any testing of LDG side-by-side with Directionless. Would be very interested in seeing what emerged, given that LDG (if tuned using the right service description, of course…) should be pretty precise.

    Such a test would also help answer Will’s point about whether Google can/will ever attain the necessary local specificity by itself. It would of course be lovely to save money on a central routeing engine if it became surplus to requirements.I remember the Directionless vs Directgov internal-search-using-postcode alright, and that’s a whole other debate, given the DG content intentionally excluded anything local-authority-specific.

  9. Ally Hook says:

    True – if you look at raw figures, then the number of visits isn’t high (about 2% of all visits), but in terms of referring sites LocalDirectGov comes in at number two, higher that Facebook (3) and Google (4). The stats also show that those who come to a Council website from LocalDirectGov have a 15% bounce rate (50% less that the site average) and spend 33% longer on the website than average.

    It’s a quality vs quantity debate – if a Council was a shop, would you concentrate on the hundreds of people who turn up for the 1 day sale, get a bargain and never return again, and ignore the needs of those who don’t need to browse and know exactly what they are looking for? No? So, why should a Council?

    If you are one of those people who knows that what they want is a black pair of trousers 36″ / 34″ and there was a web directory somewhere that could tell you exactly which shop is closest to them that has them in stock, would you use it? I certainly would!

    That’s exactly what Local DirectGov does for people using DirectGov.

    When people are asked about improvements to websites (not necessarily local authorities) then the majority of people would refer to the BBC (Lots of content, underlying navigation mainly hidden from the public) and/or Amazon (easy to pay, track purchases, related links).

    The link from DirectGov to LA websites has the BBC trick of hiding structures / hierarchies from the user, and the location search also gives Amazon-style related links (http://local.direct.gov.uk/LDGRedirect/LocationSearch.do?requestType=locator&LGSL=279&LGIL=8&searchtype=3&text=brent&Style=&laids=35 ).

    Yes – there is a need to raise awareness, and yes, there are far too many councils who underuse the facility (possibly because they are unaware of its benefits / put off by the amount of jargon involved?) but when it is used, then it is incredibly powerful in its simplicity.

  10. When asking the question is what Local Directgov does to link Directgov users through to the correct page on council sites worth it,
    its really important  to look at the volumes concerned and not the percentages.

    The 2% Ally and others refer to doesn’t seem much, but data from Socitm’s Website take-up service, which monitors usage of council websites, allows us to estimate, from our user base of 140 participating councils, that 359.2m visits were made in 2010 to council websites in England.  From the same source we know that 2.19% of them were referrals from Directgov.

    So Directgov was responsible for 7.9m individual visits to council sites last year. Because I don’t know what the Local Directgov service costs to run, I cannot judge VFM. But the numbers benefiting are certainly not small…….

  11. Graham Noad says:

    Thanks Paul for your
    comprehensive posting on Local Directgov.

    Yes we do need to work
    on the content of our website to better describe who we are and what
    we do – the site was originally for a very specific audience (our
    contacts in local authority web teams) – and we are now reviewing
    this with a wider audience in mind.

    You can see our monthly stats both web traffic and broken link data
    on our community of practice –

    I am wary of judging
    the value of Local Directgov just on the volume of traffic generated.
    I would guess that in many cases people know who their local
    authority is and will go direct to their site via a search engine.
    Where Local Directgov adds value is to provide a link from the
    central government policy information to the local authority service
    providers – particulary where people don’t know who delivers the
    service – or want a simple route from Directgov.

    The application or
    database service whatever you want to call it is effective in that by
    using the LDG services spreadsheet you can easily create a URL for
    any listed service interaction to bring up a location search screen
    or go directly to a single authority’s page. The underlying link
    data is maintained by individual council web teams combined with
    centrally held geographical/postal code data.

    We review the stats to
    see how we can improve the signposting of our locator links in
    Directgov and to see how we can improve the customer journey. We
    work with local authorities to keep the links updated. Another
    problem is the 60 or so local authorities who do not return 404
    status codes for their broken links – this is a problem for anyone
    linking to them – not just Local Directgov.

    We have developed a web
    service to open up the underlying data for developers and this has
    been used for delivering local services on Directgov mobile and also
    on alpha.gov. The web service allows a developer to, for instance,
    bypass the Local Directgov locator result screen and get straight on
    the council website. I hope to have details of the web service
    published on our website http://www.communities.gov.uk/localdirectgov
    in the next week or so.

    Graham Noad
    Local Directgov

  12. Sheenagh Reynolds says:

    Thanks Paul, really interesting comments and some important issues as Government digital landscape changes.

    A few facts and figures – in the Spending Review, Local Directgov Programme has £375,000 a year to fund the Directgov Home and Community franchise, work on Business Link for DCLG and work on Local Directgov application and community. In May 2011, visits were as follows – Home and Community 542,394, Local Directgov 456,618, Local Services Search Widget (on innovate) 470,928. We also have over 500 members in our Community of Practice.

    Local Directgov application was set up around 6 years ago to meet a need identified by customer feedback that people expected to reach local services and information from Directgov. I think everyone working in the public sector knows that people simply want to reach the point of service without having to know who delivers the service. People don’t want to be caught up in unravelling which bit of government delivers the service so Local Directgov was set up to provide a simple routing service. It has always been and remains a strong partnership between central and local government.

    The application was also ‘re-used’ as a component in the Point of single contact project (which is mandated by EU Services directive). And new links are added when a need has been identified by our partners – for example, for severe weather, transparency information and Family Information Service. And we are also working with Tell Us Once programme to provide links out to local authority services.

    However, the digital landscape is changing for public services and we look forward to the challenge of how central and local government work together to improve the customer experience. Local Directgov links for 100+ transactions were used in alphagov demo. There may be better ways to take this on in the future and we look forward to the debate.

  13. […] A little local difficulty – honestlyreal – A very useful primer on Local DirectGov […]

  14. Sam says:

    LDG wasn’t worth the effort of mocking that much.

    As for the internal search using postcode, the point of that to ask whether that was the correct decision (I don’t believe it was)

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