An important design rule of GOV.UK is to hide complexity, so if we are being truly user-centric, people should not need to understand the structure of government to be able to access services.
Search data tells us that when people search for government services, they often don’t distinguish between central or local government. Every week, on Directgov for example, tens of thousands of users search for ‘Council Tax’ or ‘Housing Benefit’, both of which are delivered through local councils.
GOV.UK currently contains details of about 130 services that are provided by local councils. These include services like reporting a dangerous building and finding out where registered disabled drivers can park. For each of these, the GOV.UK site uses your location to identify which council provides the service in your area and where the appropriate page is on their website.
There are around 420 councils across the UK that provide services including unitary authorities, district and county councils, London boroughs, metropolitan boroughs and other local authorities. Each of these councils have their own websites with different pages for each service. This is made even more complicated as many parts of England are served by a two tier council system with a county council providing some services and a district council providing others. The sheer number of services and councils makes linking to the correct places very difficult.
Luckily, there is a fantastic small team of people based in the Department for Communities and Local Government running the 'Local Directgov Programme'. Their job is to work with local authorities to collate a database of links for each service at each council. Each service has a unique number - the Local Government Service List (LGSL) number so it can be identified. For example, 'Dispose of garden waste' is 530 and 'Checking school closures' is 1140 (a full list is here). Councils, with assistance from Local Directgov, can upload lists of which pages on their site match each LGSL number. They can also provide the URLs for different types of 'interaction' e.g. 'apply to hold a street party' or 'find out how to hold a street party' from the Local Government Interaction List (LGIL).
The Local Directgov system produces a regular CSV export of all of these links which we then import to power our service pages.
Aside from the size of the task facing Local Directgov, there are a few other issues that make providing links from GOV.UK local services difficult:
- Currently Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not part of the Local Directgov Programme. These councils have provided links to some of the services they provide, but nowhere near the full list we need (this is why we show 'Available in England only' on most of our local service pages). Local Directgov is working on building relationships with these councils so we can build up a much more comprehensive list
- On some council websites, page URLs change regularly and don't always redirect to their new location which means we need to wait for the council to update their list of links with Local Directgov or manually find the new pages ourselves
- Some council websites don't provide proper 404 pages - this makes it very difficult for either us or Local Directgov to identify when a link is broken
We have and will continue to iterate and improve the way we expose local services on GOV.UK over the next few weeks.
For example, if we didn't have a link to the ‘apply for' or 'report' pages on the council site, we didn't show any link at all. However, we just rolled out a change to our code so that if there are no links to a transaction, the user will see a link to more information about that transaction on the council site.
We'll be working closely with Local Directgov and councils to identify missing or broken links and getting them updated where we can. If you come across places where we don't show a council link or where the link is broken, please report it so we can investigate. If you know where the link should be point to on the council's website, it would help to send us that link too!
We'd also be interested to hear ideas for how this data could be used once we are able to expose it through our API.
If you work in a council web team and want to know more about GOV.UK and how you can help improve the data we use, Local Directgov are holding an event on 2nd March - email firstname.lastname@example.org for details. I (and several of my colleagues) will be there to answer questions.