https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2012/02/14/local-services-and-gov-uk/

Local services and GOV.UK

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 localdirectgov@communities.gsi.gov.uk for details.  I (and several of my colleagues) will be there to answer questions.


Dafydd Vaughan is a developer at GDS. You can follow @dafyddbach on Twitter and read his personal blog.

15 comments

  1. Rob

    V. interesting post.

    I’d love a little more detail as to how Local Directgov team is working collaboratively with Councils to create and maintain a signposting Service DB.

    Also I’d be genuinely interested to hear about the approaches that have been made to any Councils in the devolved admins to invite them to contribute to the LG Service DB. For instance, even if there are subtle difference between the LG Service List and the Scottish Services List, it seems to me that from a true citizen-centric perspective there is little or no reason not to adopt a single standard, and then translate the taxonomic code differences where necessary. That way government doesn’t have to invent itself more than once for such an important service, and an API works nice and neatly.

    As GDS argue, in a very compelling way, users shouldn’t have to care about the structure of government – and for local services this includes crinkles around their location.

    And, finally, it seems to me that the key to success for signposting local services – at least as a base minimum – is to keep the LG Service DB up-to-date, which can only really be achieved by making this a truly devolved service.

    Care to make any comments on how with c. 400 Councils involved?

    Reply
    • Andy Key

      Re. the working with councils – That fantastic small LDG team does a lot of work to promote the benefits of the service, but it’s always going to be an uphill struggle. Anything that raises awareness of it (like this blog post!) is welcome. LDG has a designated contact in each authority, but of course reorganisations, staffing cuts and simple staff turnover mean that this important role can be overlooked. So there’s a constant need to raise its profile in local authorities, as one of those little jobs that can’t just be dropped quietly.

      So long as there *is* a known contact, the LDG system is very efficient at checking for and reporting broken links. When one of our council’s LDG links breaks, I get a nagging automated email from LDG every morning until I do something about it. That’s great, and it normally takes me one email message to the relevant web editor and a moment on the LDG website to fix the link.

      The key to keeping the list maintained is to keep it manageable. While it would be nice to have a council link for *every* service in the LG Service List, it would be a nightmare for us all to maintain, so the Local Directgov list has to be a sensibly-chosen subset – preferably driven by customer needs and concerns more than by central government initiatives-of-the-month (naming no names).

      The other key to future success is (in my view) a bit more flexibility in the system to allow for varying service responsibilities in different areas. That’s already an issue in England – it’d be even more so with devolved administrations in the mix.

      Reply
  2. Mike Thacker

    This is a nice succinct post showing how the underlying standard lists serve a simple user interface.

    Councils themselves use the lists to reference one another’s data, eg some counties use the standard LG Service List links to point to pages on the websites of each of their districts.

    Brent Council maintains a list of links to government web pages against the Service List and the hierarchical Navigation List (see http://www.brent.gov.uk/opendata.nsf/pages/LBB-1) that groups services.

    Rob there is indeed a single standard for the Service List (see http://id.esd.org.uk/ServiceList ) with subsets for England/Wales and for Scotland. There is provision for differences in terminology between countries.

    The lists are maintained by esd-toolkit, administered by the LGA on behalf of Local Authorities. They form part of a wider model which underpins data sharing across local government.

    The more Local Directgov’s service page links are used by councils, government and others, the easier it is to get this open data well maintained.

    Reply
  3. Sheenagh Reynolds

    I’m from the Local Directgov (LDG) Programme and have been working with Dafydd and others from GDS to link local services from GOV.UK. It has been really exciting and a lot of hard work!

    Although we are based in the Department for Communities and Local Government, my team is a partnership with London Borough of Camden. This is enormously helpful as we work with Local Authorities on a daily basis.

    As well as writing content, we manage the database of links to service pages on Local Authority sites. The database has links for citizen services delivered by councils in England and also links through regulatory services for businesses delivered by all councils in the UK. This work supports the Point of Single Contact hub hosted by Business Link’s UK Welcomes (http://www.ukwelcomes.businesslink.gov.uk/) site.

    As Dafydd says the lack of proper 404 pages is an ongoing problem. The LDG system has an administration interface which LA web teams use to keep their links in the system up to date. The system also sends automatic emails to relevant web teams when it detects any broken links. We currently have less than 3% detected broken links in the system – but this doesn’t allow for any broken links in over 70 councils who seem to have problems with their 404 error pages.

    We are talking to colleagues in the Devolved Administrations to explore if we can use the system to manage their citizen links, where relevant, for GOV.UK. It would be a relatively simple exercise to collect and load the extra links since the system is already set up for all Local Authorities. However, as Rob rightly points out, we also need to review the Service List and how it maps to services in other areas. We’ll be doing this with Mike Thacker who commented above and esd-toolkit.

    We are working with LA web teams on improving journeys from GOV.UK and as Dafydd says, our latest event is on 2nd March. Find out more via the event’s website (http://reallyusefulday.eventbrite.co.uk) or by emailing localdirectgov@communities.gsi.gov.uk. Look forward to seeing some of you there.

    Reply
  4. dave stafford

    Dafydd,

    Thanks very much for this post, it really gives me heart – because I’ve watched the struggle that esd-toolkit has had getting people to realise the real, solid, functional value of the “controlled lists” – I’m in Scotland, so I use the Scottish variations, but, whether it be LGNL or SNL for navigation, or LGSL or SSL to denote Services – not to mention the extremely powerful Local Government Classification & Retention Schedule (LGCRS), which we’ve been using extensively of late, to build an internal document library that underpins our external Council website…the esd-toolkit controlled lists are extremely powerful and adaptable tools.

    I’ve been using these lists for four and a half year, and during that time, there has been a slow but steady maturation process, but when I see a public acknowledgement of their value, I feel happy and proud – not, perhaps, as the folk at esd-toolkit have every right to feel, but I think we ALL feel vindicated – when we see that these lists are well-embedded and in constant use in Council websites all over Britain – and that should hopefully, only continue on over time.

    Personally, I want to see the SSL (LGSL to you) enhanced and used more directly – a couple of years ago, I began to map my Council services to the SSL, and I made good headway until the political structure made my work obsolete. But I will find a way to do this, perhaps instead, leveraging the SSL targets that the SNL points to, and then equating our current services to SNL and thence to SSL.

    And the various INTERNAL uses to which we have put the LGCRS are even more exciting – North Lanarkshire built a version with three levels, which we took here at Stirling and modified until it matched our internal stucture – and now, behind the scenes in our external website, all of our web editors are now filing documents into a customised, Stirling Council Local Government Classification Scheme – and I am very, very proud and pleased with that effort.

    This is proof positive of the value of the controlled lists, they may not be perfect yet, but in time – they WILL be, or so close to it as not to matter.

    In any case, thank you for your excellent and thought-provoking post.

    All the best ~~~

    Dave Stafford

    Stirling Council
    Data & Technical Standards Officer

    Reply
  5. Chris Jones (@MyFavouriteCake)

    Instead of a centralized system LG links, what about getting the Councils to provide the data on their own sites? Say in some form of consistent file on every council website, or maybe getting them to add specific meta-data to their pages, which you can spider, and update your db?

    Reply
    • Andy Key

      @Chris – There is an option for us councils to do that. We can generate an XML or CSV file, then instruct the LDG system to pick it up from a specified URL on our site at regular intervals. Most of us don’t use that approach however, because, frankly, it’s a lot easier to log into the LDG website to make the odd change, or upload a spreadsheet ad-hoc when we have major changes.

      Reply
      • Chris Jones (@MyFavouriteCake)

        @Andy I perfectly understand that at this current time it is a lot easier to do it manually, but then that’s why there is this issue of broken pages.

        It would be good to design a more resilient method of providing this data without as much human interaction. (Through APIs or what not)

        Ok, it won’t solve the problem immediately, but going forward it possible makes more sense?

        However, not knowing the real extent of the problem I would suggest that my idea probably isn’t cost effective.

        Reply
      • Andy Key

        @Chris: A good question that deserves a proper answer. At some point in the process *something* has to be done manually. The strength of LDG is that someone in the authority has made an informed decision about the *best* web page to go to for a particular service in that area. “If you want to apply for a Blue Badge in Dorset, *this* is where you should start.” So someone, somewhere has to have a means of recording that human decision.

        Now, you’re right – some kid of solution could be devised that extracts the relvant information programaticaly from the site, provided the information has been put in in the first place. An elegant solution would be to add metadata to a page to say that it’s the landing page for LGSL 1234 or whatever, and have a system that spiders the site, extracts that metadata and builds a file of links to upload to LDG. If you revamp that part of the site, you simply move the metadata tag to the new page. In fact we developed something very similar in Hants & IOW in the pre-Directgov days. (As with most of the e-Government projects of that time, the results can best be described as a “learning experience”.)

        The catch is that you’re relying on two things.

        (1) the CMS used by your editors (usually proprietary one) needs to provide clear, easy-to-use support for this. The editor will need to be able to choose the relevant LDG service from a drop-down list while they’re editing or creating the page, with the system preventing duplication of tags, and there will need to be facilities for the webmaster to review the full set of tags. Also the CMS will need to provide warnings if someone deletes a page containing one of the tags.

        (2) All the editors have to have a clear idea of what the purpose of the LDG links is, understand who’s responsible for which links and take a consistent approach to tagging their content.

        In the end, though, you haven’t removed the manual element, just displaced it to a different location.

        On balance it usually works better with a single controlling mind co-ordinating the links and taking responsibility for them (an argument which, by the way, also applies to site A-Z’s). And the functionality in the CMS requires quite a bit of development work. In the largest councils there may be the in-house expertise to do this, but there has to be a solid business case for it. Putting all this in place wouldn’t save much time or money compared to the cruder techniques, so that’s a tricky one. In smaller councils you’re reliant on the third-party CMS vendor or the outsourced IT contractor, neither of whom are going to do the work unless there’s a solid benefit to them.

        Let’s be clear, the broken links can only be fixed by *people* doing something about them. And that’s a question of the priority councils attach to maintaining those links, rather than the specific technology they use to maintain them.

        (And yes, I know all about those intelligent search engines and taxonomy engines, and no, they can’t do this. Nowhere near.)

        Reply
  6. Stefan Czerniawski

    As a result of the imperfect set of local authority links, the handling at the govuk end takes on an additional challenge. I blogged a few weeks ago about an experience which used this system (see the last para of that post) and where the difference between an general information page and a specific sort of but not quite transactional one is critical. If aiming for the latter, arriving at the former can be very unhelpful. Clearly govuk can’t be blamed for the destination not existing, but does need to be very careful about how it describes what is to be found at the other end of a link.

    Reply
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    Reblogged this on Irene's blog.

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