We’ve been working to improve how GOV.UK users find services and content provided by local authorities and councils, or our ‘local links mission’ for short. I’m writing this post to explain a bit more about the mission. I also want to explain how the work we’re doing will affect local authorities and how they can help us.
There are 130 local transactions on GOV.UK that cover things like pay council tax, report noise pollution or find out about rubbish collection. Users on GOV.UK can see a link to the relevant page on the correct local authority website by typing in their postcode.
The link we show on GOV.UK comes from data held in a Local Directgov database. Local authorities use Local Directgov to manage their links, but the contract for this system is due to expire later this year. We’re taking the opportunity to retire it and replace it.
Discovery phase - what we learnt
As normal, we started the mission with a discovery phase to understand the problem we’re trying to solve. We brought together user research and analytics to learn as much as possible about the current system and how we could improve it.
GOV.UK needs to help users find services and content provided by local authorities.
Although most users find services and content provided by local authorities through Google, not all users know who their local authority is, or which level of government provides which service. Users shouldn’t have to understand the structure of government to find the information they need so there’s a valid user need for local transactions on GOV.UK.
Keeping the links to local authority websites up to date is a challenge.
Not all local authorities are aware they’re responsible for keeping their links up to date through the Local Directgov admin system. We also learnt that maintaining these links is not always a high priority for some local authorities, given budget constraints and other responsibilities they have. We think we can make it easier for local authorities to maintain their links themselves. But we can also take responsibility for maintaining the links when local authorities aren’t able to do it themselves.
The dataset of links to local authority websites varies in quality and coverage.
At the moment, around 10% of the links are either missing or broken - this isn’t a good experience for users. We think there’s an opportunity to simplify the way we maintain the links in the future.
There’s other areas of Local Directgov that we haven’t transitioned to GOV.UK yet.
We still need to:
- retire the 130 local transactions that are duplicated on Local Directgov
- retire the 168 Local Directgov transactions that get very low traffic
- make ‘Find your local authority’ available on GOV.UK
- transition passport interview offices, regional passport offices, check and send post offices, wedding venues and employment tribunal offices to GOV.UK
- make sure the dataset of links to local authority websites is available to download from GOV.UK
The roadmap for the mission
Here’s a summary of the mission roadmap to give you an idea of what we’re doing.
Build ‘Local Links Manager’ - an application for managing links to local authority websites.
We’re building a new application to manage links to local authority websites from GOV.UK. We’re going to retire the current legacy Local Directgov system that local authorities are using to manage their links and start using Local Links Manager instead.
We’ve started with a minimum viable product (MVP) that we’re making good progress with and initially, GOV.UK will take on responsibility for managing the links. Once we’ve retired Local Directgov, we’ll be iterating and improving the MVP so that any local authority can manage their own links. We’ve completed a first round of research with users in local authorities, we’re exploring improvements to the design and will continue to do research.
Build a link checker for GOV.UK to reduce the adminstrative burden.
We’ll start doing basic broken link checks on the links to local authority websites. That way, when we know a link is broken, we can handle it more gracefully. For example, if we find a link that sends users to a page that isn’t there anymore, then we’ll fallback to the local authority homepage until we can update it.
Beyond the MVP, we want to do more thorough link checking so we’ve got more confidence in our external links. This is something that could benefit GOV.UK as a whole, so our plan is to build a link checker component that other GOV.UK applications can use too.
Build find my local council and create a find my nearest for register offices on GOV.UK.
From looking at the analytics, the most used part of Local Directgov is ‘Find my Local Authority’ so we’re going to build this on GOV.UK. We’ve started exploring the design and have been through a round of user research so far.
Similarly, users of Local Directgov are able to find their nearest register office so we’ve created a way to find register offices on GOV.UK.
Transition and retire Local Directgov.
We’re working on a plan that involves using the transition tool to retire Local Directgov. GOV.UK has worked with departments to retire and redirect lots of websites over the past few years, it’s a well trodden path which involves redirecting pages to either GOV.UK or the National Archives website.
Make the data for the local authority websites links publicly available.
It’s possible to download the dataset of links to local authority websites from Local Directgov and we know some websites use that data. We want to continue to make the data publicly available so that anyone using the data can keep doing so.
If you’re using this data, let us know as we’re keen to understand your needs. Email us at: email@example.com.
Migrate local transactions to GOV.UK’s rebuilt publishing platform.
As part of this mission we need to migrate the local transaction format to our rebuilt publishing platform.
When we’re retiring Local Directgov
We’re planning to retire Local Directgov in late August 2016 or early September 2016 in preparation for the Local Directgov contract coming to an end.
The impact on local authorities
GOV.UK will take responsibility for maintaining links to local authority websites to start with. When we retire Local Directgov, local authorities won’t immediately have access to the new Local Links Manager application.
Local authorities can let us know about broken links by leaving feedback on the relevant GOV.UK page or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soon after retiring Local Directgov, we’re planning to give a small number of local authorities access to Local Links Manager. This will just be the ones that want to maintain their own links. We’ll iteratively improve it based on their experience. If you want to be one of them and update your own links, you can email email@example.com to let us know.
There won’t be any changes to how pages on GOV.UK look, so users looking for local services and content shouldn’t notice any difference.
How local authorities can help us
Local authorities can help us by volunteering to participate in user research for the new Local Links Manager application. In particular, we’re looking for people who are currently using the legacy Local Directgov system to maintain their links. You can let us know you want to participate in our research by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Links to licence applications
GOV.UK also uses the data from Local Directgov to link to a local authority’s website when users apply for licences and permits.
Another team in GOV.UK is working on improvements to the licensing tool, and are removing its dependency on Local Directgov. They’ll blog about this more soon.
We’ll keep working on the jobs we need to do before we can retire Local Directgov.
After that, our focus will be on delivering the rest of our roadmap. For example by:
- improving and iterating Local Links Manager and find my local council
- building a more comprehensive link checking component that other GOV.UK applications can use
- migrating Local Links Manager to the new GOV.UK publishing architecture
We’ll give an update of our progress with the mission on this blog before September.
Comment by Huw Pritchard posted on
Really interesting. Are you covering Local Authorities across the UK, or just England? Also - are you convinced about the term 'Local Authority'. I would tend to use the term 'council' myself.
Comment by Mark Mcleod posted on
When we retire Local Directgov, local transactions on GOV.UK will continue to cover England and Wales only. We'd like to cover Scotland and Northern Ireland if possible but we need to do some more thinking about the best approach first.
We agree that local council is better understood than local authority by most people, that's why we use local council across GOV.UK. The replacement we are building for 'Find your local authority' will use local council instead of local authority.
For Local Links Manager (which will be used by local authorities themselves), we'll find out whether we should use local authority or local council from user research.
Comment by Huw Pritchard posted on
Many thanks Mark. Best of luck with it.
Comment by Tim Adams posted on
The outgoing Local Directgov service has been in operation since around 2006 and it was developed in very close collaboration with all local authorities through the LGA networks at that time and citizen user representation at that time.
It has stood up to its challenges extremely well over many years. The main reason why links are starting to break is the more recent downplay in the strong eGovernment initiatives of the last decade. Impetus and new invigoration will surely re-energise this initiative in local government. However, it is really important that the project takes account of the complexities of local service delivery and the support and involvement of the whole local government sector. It is also critical, in my opinion, that you build on the legacy achievements and best value practice of digital delivery that have developed with millions of pounds of public funds over a decade or more. Legacy solutions work the way they do for a reason usually and some tremendous brainpower has been provided by the sector and consumers over the years.
The LGA and partner organisations have been working together to make sense of the distributed channels of delivery that local government has to endure. This includes references to local government’s information standards and schema best practices that ensure distributed data sources can be brought together and compare exact services with each other. There are over 900 different local services delivered to citizens by local authorities alone. The figure of 130 represent the boiled down sub-group of services as they were seen by DCLG at the time of inception. I am not suggesting you support all 900 services but a dialogue with the LGA and its members is important to determine which services should feature and which approach best supports local government capabilities too.
Increasingly, local services are not considered by the local authorities that provide them but by “localities” and “place”. If you live at the confluence of several London Boroughs then you might care to visit the nearest re-cycling point, for example. This year, the LGA is leading with representatives in local government and service delivery partners on a new services schema so that local service providers can publish open data about the services they provide mapped to geography, theme, function, user circumstances and needs. We hope for early exemplar self-served services apps to appear later in the financial year. It is important that your project is aware of these activities and takes account of the outcomes that will emerge.
Tim Adams, Programme Manager, Local Government Association
Comment by Mark Mcleod posted on
Thanks for your comment Tim and yes let's talk! I'm coming down to the LGA on the 24th to meet you and your colleague Gesche so look forward to discussing this further then.
Comment by Jonathan Muir posted on
I got an email about this changing (as an editor of the current system), and I have tried to reply to the email but it keeps on bouncing back. I am interested in in new process for keeping these links up to date and I am happy to help out in the beta/pilot/testing etc,
Comment by Keith Emmerson posted on
It's great to hear that you want to get involved. Can you email email@example.com to register your interest in helping out?