How to identify local government services for digital transformation

Over the last 6 months or so, mySociety has been doing increasing amounts of work with local councils, not only helping them with problem reporting and online petitions, but also advising them on the impact of digital by default and how changing customer expectations are affecting digital service provision. To paraphrase Tom, for an ever-increasing number of customers, “local councils don’t have websites, local councils are websites”.

More specifically, we’ve been helping councils use user-centred techniques to kick-start the process of digital transformation: taking existing services that cause unnecessary frustration, figuring out how they should work for the customer in an ideal world, identifying the process changes needed, and helping make them happen.

How do you know where to start?

Most consultancies in this area will publicise their patented 5-step approach, or shower you in platitudes about talking to users and involving service managers, but I thought it would be more useful to walk through in detail what we actually do on a project like this. In this post, I’m going to describe only the first step (I’ll talk about others in future posts): given all the stuff that councils do, how do you know where to start?

Clearly, not every council service is susceptible to digital transformation. If you work in children’s services or benefits advice, your service is more likely to rely on cups of tea and conversation than on your website. But there are high volume transactions that involve exchanges of information or of money that do not, or rather *should not*, require any human intervention. Unfortunately, because of mistakes in how websites are structured and processes organised (that often go right back to decisions about management structure and procurement priorities), unnecessary demand is placed on contact centres.

What are your users trying to do?

So if you want to know what mistakes you’re making with your online presence, the first place you should look is the volume of calls to your contact centres and what questions the callers are asking. Here’s a complete list of all the places you can look for useful data on what your customers are actually trying to do and what you might be doing wrong:

  • Contact centre logs: the records of what people who call you are actually asking about. This is the best place to look to identify the areas where your web presence is under-performing.
  • Internal site search terms: the things people type in most often in the search box on your website. Generally speaking, use of search on a website is an indicator that your navigation and page structure have failed. Therefore the search terms people use on your site are another very interesting indicator of things you’re not doing well enough.
  • Referring search terms: the most frequently used search terms that drive traffic to your website. What are people looking for and what words have they actually put in to Google (or indeed any other search engine) for to arrive at your website?
  • Popular pages: data on the most frequently visited pages and sections of your website doesn’t tell you what you should improve or how, but it does give you a feel for where the demand is.

If you look at all of those things, you’ll have a lot of data to go through and make sense of. If you’re short on time, focus on the first one – it’s the juiciest source of insights.

Talking to service managers

Another approach we pursue in parallel to this one is to talk to a group of service managers and ask them for their opinions: if the decision on where we should focus our redesign efforts was up to them, what single thing should we start with that would make the biggest difference? How this actually happens in practice is that we get a group of people in a room together and ask them to write down (almost certainly on post-it notes) the top 3 – 5 services that they think are in need of a digital redesign. We then discuss and consolidate all of these before grouping them, trying to identify those that are the most susceptible to automation and where the complexity of the change needed internally is low enough to be approachable.

Decision time

The final part of figuring out where to start is to make a decision: which of these areas are you going to start redesigning first? You now have two sources of data on where to start: the results of your analysis of customer behaviour and the views of your employees who are closest to the action. Here we’ll make a recommendation, but leave the final decision to our council client: they know their organisation a lot better than we do.

With a focal point for the transformation efforts decided on, so begins the daunting-yet-exciting task of researching and designing the changes to be made: the bit where you actually talk to users, make prototypes or mockups of what the service’s digital touchpoints should look like (no specification documents here please) and then figure out together what process changes need to be made for it all to work in practice. Which, of course, are the topics for future blog posts.


  1. “local councils don’t have websites, local councils are websites”

    This is shows remarkable ignorance and lack of compehension of the work councils do.

    • For sure it’s a bold statement, but the basic point – which is explained and discussed in a lot more detail in this post and its comments – is that a customer service organisation *is* its touchpoints as far as its customers are concerned. To me, for example, HMRC is brown envelopes, the phoneline and the online tax return form.

      As I say above, if you’re a customer of a council’s children’s services or adult social care services, things are a bit different: you’re far more likely to think of a council as its officers and buildings. Of course, a council is far, far more than its website, but for many customers, the website is increasingly the touchpoint they use the most and the thing which, for them, most represents the council.

  2. Around a third of councils should also look at the data they are getting from their participation in Socitm’s Website takeup service (see

    This collects data via an online survey offered to visitors. This outputs info about the total number of unique visits, volumes for different services, feedback on the experience of using specific services, a wealth of demographic data, postcode information, etc.

    The killer question is whether the visitor was able to find and use the information or service they were seeking – so councils get a clear measurement of failure in specific service areas and the associated cost of avoidable contact. This supports prioritisation of improvement activity and a means of measuring its success.

    Benchmarking against other councils shows relative performance and where there are opportunities for improvement.

    We are about to launch a website where anyone will be able to see results for all councils, with most councils also able to log in to see results for different types of council that they can benchmark with their own results.