Waste management enquiries are one of the top reasons people visit local authority websites. In fact, for all councils below county level, they are the top reason.
There were an estimated 46.7 million such website visits last year. People were looking to find out about things such as tip opening times and bin collection changes; to report missed bins or flytipping; and to order new rubbish bags or containers.
The internet is used for roughly 80 per cent of total waste enquiries but, at a time of drastically falling local authority budgets, there is a pressing need to shift even more online.
Socitm data shows that a face-to-face enquiry to a council costs an average of £8.62 and a phone enquiry £2.83. Web enquires at current levels cost just £0.15 each, with this cost falling as volumes of enquiries rise.
But in order to achieve potential savings from channel shift to the web, councils need to work on the usability of their websites and the quality of content and services available on them.
Socitm is continuously tracking customer feedback from about a third of council websites. Our survey asks customers at the end of each visit which services they were looking to use; whether they were able to find what they wanted; and whether they were successful in achieving what they set out to do.
For rubbish and recycling enquiries, the failure rate is about 16%.
That might not seem so bad, until you consider what it means financially. With all those failed web visits likely to come back to the council in the form of phone calls, they could incur an unnecessary additional cost to UK councils of £19m in just one year.
In fact, rubbish and recycling is a pretty good performer on the web. Waste management is fifth in the table of services with the lowest web failure rates, and fourth in the table of web customer satisfaction by service.
That is not to say, however, that there isn’t significant work to do. Details of this, with accompanying advice on good practice, are revealed in Better Connected 2013, the latest edition of Socitm’s annual ‘mystery shopping’ survey of all council websites, out today (1 March).
The Better Connected survey is carried out by a team of reviewers using a structured survey. This year 22 of 225 questions were on waste and recycling, built around two typical tasks that might face a resident.
The first concerned disposal of an old bed.
Reviewers were asked to see how well websites were able to answer questions including: Does the website indicate what items like this can be collected? Is it clear if payment is involved? Can people request collection online? Do Google and site searches for this task work well? Is the council promoting the task effectively?
Only one-third of councils with rubbish collection responsibilities met the Better Connected standard for this task, which is being able to answer well nine out of the 12 questions in the set.
Performance was particularly poor on questions 6, 8 and 10: Am I able to request online an old bed collection? Is it clear that the council will not help you to prepare the item for collection? Does a search for the task description return the correct result listed in the first five results?
Several reviewers commented that councils had not all given specific enough information about collection timing and arrangements. They added that, while Google searches worked well in getting straight to the required information, in-site search functions were often deficient.
Another common bugbear came from councils continuing to use the Local Government Navigation List, which means that refuse and recycling is found only under ‘environment’ or ‘environment and planning’.
Some sites weren’t very good at promoting the availability of the collection service – better promotion might lead to a reduction in fly-tipping.
The best sites, said more than one reviewer, were good at suggesting local recycling charities ahead of the service description, pointing out that it is in the council’s own interest if old bed frames go to a new home rather than landfill.
The poor practice of burying essential information about the service in PDFs, rather than on web pages, was also highlighted.
The Better Connected survey included a further 10 questions about finding out opening times for the council tip. These were tested on the websites of county councils and Northern Ireland districts.
Questions included: Is it clear when the centre will be closed over the Christmas and New Year period? Is a list provided of the waste that is accepted at this site? Is a useful location map provided to help you find the recycling centre? Does the service landing page link me directly to this task?
Results were better this time, with two-thirds of councils reaching the Better Connected standard and reviewers being generally more complimentary about the customer experience of fulfilling this task.
One reviewer was delighted to find a site with a webcam, allowing visitors to see if the tip was busy before getting into their cars.
Performance was less good on the questions: Is it clear when the centre will be closed over the Christmas and New Year period? Is a useful location map provided to help you find the recycling centre?
The effectiveness of the in-site search function was once again criticised, as was the tendency to lapse into jargon. Some councils appear to have abandoned the familiar term ‘tip’ in favour of trendier but more obscure terms such as ‘community recycling centre’.
How to get the full report
The Better Connected report for 2013 is published today (1 March) on Socitm’s website.
It can be accessed free of charge by any employee of a council or other organisation that subscribes to Socitm Insight.
More than 75% of councils and many system suppliers subscribe to Socitm Insight. You can access a list of subscribers at http://bit.ly/VvF1Ur
Non-subscribers can buy a copy of the printed report, available from http://bit.ly/ZgoyDo