UK local authority goes Google

31. July 2009 – 08:34 by Dan Jellinek

One UK local authority did something very interesting with its website recently: it went Google.

Westminster City Councilin central London serves one of the UK’s busiest and richest areas, packed with tourists, businesses, government departments and residents (from MPs to the Queen), and has long been an innovator with technology. It has been a pioneer of mobile technology in public services, for example, with aspirations to become a ‘wireless city’.

Now it has implemented a radical redesign of its website which has seen its home page focus on a single feature: a whacking great search box.

Such a move has been spoken of in the local government web community for some time: public service websites in a democracy have to be as usable as possible, usable by all and accessible by all, and Google has long been held up as the pinnacle of usability.

The Google website, by and large, does one thing, and one thing only: and does it very well. This is what makes it so powerful, and easy to use. Local government websites, on the other hand, have tended, particularly on their home pages, to try to do 1,000 things, and so it is usually almost impossible to find what you want quickly and easily. The search box has often been the best way in – so why not make the whole site focus on the search facility? This should mean that whatever citizens want to do, they can do it quickly without having to think about how to locate it. Just type it in the box.

This has been Westminster’s thought process. Its redesigned site uses actual Google technology – Google supplies the search technology, and mapping technology – combining it with an open source content management system called Symphony CMS to create a site which is intended to be as simple as possible to use.

There is a bit more to it than the search, in fact – a system of tabs allows users to choose whether they want to search on the maps, or search for something to apply for, or various other sub-sections. There is also a graphical map interface sitting below the search box on the home page, and various other more traditional navigational features too, though one has to know these are there and scroll down.

There are a few other quibbles too, as our recent story in E-Government Bulletin has reported.

Overall though, is this the future of public service websites? Is this the first of a new wave of usable sites that will cut bureaucracy, and strike a blow for usability, participation and democracy? What do people think?

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