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50% of local authorities offer online accounts for council tax

Half of the 320 local authority websites tested by Socitm in the latest Better Connected survey ‘pay council tax’ provide an online account where people can view their council tax details and balance.

This is an increase on the 38% that offered the facility when the question was last asked in 2012. Whether this speed of change is keeping up with user expectations or the need for councils to ‘channel shift’ their website users is debatable, says the survey report - now available to all at betterconnected.socitm.net - which also speculates that revs & bens officers might argue that most people pay by direct debit (traditionally councils’ preferred method) and do not need this facility.

Generally the advantages of setting up a customer or council tax account are not well described on those websites that offer them, and just 30% of councils offer residents the option to receive statements and bills by email. A handful offer ‘livechat’ facilities.

Where a customer account is offered, it is no guarantee that the online experience of using the council tax pages will be a good one: only 56% of councils with one provide a good or very experience for this task, according to the survey.

Overall, 62% of councils tested - shire districts, English and Scottish unitaries and London boroughs – achieved three or four stars in the survey, meaning they were rated good or very good

This compares with 71% of a slightly different sample of councils when the task was last tested in 2012. The 2016 test is harder, in that there are additional questions – ‘Can I apply online for a single person discount?’ ‘Can I find out if I will be charged if I own a property that is empty?’ ‘Does the council offer guidance on what to do if I am experiencing problems paying?’ and ‘Can I choose to receive my bills or statements by e-mail?’. 

A further test introduced since 2012 is that reviewers must not come across any information that is out of date.

A key criticism of council tax pages was use of officious language (although reviewers noted improvement in this aspect). Wide variations were also seen in the tone of voice and degree of helpfulness in advice for people having problems paying.

Councils recommended for their good practice in this task include: Argyll & Bute; Aylesbury Vale DC; Basildon DC; Bexley LB; Cheshire West and Chester Council; Cornwall Council; Maidstone DC; Redbridge LB and Wyre Forest DC.

Surveys still to be published from Better Connected 2015-16 are: planning (object to planning application); leisure (‘find out about keeping fit’); housing (‘find out how to apply for housing’), and business (‘register a food business’).

Surveys on usability, accessibility, and website performance when accessed from mobile devices, will come after this, and an overall ‘star ranking’ for each council website will follow by the end of April.

Web and digital professionals interested in hearing more about the findings of the Better Connected surveys as well as wider trends and best practice in local authority web development, should sign up for the Learning from Better Connected event on May 25th in Birmingham.

This is part of Better Connected Live a major new two day event that will place the Better connected research in the context digital councils, austerity and devolution.

The headline conference Digital, devolution and the re-invention of local public servicesfeaturing presentations from a series of local authority chief executives and CIOs, as well as leading practitioners in digital transformation, will take place on May 24.

A series of events for service managers will take place across the two days, involving adult social care (in partnership with ADASS Informatics Network); planning (in partnership with the Planning Portal; waste management (in partnership with the Institution of Wastes Management); and libraries (in partnership with the Society of Chief Librarians).

A series of Better Connected awards will also be presented at Better Connected Live.

Notes for editors

All councils can access headline results from Better connected surveys, but details of individual council reviews are available to Socitm Insight subscribers only (around 75% of all councils).

Any employee of a Socitm Insight subscribing council can register for free with Socitm.net and then get access to the detailed results for their council.

Further information

Vicky Sargent, Better connected programme

Email: vicky.sargent@socitm.net

Tel: 07726 601139