My lad could build a web site for £50

The public are rightly concerned with how much Local Government spend. Me too! After all it’s my money as well.

So it is with a curious mixture of agreement, at least with the sentiment of prudence,  and chagrin that I greet that statement which we all must have heard or read, about our web efforts… “My lad could’ve built that for £50. Why do you need to waste so much of my money?”

Commenter’s on your web site utter this phrase. Members of staff in the council where you work mumble something similar. Councillors have it in their eyes when they ask you questions.

I agree we spend lots of money on web sites, either by paying outside suppliers to do the work or our own IT development staff.  Simply put, building and maintaining local government web sites isn’t cheap.

Recently I had cause to look at something that was constructed on the basis of “why can’t we do this? It’s cheap and it looks good”.

Here is the list of problems with that “cheap and effective” set of pages I looked at…

Review of web pages…


No skip links

Non symantic markup e.g. empty <ul> (index page line 39) and <div> (index page line 41)

Index page – Orphaned <label> tag for ‘Order by:’ text

All textural information is included within the <form> tag meaning that a screenreader (in forms mode) wouldn’t read any of the relevant information on the page.

Forms – ‘Required’ text unreadable for visually impaired users due to red text on lighter red background.

Validate Code

Index page failed on:

Line 9, Column 56: Bad value X-UA-Compatible for attribute http-equiv on element meta.

Line 36, Column 44: Element br not allowed as child of element ul in this context. (Suppressing further errors from this subtree.)

Browser Checking

A number of issues eg.

CSS3 border-radius used extensively which doesn’t render in IE.

Layout issue in IE7 – Just a simple hasLayout fix would be required


HTML 5 DocType used, though not yet widely supported.

No Meta Data for page content etc.

Site doesn’t appear to work fully e.g.

  • ‘named section’ doesn’t have any data
  • <div> which is meant to hold suggested search terms doesn’t have any data

These are just the first glance issues without considering the usability of the pages at all.

This piece is not intended to knock others developers. It’s merely to highlight the differences.

Local Government sites are poured over by all and sundry from the SOCITM crew with their electronic ‘testmeisters’ marking us down for any slight misdemeanour let alone major infractions. RNIB  seeking to jump on people for  non compliance and the government with their recommendations. All are critical and admonishing if we get it wrong.

Commercial sites are relatively free of these encumbrances and it shows. They don’t have to be hidebound by the requirements of others in quite the same way. And yet it’s these very sites we are compared with when it comes to cost – not that I necessarily believe all commercial sites are cheap. They are not, but when you are compared to the 5 bob sites knocked up by the next-door neighbours 16 year old lad who doesn’t give a fig for compliance with standards, usability and government requirements it gets just a bit irksome.

Organisations like local and national newspapers are keen to point and shout if we dare spend money – sorting out these issues and complying with all the ‘papier-rouge’ inflicted on us by some self-seeking quango’s and central government.  I suppose it shows their ignorance and consequently we should take no heed, but it stings, no matter how ignorant the  critic

Why? Because it’s a cheap shot and  we’re an easy target? After all, the average individual – let alone a journalist – has no terms of reference on the other things councils do like building roads, providing education, providing social care or collecting rubbish etc. They’ve  never done any of these themselves so there is no comparative information…but they may have knocked up a web site and in their view it was easy.

So why so much? After all it’s just a piece of ‘electronic media’. It’s not real and so it can’t have cost much can it? And yet… HOW MUCH!

“My lad could’ve built that for £50”.

Ohhhh  Sighhhh….

We’re all useless. The Guardian says so. It’s the silly season.

Guardian piece

Local Government spends far too much on web site design when it could all be done for £15,000. That’s the gist of a couple of conjoined reports from the Telegraph and the Guardian this week here and here.

The Guardian drew these conclusions and figures from a piece of work by a journalist, a “datajournalist” no less, who, after sending an FOI request to all councils, ‘discovered’ councils spend money on talking to their clients via a cheaper  more cost effective channel.

Birmingham, it seems, spent over £2m on their new web site design. By analysing data the Guardian’s researchers deduced it could be done for £15k on average. So why the excessive spend?

I’m not here to defend Birmingham’s spend ( though as a rabid Brummie I have a view) but the set of questions sent out in the FOI was flawed as it allowed folks to provide answers – or not, as the case may be – which made it impossible to compare like with like.

The Guardians conclusions  seemed to depend on how much we each spent on external suppliers. If you didn’t use one then it showed your costs as nil. And if you did… well the slewed results are obvious.
No mention was made, because the question wasn’t asked, of how much was spent internally on staff to design, construct and manage the site (not the content). I heard recently of a council who has 5 full time members of staff working on their site and developing it to meet changing needs. That has to be £125,000 a year in anybody’s money.

Telegraph piece

Telegraph piece

This shows  it’s simply not possible to compare Apples with Apples from the data collected. Comparisons can be made but will be flawed.

It got worse as  inaccuracies in the way the data was used became evident. For Example the data provide by my own council showed a cost of new web site design (one of the questions asked) as being about 18p per head of population. The guardian declared it as being £1.11 per head using  a population of over 1million. We don’t have a population of over a million, let alone that sort of budget. I thought journalists, especially data ones, checked their facts. To get the facts wrong and then to compound that with arithmetical errors is simply sloppy. All they had to do was divide the amount of spend by the population.

Our comm’s department complained to the Guardian so they corrected the offending figure. To £18.20. What!

Our comm’s department complained again and this time the Guardian, after much red faced appologies, got it right. I wonder how much of the manipulation of others data was similarly mishandled?

I’m not against FOI requests per se. They do lend a transparency to the processes in Local Government which should be welcomed but when they are used in such a confusing, dogmatic, and yet, inept manner I find it difficult to defend their use; and indeed defend the masses of time spent on making the replies.

Looking at the gaps in the Guardian’s listings; surely the real story is how many Local Authorities didn’t answer the FOI at all. That would be 96%.  No.09%. Argh… I give up. I’ll leave you to work it out for yourself in true Guardian style.

One comment on the Guardian page seems to grasp the issues we face



17 Aug 2010, 12:58PM
This information is not only wrong, it is very missleading – the results of FOI questions that were not specific and the answers to which have been adapted and false representation has resulted in wrong details being printed.

Local authorities have to follow very strict rules on use and access to all, accessability guidelines are among the toughest in the world in the UK for authorities.

To display the hoem made site for Birmingham council as being cheaper and better value is wrong, a simple look at the site shows errors all over, a poor amaturish look and not developer skill anywhere. There is no usability, accessability or user experience considerations at all…
The site has 3 errors making this site at present illegal under DDA laws and would be served a 90 day penalty notice to close. Newspapers seem to liek to glamorise facts and figures, but the wrong ones.

As a designer/developer I am fully aware of these laws and considerations that MUST be taken daily by LA web staff.

Local Authority websitea have the widest target audience anywhere – everyone!
The laws in place make it a requirement to develop and redesign sites on average every 3 years -this is never mentioned!

Why not print the truth and the reallity of this?


I have only a miniscule amount of knowledge of publisher  websites but from the little I know perhaps I could suggest these journalists discover how much their own sites cost to design construct and manage before taking a shot at a sector which probably ‘talks’ meaningfully  to more people on a daily basis than the whole of the sites in the newspaper sector. If they were to do that they may begin to put local government spending on web sites into perspective, but of course that wouldn’t sell newspapers.

Lets turn off the web

p.s for a considered look at how spending on Local Government web sites benefits councils and their clients  take a look here.

This certainly raises the profligacy bar.

I read an article on the BBC web site today which left me breathless. It related to the cost of public sector web sites, one in particular; One that has cost £105 million pounds over 3 years.

What! How much! Birmingham – bless ‘em ( my home city you see) – was lambasted for their, seemingly now paltry, spend of around £3 million.

I have supported expenditure on local government web sites here where I suggested how the costs of them could be evaluated by conceiving of them being turned off. Yes Switch them off, at least in your imagination, to establish just what you would have to put back in place to replace even part of the interaction you are currently having with your clients.

Anyway, I digress. Just who is it that spends so much money and why have I not seen them splashed about everywhere? At that spend I would expect them to be ubiquitous.

The article is here .

It’s by Rory Cellan-Jones who ‘outs’ the high-spending outfit in his article. So who is it?

It’s none other than Business Link! Yes Business Link, that organisation who formerly advised all sorts of companies on how to run their business! Given that slab of money you have to ask just how many businesses could they have helped in more practical ways? Anyway lets not go there.

For that spend you would imagine Business link are dealing with huge amounts of visitors per month; but no. They have just over 1 million unique visitors on average a month, so thats about £2.90-ish per visitor. To put some comparison to this, Lincolnshire County Councils costs would be around 9pence per visitor.  Against £2.90! Breathtaking.

But should you be surprised? Possibly not. I worked with Business Link for a while some 13 years ago. I’m sure much has changed since – at least I had hoped so – but this seems to have put that hope to the sword. Back then they were a byword for inefficiency and mediocrity, at least in the business community. They showed little ability, apart from being an unnecessary but essential channel to government grants.  Some of their advisors grasp of running real businesses seemed out of step with the day to day reality and now they’re demonstrating  that inpetitude again.

Give the average web manager that sort of fire-power, with the development ability that’s inherent in that budget and things would be very different. Or would they? I’m not so sure because no web manager I know would be daft enough to spend that sort of ‘pounds per visitor’ money without the possibility of any serious justification or better still some sort of return. And if they did they would be put out quicker then a bonfire in a thunderstorm.

Are we all tarred with the same brush? I don’t think so  but try telling that to the average Council tax payer.

Web sites is web sites aint they?

You must have all heard it, or something like it.  This was said to me the other day…“My son can knock up a web site in an hour and he’s only 15. So why are you wasting so much of my money on yours?”
Comments like this are the scourge of web managers in local government. Little Johnny can knock up a web site all about his skateboard club  using one of the plethora of pieces of software on the market and can have it hosted for nothing. Or at least that’s what the public believe.
This view is understandable and is probably the view and even experience of most members of the public – maybe, even of colleagues with whom we work.
What is not realised is that most local government web sites are about as far away from little Johnny’s simple model, in flying terms,  as a Eurofighter is away from Wilbur and Orville  at Kitty Hawk.
Lets drop the crass analogy but I think you get the point. They sort of do the same thing but they are not the same. They are worlds apart.
Modern web sites employ  far more complex technology than was used back in the early web days (1993) when we wrote the pages in raw HTML on a computer using something as simple as text editor, and yes, I was there. We now have astounding Content Management Systems (CMS), CSS etc. all providing the latest ability to more easily produce technically exquisite  web sites.

It’s not just in the technology though is it. The drivers which push us to produce a fully compliant, accessible, feature and content rich, fast web site have become more powerful. Usability, channel shifting, interaction, web 2, social networking, cost saving, increased demand, user expectation, Martini time expectation Government mandates, accessibility standards, external testing, Socitm Better Connected review, comms “message” issues,  the list goes on. It never fails to amaze me we actually keep all of this together.

What about the design element? Clearly there are fashions in web site production just as there are in all elements of our lives. Fashion changes and today’s sites look old hat in a year or two.
Lastly it is the size of the beasts we are building now. Tens of thousands of pages/documents, hundreds of interactive forms and thousands of updates a month, from hundreds of colleagues who write the content, make producing and managing a local government web site  a mammoth logistical task.
The elements of technology, powerful external and internal drivers, design and the vastness of what we build all compound to make today’s local government web sites complex animals far beyond the skill sets of what little Johnny can do. The only similarity is that they can both be described as web sites.
The next time you are told the equivalent of “ my son can knock that up in a day” think on just what it is that makes for a modern local government web site and either take up the cudgel or simply smile as an external expression of what you know inside.
They are comparing a glider with a 747. And web sites simply aint just web sites.

Web mangers are saving upwards of £44million a month for their councils

I want to ask you all a simple question.
When confronted with an individual, either face to face or via the phone, how many times, when asked, have you said their service is bad?

And now another simple question.
When provided with an on-line questionnaire, anonymised at that, asking the same question, how many of you have rated the service poorly?

Lastly, how many of us talk to the recorded customer service voice in a disparaging manner only to be charming to the human who finally answers, even if you have been waiting for 20 minutes?

The British are inherently civil and have no great desire to be confrontational or rude so when talking to an individual we are going to say nicer things than in reply to a machine. It stands to reason. At least to most of us but not it seems to Socitm.

Socitm compare the amount of satisfactory responses they get face to face or on the phone directly with those derived from ticking boxes. These are not apples compared with apples. And yet from this they suggest users are far more unhappy with the web performance than the other two. And even more staggering is they extrapolate this result using it to suggest LG web sites are costing the tax payer £11 million a month! What!

The oversimplification is breathtaking. Lincolnshire County Council for example has a box on every page of their web site asking if the client found what they wanted. Responses like “Your web site is crap because you don’t have any jobs I like.” are not unusual. Would they make such an inane comment to a real person? Of course not. This speaks volumes of the comparison made by Socitm but even more of the type of question the web site is asked. Not to mention the ability of a human respondent to clarify the questions so as to provide a better answer. Web sites don’t have that flexibility and have to respond to the questions as asked – no matter how badly phrased.

This is not to say local government web sites are perfect. Far from it but neither do they deserve the headline grabbing trite comments recently emanating from Socitm.

Let me just hold the mirror up to their recent comment…
Firstly to draw out £11million losses per month from such vague data is laughable. That said there is of course no benefit to Socitm of saying that nearly 80% of visitors actually “find” what they want – thereby saving some £44million per month (which is of course the corollary of their quote). No, better to tub thump about how bad local government is in order to drive the sheep towards their fold.

What a great quote that would be for us wouldn’t it. “Web mangers are saving upwards of £44million a month for their councils”. And if we use Socitm’s figures, that is precisely what they have proven.

Good news sells no services for Socitm – so don’t expect any. Instead self serving constructs seem the order of the day in the Socitm press office.

You believe what you like. £11million a month losses quoted by Socitm on one hand or “over half billion pounds a year savings are made by local government web sites” proven by those same figures on the other.

Better connected is going to be fun based on this I suspect.

For another view on just how much we – the web site managers- save the councils take a look here… …

Also posted on PSF