"The design of the website should be focused on top tasks. No longer should organisations aim for the most comprehensive website possible. Less is better!"

This statement comes from Socitm, the membership association for ICT management with members from 98% of all UK local authorities. This is a big shift in government website thinking.

I remember giving a talk back in 2003 to UK government. There was a big initiative just launched called "Everything online by 2005." I congratulated them and told them that once they had achieved this objective they would need a new one: "Everything Offline by 2009."

Freedom of information is a wonderful concept, but it suffers from unintended consequences. Government websites have too often become data dumps for huge quantities of often low level information that is extremely hard to navigate and is written in lawyer-speak.

Unfortunately, the objective does not seem to be to help the public but rather for the department to be able to say: "We've published it. It's on the website. Job done."

The Top Tasks approach is different. It doesn't measure the input (the content) but rather the output (task completion).

For the last fourteen years Socitm Insight has carried out a comprehensive annual review of UK council websites and published the results in a report called Better Connected. In 2012 the report will substantially shift its focus. Instead of focusing purely on the components of website design such as navigation, layout and content it will now focus on top tasks.

"There is little doubt in the eyes of Better Connected that the concept of top tasks should drive the design of council websites," Socitm states. "We are re-designing our survey completely around this concept because we think that it is the right way to assess the development of council websites, and because we want to encourage all councils to design their website around the concept."

Examples of these top tasks are:

  • Apply for a council job
  • Comment on a planning application
  • Find rubbish collection day
  • Pay a parking fine

This is a tremendously exciting development. Now, we have the possibility of truly measuring the value of government websites. We'll be able to measure, for example, which councils make it easiest for people to find their rubbish collection days.

The whole idea behind Top Tasks is managing the task, not the content or technology. There are three key metrics:

  • Success rates: How many people successfully completed the task?
  • Disaster rates: How many people think they got an answer they think is right but is in fact wrong?
  • Completion times: How long did it take people to complete the task?

"It's very encouraging the way in which web managers have engaged in the debate about top tasks," states Martin Greenwood, Editor of Better Connected. "It has re-invigorated thinking about the purpose of government websites, and about what makes for a successful website. Above all it has placed the customer right at the centre of the discussion."