Whilst 70% of council budgets are spent on 5% of people with high level support needs, the majority of people want “invisible” public services: bins emptying, streets cleaning, swimming pools functioning, pot holes filling, libraries lending and council tax collecting.

We know from work by GO Online, the BBC and others that the majority of these people are online –  not all though. And hence councils are encouraging customer self service through digital channels not only because of the efficiency gain but also the value to customers that wish to access services at their own convenience.

Mat Hunter from The Design Council shared his views on this at this week’s #LGdigital conference, evidencing the importance of good design that is based on customer needs and insights. He highlighted some great sites like http://www.theamazings.com/ which is a talent agency for over 50s.

I have blogged on self service and site design before (http://i-network.org.uk/blogs) and don’t want to repeat those points about the new generation of local public service websites.

However, looking at SocITM’s latest Better Connected (just out!) report there appears to be a polarisation across councils websites. The best sites are getting better but quite a few are looking like investment has been scaled back. Talking with iNetwork members last week at our channel strategy event there is lot of resonance to this.

A big part of the issue here is what has become known as Conway’s Law, namely “organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations”.

Most of the organisations I see that best engage their communities online have sorted out these governance issues, recognising that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Having disjointed ICT, communications, and web functions reporting to separate management is a recipe for trouble and tends to lead to a marginalised online capability.

In practice, local public services need the 65% of the population that regularly goes online to interact with them digitally, ideally with low levels of human interaction for a good service. These are simple transactions and the work that we did with CIPFA for the ODPM back in 2007 and subsequently by SOCITM showed the benefit in terms of transaction costs.

Looking ahead there is scope for more complex areas to go online – the Government’s Universal Credit programme hopes so at least, although the recent consultation on the DWP’s local government support scheme seems doesn’t seem to have quite answered the “assisted digital” question (see www.dwp.gov.uk/ucla).

The NHS still has a long way to go too, perhaps because primary care services aren’t under the same kind of financial pressure to seek alternative delivery mechanisms. Societal pressure may require more of them to look again at this.

So where does that leave us? Almost every council I speak to has this as a priority. Most have already looked at their high volume, low complexity activities and designing for self service along with integration.

These designs need to be based on a deep understanding of the needs of end users and co-produced with them. Remember people will only shift to channels that are easier for them to use and great design is key to that.