Local authorities have worked creatively on their public advice websites and the NHS can learn a lot from their achievements, say Dean Russell and colleagues

The role of the NHS is rapidly broadening towards being a wide-reaching “health adviser” to the general public. The web is at the forefront of this, delivering guidance and directing patients to the appropriate health services.

Yet the local NHS online landscape can be difficult for the public to navigate; often using complex internal medical and departmental language, duplicated content, and on occasion conflicting advice, depending on the various websites.

The NHS is so huge that naturally there will be challenges to maintaining consistency, especially at a local level. But local councils have been working hard to create consistency in a range of areas, from how they communicate to streamlining transactional processes.

This has mainly been due to local authorities looking for more creative ways to increase efficiencies and reduce costs. A positive side effect has been the adoption of a common understanding, which now sees local government authorities share common frameworks, best practice and taxonomies.

Services and taxonomies

In fact, local government has had an agreed taxonomy of services for years, based on the e-government metadata standard, with every council website providing the same 11 main categories (advice and benefits; business; community and living etc) and the same A-to-Z listing. Such a listing is something the NHS has long struggled to achieve.

One of the drivers in recent years behind the focus on improving local authorities’ web presence has been the Smarter Government initiative, and specifically NI 14 - a request to “reduce avoidable contact”. Local authorities are being requested to save money by getting people to find answers online instead of calling.

This may sound like an arm’s length approach to public engagement, but having clear goals and common best practice such as this can benefit the public through improving the quality of content and transactional processes.  

It would be unfair to ignore the challenges that face local authority websites, too. For example, poor implementation of the agreed taxonomies can fail to reflect customer tasks and needs - leading to an unnecessary focus on council structure and function.

The service listings can also, unfortunately, be found as primary navigation on some sites too, but can mean nothing to the general public.

However, having a common standard enables improvements to be shared widely and built on broadly. 

Mind your language

A focus on plain English language shows a real commitment to thinking around how local authorities communicate with the general public: something local NHS websites could learn a lot from. 

Another area of commonality between local authorities and the NHS is in the need for transactions - especially at a local level. Possibly the main difference between local authorities and, say, NHS primary care trusts, may be the ability to see the direct costs savings. 

For example, a local authority can quickly find the correlation between numbers of reduced phone calls and increased web enquiries on their own website and make a cost calculation on this.

However, for PCTs these figures may not be so easy to track, especially as many of the tools such as choose and book are more centralised and use may not be so easily mapped to efficiency drivers elsewhere, for example, use on their own PCT website.

There is much for both local authorities and the NHS to gain from greater online partnerships. There are many examples where there is a good fit, such as elderly care, where services need to collaborate around health, social care, housing and benefits.

It would not seem strange for people to be able to book a GP appointment online via their local authority website. This might be considered a brave new course but surely it makes sense to provide transactional tools wherever the public might already be online.

There is also an opportunity for the health service to look at the experience behind the successes of local authorities in getting to the point they are now. 

By integrating more closely with local authorities online, the NHS has the opportunity to share efficiencies and learn from an already successful (and similar) model. All this has a huge added benefit of providing the general public with greater freedom - and a better user experience.

Dean Russell, Michael Guida and Ann-Sophia Virtala are digital strategists at Precedent.