Features: November 21st, 2003

Dealing With Public Enquiries Online

By David Eccles

The Internet has rapidly become one of the key methods that government departments use to provide the public with the information, forms and advice they require. The high profile e-Government programme states that government departments are required to make all their services available electronically by 2005. Combine this with the most recent statistics, which show that 56% of the population are now ‘regular users’ of the web and it is clear to see why the issue of dealing with public enquiries online has found its way to the top of the agenda.

When a member of the public visits a government department’s web site, their ability to find the particular piece of information they need amongst the mass of data available, varies significantly dependant on the site visited. Often, when using search facilities, a web visitor can be presented with an exhaustive list of documents, many of which have little relevance to their search. Having failed to find the information they need, the user is often required to then telephone the department’s public enquiry centre, adding to the workload of these already busy staff.

Developing an effective online public enquiry site will ensure users can find the information they are looking for easily, freeing busy call centre staff to deal with complex enquiries rather than being overloaded with a large volume of calls of a similar nature.

A number of key areas must be addressed when designing the public enquiry section of a web site, so that it can process the vast majority of users’ queries quickly and effectively.

Accessing the information

There is no point reinventing the wheel. Government departments will have the majority of information the public needs stored in databases and back office systems, so there is no need to start from scratch. The trick is categorising and sorting the information that already exists into a format that can be easily searched by the public when they browse the web site. Consolidation is important. Many departments are divided into different policy units or divisions, each with their own set of information and forms. When a user visits a department’s web site they may not be familiar with these internal divisions and so all this data needs to be combined and accessed via the one search engine. To do this well and avoid the duplication of information takes planning, and you may find it easier to employ an external agency. However, the resulting savings in administration time are worth it. Once the work is completed, internal staff need only maintain one set of data, and similarly when staff themselves have a query, they need only access one information source to find the answer.

Once consolidated, the information needs to be prioritised. The majority of visitors to a government department’s web site will want to know the answers to the same 50 questions. Prioritising these questions will mean that users can avoid searching through hundreds of documents to find the information they require.

One of the easiest ways to prioritise and categorise the information is through a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) area on the site. Typically this would display the 10 most commonly searched for items and as a result, will answer many queries instantly.

The FAQ section of the site can usefully be sub-divided into categories, displaying the overall top 10 questions, with further links to the top 10 FAQs for sub-sections of the site. It is important that the site is user-friendly and that these sub-sections reflect how a web visitor would categorise him or herself. For example, a county council may have FAQs for businesses, residents and tourists. The NHS may need separate FAQs for doctors, dentists and pharmacists. These FAQs can be updated automatically to reflect the changing nature of searches on the site.

FAQs can also be manually prioritised on a time-sensitive basis to reflect the needs of the department. For example, a question on flu jabs could be given precedence to appear in the first 10 questions on the NHS site as winter approaches. Prioritising the information in this way will help the public receive the information they want quickly and will play a part in increasing their satisfaction with the government department with which they are interacting.

The questions section should be accompanied by a keyword search facility for those users with less standard enquiries. This facility can also be used to inform the public enquiry unit of popular searches so that new questions and answers can be developed and added to the FAQs.

Who will be using the site?

The question seems simple enough, and the introductory pages to a web site may often be well designed and well targeted, but a search on the site could reveal documents – perhaps out of date or intended for internal use – that are not fit for consumption by a mass audience. This is often the result of a desire to ‘get everything online’ without perhaps considering who will be accessing the information.

A wise move is to ensure that the information that will be made available to the public via a web site is in a form that can be understood by the greatest number of users. The DfES is one government department that has made great efforts in this area, employing a team of editors who review and rewrite policy information to make it digestible by the greatest number of people. This information is not only used by the public via the web but by internal staff to answer queries.

Design and accessibility

The design of the public enquiry site is also key. Too much information on one page and the user will not be able to find what they need. If using the FAQ option, for example, only the questions themselves should be displayed, so that the relevant one is easy to locate and can be clicked on to reveal the answer.

It is also essential that the site is accessible to the widest possible audience. In terms of technology, this means it must be easily viewed using the oldest PCs and web browsers. In terms of users with special needs, this will mean having written explanations of images to support visually impaired users employing text to speech software.

By investing some time examining these questions and developing a good public enquiry site, a government department can dramatically save time spent on administration. If enquires are answered well on the web, the public has no need to make a call or write a letter to the department to find what they are looking for, freeing internal staff to spend time improving the quality of information provided on the site. In addition, a well written system is as of much use to an internal audience as an external one, so call centre staff and other employees can utilise the same resources to access the information they need, maximising the department’s return on investment.

David Eccles is Managing Director of 3T Productions – The interactive media company behind the DfES’ Popular Questions web site: www.dfes.gov.uk/popularquestions/