Raising the digital standards of local councils
Author: Chris Mewse, managing director of Parish Online
I have always been passionate about using technology to create something new and useful. I used to build software and websites in my spare time and loved looking through maps and atlases (no wonder I ended up with this career!). I’m proud that over the last 14 years, my team and I have built a reputation for providing trustworthy digital services, namely our Parish Online mapping software.
I’ve been asked by many customers many times if we could build their website. Presumably, due to our reputation of being “the techies” that run Parish Online, they’d trust us with this critical task. Last year, we decided to explore the idea.
Before we started, we wanted to understand the current landscape of the “providing websites to local councils” market. We embarked on a comprehensive research initiative, delving into the technology, the providers, the business models, and how local councils presented themselves and communicated online. My assumption was that the market was “wrapped up”, with lots of providers out there doing a good job serving the sector. Frankly, the results were shocking. Let me take you through some of our key findings.
No SSL certificates: a digital red flag
A staggering 20% of the websites we analysed lacked SSL certificates. For the uninitiated, SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates are what make your connection with a website secure. Without one, it leaves a website and its users vulnerable to data theft undermines user trust and can result in lower SEO rankings. Your browser may even block the site.
Data theft is not likely for a Local Council website as it won’t typically be dealing with card payments or personal information, but the latter, a low SEO rank, means it’s going to be much harder for residents to find the authoritative council information they need.
For context, across the Internet, you typically find 5% without SSL (depending on what report you read), so the sector is not doing well. The solution? Every council website needs to have in a valid SSL certificate. SSL certificates are often free, so there are hardly any financial barriers here, and it goes a long way to protecting the communities that the councils serve.
The domain dilemma
Our analysis also revealed that 75% of websites were using non-gov.uk domains (like co.uk, org.uk, or com). Whilst this may not sound like a big deal, gov.uk domain names have many benefits, including the enhanced credibility and authority that the domain portrays. They also have stricter security measures, ensuring sites are less likely to be impersonated or used in scams. They’re also monitored by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). Another benefit comes from search engines. The likes of Google and Bing can prioritise government websites for searches, helping residents find the right information quickly.
I must address the cost issue gov.uk domain names currently cost £100 to register, way more than a co.uk or com, which is typically £15 a year. That’s certainly a barrier, as it seems most parish council website providers pass on this charge to the user. No wonder budget-strapped councils go for the cheaper option.
Local councils should seriously consider adopting a gov.uk domain. There are signs this cost is coming down, and I already have a solution for this (keep reading!).
Emails: a misstep in professionalism
Our research showed that 94% of emails are coming from consumer email providers like Hotmail, Gmail, AOL, or Yahoo. This is a problem because it can create doubt in a recipient’s mind about the professionalism and security of their council's communications. Even with emails such as ‘’, it doesn’t look great.
I also understand how this happens and I certainly don’t blame or judge those that use them. Consumer email addresses are free and so easy to create that for a council just wanting to get something set up, it’s the least path of resistance.
With a gov.uk domain name registered, it’s easy to connect this to services like Microsoft 365 or even mailboxes provided by your website supplier so staff and councillors can communicate from a position of authority.
Other noteworthy findings
In our research, we also noticed other issues. Accessibility overlays (plugins for websites that try to emulate true accessibility for websites) were often clumsily implemented and sometimes have a detrimental effect on how people of all abilities consume website information. Many websites also have adverts which distract from the core content and regularly offer up inappropriate ads. And far too many websites were woefully outdated, presenting a tired, out-of-touch image of their councils. I can guarantee this won’t be the fault of the council, rather the technology has got away from them.
Understanding the "why" behind the issues
As alluded to, there are easy-to-understand reasons behind these problems. They stem from two main sources.
Firstly, many local council websites are DIY projects by volunteers (just as I used to make them as a hobby). This is a great first step to give the council an online presence, but is difficult to maintain long-term, especially if the volunteer steps down.
Secondly, I was surprised how many companies there are providing subpar services without investment or basic maintenance. This leaves the council in the technical doldrums, as the experts they’ve put their trust in haven’t delivered. I’m not saying all are, but there were more than I expected to see during our research.
Making a change for the better
I’m sure you’ll agree that we want to see the local council sector raised as a whole. Town and Parish Councils play a vital role in our communities, and their digital presence should reflect their true professionalism and the positive impact they make. The issues we've identified are solvable. I’ve included them in our now-launched Parish Online Website service, which provides a cost-effective and secure website and email that includes a free gov.uk domain name.
Together, let's commit to raising the digital standards for local councils. Let's equip them with the secure, professional, and modern digital tools they need to serve their communities effectively in our digital age.
The following blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered professional or legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Association of Local Councils. Any links to external sources included in this blog post are provided for convenience and do not constitute endorsement or approval of those websites' content, products, services, or policies. Therefore, readers should use discretion and judgment when applying the information to their circumstances. Finally, this blog post may be updated or revised without notice.