Chatbots on council websites

I recently blogged about some personal research that I’d carried out to help identify which councils in the UK and Ireland are using webchat and chatbots.

In this blog post I will share some additional research I have done on chatbots. Nothing very ground breaking, but I hope it will help councils who are beginning their chatbot journey and want to find out more. I have created a new Airtable which lists all councils currently using chatbots.

A very big thank you to localgov colleagues who got in touch and helped me to fill in some gaps where I’d missed councils that are using chatbots. The problem is that chatbots aren’t always displayed on every page of a council website, so I can’t be 100% certain of capturing all of them. I checked out likely locations, such as on the home page, contact us, plus possible service pages (council tax, waste and recycling, benefits etc). I still don’t think I’ve captured all examples and welcome further input from localgov colleagues.

Availability of chatbots on a website

Are chatbots added to all web pages?YesNo
Number of councils24 (49%)25 (51%)

About half of councils with chatbots have chosen to place them on all web pages and half only on the service pages that they relate to. Take up of a chatbot is probably improved by being on all pages but if it can’t adequately answer service sitewide queries then its not worth adding across the site.

Chatbot help pages

Is a chatbot help page provided?YesNo
Number of councils24 (49%)25 (51%)

I’d expected to find more examples of help pages on chatbots. About half choose to include a help page, but the content of these is quite variable.

Relatively few councils explain why they have introduced chatbots, what they cover and how they can be used. As councils are often trialling chatbot functionality I think that this content is important and helps to promote its use. Examples of best practice on this include Cheshire East Council, Pembrokeshire County Council and Lewes and Eastbourne Councils. I particularly like Pembrokeshire County Council’s ‘Reasons to try Penfro’, which details the potential benefits of using their chatbot.

In other cases information about chatbots focusses on potential accessibility and personal data issues. I would argue that information relating to accessibility or personal data should be covered by all councils using chatbots.

Liverpool City Council clearly explains the accessibility status of their chatbot. My only criticism would be that the accessibility statement for their chatbot was last reviewed in October 2021 and probably needs to be updated.

An example of best practice on the data aspect of chatbots is Aberdeen City Council, who explain how they will use any personal data given by customers whilst interacting with a chatbot.

Chatbot title

Chatbots are variably presented by councils as digital assistants, smart assistants, web assistant, virtual agents and so on. It would be good for consistency if councils could agree on one title which best describes the work of a chatbot, but I doubt that will happen.

Chatbot name

Several councils has chosen to give their chatbots a name, perhaps to personalise them and make them more approachable. My favourite names are Oggie at Bridgend County Borough Council and Mona, a bilingual chatbot (Welsh/English) from the Isle of Anglesey. The chatbot at Telford & Wrekin Council appears to have a split personality, being variously known as TelfBot and Tom.

Images on chatbots at Telford & Wrekin Council.

Chatbot service topics

One of the key purposes of a chatbot on council website is to try to answer frequently asked questions. This helps to reduce the load on a customer services team but also helps customers by saving them the time and effort of phoning up or trying to find an answer on the website.

In this section I have identified the main services that councils have signposted on their chatbots. Waste and recycling is the most popular service in this respect, largely because it is the service that perhaps generates the most queries from customers. Council tax, benefits, planning and parking are also popular chatbot service topics.

I was pleased to see that a few councils have added in Cost of living support, recognising it as a growing need. Chatbots should be regularly reviewed to make sure that the information that they provide is up to date and relevant. I was a little surprised, for example, to see COVID-19 still being listed as a topic.

Further information on chatbots

If you are considering adding a chatbot to your council’s website I would thoroughly recommend reading about the Local Digital project on Chatbots and AI. The project lead on this was Neil Lawrence, now a Product Owner at Placecube (see video below).

Other useful sources of information include:

Webchat and chatbots on council websites

My personal research of council websites and content management systems that they use has been extended to include the use of webchat and chatbots.

I reviewed every council website individually as I couldn’t find any tools or websites to help to detect webchat or chatbots. I checked the homepage, contact us, council tax and waste and recycling pages of each council as these seemed to be the most likely places to find webchat and chatbot services. It is possible that I have missed some, so if you spot any gaps please let me know.

In most cases councils either choose to use webchat or a chatbot – or they choose not to use either. Some councils, however, choose to use chatbots which pass off to a human being, usually to a customer services advisor, via webchat. This is perhaps the best of both worlds as bots can’t always provide a full response.

I have added details of councils using webchat and chatbots to an updated version of Airtable.

Below are details of the number of councils using webchat or chatbots by country. The use of these services is currently relatively low across UK and Ireland. I would expect, however, that the use of chatbots will increase over time, replacing the use of webchat.

CountryCouncils using WebchatCouncils using Chatbots
Northern Ireland11
United Kingdom and Ireland4449

The name given to a chatbot varies from council to council. Some call them chatbots while others refer to them as digital, smart or virtual assistants, or even as an artificial intelligence service. Some consistency on the naming of the service across councils might be useful. In one council it was introduced as a smart assistant and then as a chatbot. In another council it was referred to as both a smart assistant and as a virtual assistant.

Some councils have decided to give their chatbot a name, perhaps in an attempt to give it a personality or make it feel less robotic. My favourite names are Oggie at Bridgend County Borough Council and Mona, a bilingual chatbot (Welsh/English) from the Isle of Anglesey.

Chatbot nameCouncil
AB-1Aberdeen City Council
AbbotArgyle and Bute Council
AiDACheshire West and Chester Council
AimeeRother District Council
AlfieOadby & Wigston Borough Council
AmiStockport Metropolitan Borough Council
BasilCoventry City Council
BerkleyWest Berkshire Council
BethTorfaen County Borough Council
BOBBroxbourne Council
BOBiCardiff Council
BobbieBreckland Council
BrenDABrent Council
CeciliaCheshire East Council
ELLISLewes and Eastbourne Councils
Ker-KnowCornwall Council
MaxLewisham Council
MaxSwindon Council
MonaIsle of Anglesey
MontyMonmouthshire County Council
OggieBridgend County Borough Council
OwlbotLeeds City Council
PenfroPembrokeshire County Council
RiaDerry City and Strabane District Council
SamLichfield District Council
SOBOTSouthampton City Council
Sur-iSurrey County Council
TomTelford & Wrekin Council
WALISWalsall Council

CMS used by Irish Local Authorities

I decided this week to extend my review of CMS used by local authorities to include councils in Ireland. This was prompted by Tipperary County Council being named as the first local authority in Ireland to be built using LocalGov Drupal. Their new site is due to be launched next week. I hadn’t really ever looked at council sites on the Emerald Isle before, so found it fascinating to check them out.

My immediate impression was that many sites appeared to look quite dated and in need of a refresh. Not all sites, but enough to suggest that perhaps councils could usefully take the opportunity to review the CMS that they are using and consider the potential benefits of using LocalGov Drupal.

I have added the newly reviewed Irish sites to a fresh version of Airtable covering local authority CMS in UK and Ireland.

This has resulted in Drupal being listed as the most popular CMS in the UK and Ireland. Drupal and pTools appear to be the most popular CMS for building council websites. There are a fair number though that I couldn’t identify the CMS, but I suspect that they might also have been built using pTools. If anybody can help to confirm the CMS used for the ones I couldn’t identify I would be very grateful.

I have also created a map of local authorities in Ireland.

A review of local government CMS – 2022

I have been carrying out personal research into CMS used by local authorities in the UK for over 3 years. I completed my latest review in October 2022 and you can view the results on Airtable. In the past I have tried to check each site individually, but it is very labour intensive and liable to error. This year I have used WhatCMS to do the heavy lifting and fill in the gaps with a manual review and by contacting councils directly.

There hasn’t been a great deal of change in CMS used by councils over the last year. Jadu and Drupal continue to lead the pack with a number of new additions for each of these CMS. On the Drupal front increased council take up is linked to the growing popularity of LocalGov Drupal.

My next task is to update the various maps that I have created to present local government use of CMS in the UK. These can be found on my blog.

I hope you will find this research useful. If you spot any errors or want to report any changes please get in contact.

CMS used by local authorities in the UK

Further to my previous blog posts on CMS in English Local Authorities and CMS used by Scottish Local Authorities I have now created a map showing CMS used in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately I had to start from scratch again so this took quite a long time and was a bit laborious, but I hope it will prove useful. I have ordered the map by web content management system. I have listed selected the most used CMS and then added a catch all for the remaining CMS. There are just so many different CMS that its impossible to plot them all as separate sections on Google maps. I only found seven local authorities where I couldn’t detect the CMS that they use. If anyone can help with any of these please contact me via Twitter. Equally if you find any errors please do let me know.

Local authority boundaries used in the map were sourced from the Office for National Statistics licensed under Open Government Licence v.3.0. Many thanks to the ONS for sharing such a useful map.

I’m still planning to create a separate map for CMS used by Welsh local authorities as I promised I’d do this in a previous blog post. Then I think I’ll move onto a new topic and I have some really good ideas on what to focus my personal research, that I think will be very interesting to work on. Watch this space!

CMS used by Scottish Local Authorities

Further to my previous blog post on CMS in English Local Authorities I have created a map showing CMS used in Scottish Local Authorities. In due course I’ll also look to do the same for Welsh Local Authorities and then hopefully a combined UK CMS map. These maps are very much a first draft and I’ll look to make improvements over time.

I’ve managed to identify most CMS used by Scottish Local Authorities. There is now just one gap, namely Clackmannanshire. If anyone knows what content management system this council uses then please let me know (if they use a CMS of course).

CMS used by English local authorities

I have been reviewing CMS used in local government across the UK for the last three years. I’ve shared this personal research with the LocalGov Drupal project and more recently with Dave Briggs, who has carried out some research of his own. This reinvigorated my interest in this subject so I decided to map the CMS used by councils to better understand the geographical spread. To date I have done this for English local authorities, but I’d like to extend it to all UK local authorities if I can find Wales and Scotland authorities in a mapping format (ideally KML).

When I started using web content management systems twenty years ago the majority of councils used proprietary or licensed software. The use of open source was quite marginal and dare I say seemed an option of last resort. I certainly would not have been brave enough in those days to use an open source CMS. How things have changed! Now more and more councils are using open source, the two main ones being Drupal and Umbraco. At Bracknell Forest we started using Drupal 4 years ago and have not looked back. The absence of licensing costs means that any budget can be focussed on developing new functionality and improving customer experience.

When I started using Drupal I could see the opportunities of working with other councils to develop a shared local gov Drupal distribution. Sadly at the time collaboration in local government digital was in its infancy and noone seemed that interested in exploring the opportunities. That all changed when Will Callaghan tweeted about councils working to together to build websites, rather than constantly reinventing the wheel. Will’s efforts and persistence resulted in funding from the MHCLG to make LocalGov Drupal a reality. The growth has been phenomenal (due in most part to the boundless enthusiasm of Will Callaghan, Finn Lewis and countless others) and in the space of what seems a very short time 22 councils are now actively using or about to use LocalGov Drupal.

The map shows that a myriad of CMS are used across England. The leading proprietary CMS providers, Jadu and GOSS dominate much of the landscape. Amongst open source CMS providers, Drupal is used by more councils, but Umbraco has a wider geographical presence. It will be interesting to see how this changes over the next couple of years as LocalGov Drupal gains traction and more councils join the revolution. I don’t use that word lightly here, it is a revolution and one which will undoubtedly bring enormous benefits. The roadmap for delivering improved website functionality for councils using LocalGov Drupal is starting to take shape and it will undoubtedly transform and improve service delivery and customer experience.

I don’t think it is unfair to say that council websites have remained much the same over the last ten years. The offering has been static for too long and that has to change as people’s expectations of modern websites has risen dramatically over this period. Design wise council websites appear to be much of a muchness, with a GOV.UK influenced design attempted by many. I would like to see this change, for council websites to incorporate far greater functionality and provide a better customer experience, but also to present a sense of place to better promote and celebrate the communities and residents that they serve.

If you spot any mistakes on the map or want to suggest any updates then please do get in contact.

A review of cookie consent on council websites

Earlier this year I reviewed cookie consent on our public website. This was in advance of an audit of the council by the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office). I discovered that whilst we met most of the requirements, we fell short of full compliance. This came as a bit of a surprise and it spurred me into changing our approach in advance of the ICO audit. I wrote about what I did next on our Digital Services team blog.

I also checked what other councils were doing to try to find some best practice. I found a few good examples, but in general the experience I found wasn’t that great. So I decided to do some wider personal research into cookie consent on council websites.   

The background to cookie consent

The Cookie Law started as an EU Directive adopted by all EU countries in May 2011. It gave individuals rights to refuse the use of cookies that reduce their online privacy. Each country then updated its own laws to comply. In the UK the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations were updated.

The initial guidance around cookie consent was rather vague and confusing. As a result websites met compliance but often failed to safeguard privacy.

In most cases websites added some JavaScript to display a banner when a page is first loaded. The banner would encourage users to continue and accept the cookies on the site. Websites encouraged users to sort out cookies by changing their browser settings. Unfortunately, the average user didn’t have the knowledge, inclination or the time to do this. As a result, most users accepted cookies to continue to use the website.

Cookie guidelines have changed

The good news is that the guidance around cookie compliance is now less ambiguous. The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) has published guidelines on how website owners must comply. The key elements of the guidance are that website owners need to:

  1. Tell people the cookies are there
  2. Explain what the cookies are doing and why
  3. Get a user’s consent to store a cookie on their device
  4. Make sure users have the means to enable or disable non-essential cookies and make this easy to do

It is the latter guideline that is the real game changer with regards to cookie consent. Website owners now have to provide functionality to enable or disable non-essential cookies. Non-essential cookies have to be withheld on a website before a user has made a choice on whether to accept them.

Privacy matters

The changes outlined above should help to improve the privacy of users online. But, this won’t happen overnight and it needs website owners to take some action. Website owners owe it to their users to review and improve their approach to cookie consent. The ICO provides extensive guidance and it should form the starting point of any review.

Website owners also need to consider the user experience of cookie consent. They need to review the approach taken and add information written in plain English.

Reviewing cookie consent across local government

I reviewed cookie consent by checking every council website in the UK (408).  I wanted to find best practice and review cookie consent across the sector. Here are the headline figures:

Cookie guidance Number of councils meeting the guidance
Overall percentage
Tell people the cookies are there 405 99.26%
Explain what the cookies are doing and why 400 98.04%
Get the person’s consent to store a cookie on their device 307 75.24%
Make sure users have the means to enable or disable non-essential cookies and make this easy to do 146 35.78%
Cookie guidance score (0-4) Number of councils Overall percentage
0 3 <1%
1 4 <1%
2 95 23.34%
3 162 39.70%
4 144 35.88%
My research reveals that around a third of councils are compliant. The rest have some work to do to review and improve cookie consent. I suspect that councils may not have revisited cookie consent since the guidelines changed.

User experience is the main thing that concerned me about cookie consent. The user experience of cookie consent is variable and needs attention. On many websites the cookie policy is not referenced from the cookie banner and users have to search for it. Information about cookies should all be in one place to help users to make an informed decision.

Other user experience issues that I found included:
  • referencing the cookie policy from the cookie banner, but not linking to it
  • the cookie banner taking too long to load, often because other popups were also loading
  • poor colour contrast on cookie links on cookie banners, making them difficult to read
  • adding cookie details in a PDF rather than listing them on a page
  • providing insufficient detail about the cookies used on the website

Cookie compliance tips


To conclude here are my top ten cookie consent tips:

I am happy to share individual results with local authorities. If this is of interest please contact me. I will aim to review cookie compliance in local government in a year’s time to find out what progress has been made.

Council Accessibility Pages and Statements

The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018, came into force on 23 September 2018. It aims to ensure that public sector websites and mobile apps are accessible to all users, especially those with disabilities. It specifies that public sector websites will need to meet accessibility standards and publish an accessibility statement.

In November 2018 the Government Digital Service (GDS) advised that they were working on a model accessibility statement for public sector website owners. This was due in the New Year but so far has not been published. Like other local authority digital managers I have already taken some action and added an accessibility statement to our website. Aware that it wasn’t that great I thought I’d spend a little time checking other council websites for any best practice about how to write accessibility statements. As I struggled to find anything meaningful I decided to carry out some personal research out of work hours and reviewed accessibility pages and accessibility statements for all councils in the UK (over 400 websites). I have always had a keen interest in finding out what other councils are doing and how their websites are developing, so this was also a good opportunity to update my knowledge.

My findings are outlined in this blog post. What I discovered was that very few if any councils have so far produced a meaningful accessibility statement. This wasn’t a great surprise as there hasn’t so far been any great encouragement for councils to do this.  What did come as a surprise was that accessibility pages on council websites generally appear to be out-of-date or inadequate. I was surprised that web accessibility isn’t given greater prominence and attention on council websites. If councils are putting effort into improving the accessibility of their websites, then they are underselling the work that they are doing by not updating their accessibility pages or making them hard to find.

I hope that this blog post will encourage local authorities to review their accessibility pages. It is in no way meant to run down the hard work that councils are doing on web accessibility, but I do think that there is work to be done across the sector with regards to the range and usefulness of information provided. I will focus on the wider picture and will promote good practice, but I have no intention of naming and shaming specific councils. I don’t see that I have any right to do this or indeed think that there is any value in doing so.

How many websites have an accessibility page?

Pie chart showing council websites with an accessibility page. 86% do and 14% of councils don't have an accessibility page.I checked each council website to try to find an accessibility page. I started on the homepage, where I expected to find a link to an accessibility page, either in the header or the footer.

If this failed I searched for accessibility on a council’s website. From this I found that 14% of council websites don’t appear to have an accessibility page. If they do, then it is pretty hidden and it is shouldn’t be.

I expected to find a link to an accessibility page on all council websites and was surprised when I couldn’t find one. A few of those without an accessibility page did present accessibility features, such as providing the ability to change font sizes and a colour scheme.

How easy is it to find the accessibility page?

Pie chart showing how easy it is to find the accessibility page. On 72% of council sites it is easy and on 28% of sites it isn't easy to find.It should be easy to find the accessibility page. The prime location is the first link in the header, but anywhere in the header or footer should make it easy to find. I certainly didn’t expect to search for the accessibility page or to find it in the help section.

I found that it was easy to find on 72% of local authority sites. I had to use the search to find the accessibility page on 11% of websites.

How many websites have an Accessibility Statement?

Websites with an Accessibility Statement. 14% do and 86% don't.I didn’t expect to find many Accessibility Statements as full guidance for this hasn’t been issued by central government. I was surprised to find that 14% of councils have an Accessibility Statement. However, many of these can’t really be proper statements as they just contain basic details about accessibility features. I suspect some have just renamed their accessibility page as an Accessibility Statement. Nice try but I certainly wasn’t fooled!

One site proudly announces that the website doesn’t have a separate accessibility statement because they have tried to design the website to be as accessible and usable as possible for every user. That is entirely laudable but I’m sorry you now need to provide an Accessibility Statement!

Less than a handful of council websites currently contain all the key elements of an Accessibility Statement, which should:

  • list any inaccessible parts of the website or app
  • show how people with access needs can get alternatives to content that’s not accessible
  • provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues
  • provide information on the enforcement procedure if people are not happy with the response
  • be published in a fully accessible form
  • follow a consistent format
  • be updated annually

Let’s have a closer look at the first three of these requirements.

How many councils list inaccessible parts of a website or app?
Websites detailing inaccessible parts of a website or app. 5% of council websites do and 95% don't detail accessibility issues.

At present only a small number of websites specifically list inaccessible parts of a website or app. Issues raised cover accessibility issues with specific content formats such as videos, PDFs and maps. A bigger issue relates to third party applications. Some councils demonstrate that they have reviewed their wider website estate and list accessibility issues on specific third-party websites or applications. Some take ownership of accessibility issues and state that they are working with suppliers to put things right. A few councils, however, state that they aren’t responsible for the accessibility of third-party websites and applications.

How many councils provide alternatives to content that’s not accessible?

Pie chart showing percentage of councils providing content in alternative formats.

Only 5% of councils currently provide alternatives to content that is known not to be accessible. Alternatives quoted include large print, Braille, audio cassette and CD. Alternatives used to be regularly offered in the days when print rather than online was more readily available.

The demand for alternative accessible formats can be significantly, though not completely, reduced if the information provided is:

  • written in plain language
  • as concise as possible
  • designed to be as legible as possible

How many websites provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues?

Pie chart showing percentage of councils providing contact details to report issuesForty per cent of councils provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues. The contact point tends to either be a generic customer services or web team email. There are few examples of forms set up to capture specific feedback or issues.

Websites should actively encourage feedback on accessibility and there really is no excuse for not including details of who to contact.

Good examples of council accessibility pages and statements

These are the accessibility pages and statements that for me stood out from the rest:

  1. Blackpool Council
  2. Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council

There were others that impressed me in terms of approach and content, but they unfortunately hadn’t been updated for 2 or more years.

How can councils improve their web accessibility content

To conclude this blog post I’d like to share some thoughts about how councils can improve the range of information that they provide about web accessibility. I suspect that the catalyst to producing meaningful Accessibility Statements will happen when the GDS (Government Digital Service) issues a model statement.

  1.  Review your accessibility content

    The best advice I can give to councils is simply to revisit their accessibility pages. Many are clearly out of date and have not been checked for years. It was quite easy to identify out of date content because of references to:

    a) Out of date web browsers and operating systems

    I found plenty of references to IE6, but more worryingly to IE4 (released in 1997) and Netscape Navigator (released in 1994). I also found a few references to Windows XP (support for this operating system ended in 2014). One council warns users that ‘Global internet corporations such as Google and Facebook are already taking measures to de-support Internet Explorer 6.’ 3 years ago this advice might have been useful, but not anymore.

    b) Old versions of the WCAG guidelines

    WCAG 2.1 should be referenced on accessibility pages as this is the current version of the guidelines. Many sites correctly mention it but I did find a significant number that quote version 2.0 (published in 2008) and even version 1.0 (published in 1999.)

    c) Last published dates

    The clearest indication of out of date content are last published dates. I found several dating back to 2015 and 2016.

  2. Set a regular review date for accessibility content

    Having reviewed your accessibility content make sure that you set a regular review date for it and update it annually. Include it in your website content review programme and treat it in the same way that you would any other content on your website.

  3. Think beyond accessibility software

    Many councils have invested in accessibility services such as Browsealoud and Readspeaker, or accessibility features provided by the web content management software used (Jadu is a good example here).  These products help to improve the experience for users by enabling users change to change site settings (for example text size and colour contrast) enable text to speech and provide language translation.

    These products are useful, though improvements to browser technology mean that many of these services can be accessed by users for every website that they visit, not just yours. People with accessibility needs can adjust their devices to access your website before they visit and so may not need to use the add on software that you provide.

    Adding accessibility software doesn’t automatically make your website fully accessible. It can complement the work that you are doing to improve the accessibility of your website, but it doesn’t replace it. Many councils use their accessibility pages to promote the accessibility software that they use and offer no other useful information about how accessibility is being managed and improved on the website. My advice is to think beyond the accessibility software that you provide, detail your approach to accessibility, detail known issues and explain how users can get in contact to report issues.