Medway Council has spent nearly £250,000 on a new website, it has been reported. The new council website is set to launch in November and the council hopes that use of the website will facilitate easier and more efficient communication which will provide for savings in the long run.
This project has its critics and rightly so. According to the Telegraph, Medway council has a £6 million budget shortfall which means that up to 50 council jobs look likely to be cut and other local services, like an afterschool program, will be reduced or eliminated altogether. So why not spend that £250,000 on local jobs and services instead of a new website?
The trouble, yet again, lies in the centralisation of council block grants. Medway Council planned for and utilised a block grant from the government that is specifically allocated for the design and build of a new website. Because Medway Council, like many other councils, cannot control much of the money that the government grants, they could not defer the project and reallocate the money to other places. This is a prime example of why Eric Pickles is trying to change how local councils fund and manage their own council business.
The other issue, however, is a far greater one. No council should ever pay £250,000 for a new website. Major label music artists don’t even spend that much on well designed, highly interactive websites with avatars, live chat, and an online shop. There is no reason at all that a local council would even need a website budget amounting to 1/8 of the size of the Medway budget. There are many ways to build a website with free, open source software and, more importantly, there are many local community residents and groups who are willing to build the site by volunteering their time. Just look at what Stef Lewandowski did with a group of developers in Birmingham.
So the moral of the Medway story is twofold. First, let local councils manage their own budgets. Eric Pickles is working on this issue so there is an expectation that this may happen in some form. Second, open up local council website design and builds to the local community. Chances are that local businesses, community groups, and residents will have better and far cheaper solutions than the council could ever expect.