Back in April, I stumbled across a Colchester Borough Council website called iConnect.
Intended as a ‘self service portal’ for local citizens, it was built by Cambridge-based company Firmstep and went live in 2011.
It was terrible.
Intended to bring together different services in one place – Council Tax, Housing Benefit, bin collections and so on – it was a shoddy-looking site that hadn’t been finished and didn’t work properly.
Yes, it’s a basic site built on the open source (i.e. free) content management system, Drupal. I could build something similar for a few hundred quid’s worth of my time.
So how much did it cost Colchester Borough Council?
Gentle reader, brace yourself.
It was £120,600.
Yes. The price of a decent flat or a small house in our increasingly overcrowded borough.
But how do I know?
Back on 2nd April, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Colchester Council to find out how much the system cost, how few users it had, who was responsible for the project, and whether it would ever be finished.
By some strange coincidence, in the 16 days that elapsed between my FOI request and the answer I received, the iConnect portal received a major make-over.
By 18th April it looked rather more like this:
Hm. That’s a bit better I suppose.
But was it really worth the £120.600 revealed by my FOI request?
In short, no.
The other month I registered and tried to connect my Council Tax account with my profile.
I couldn’t work out how to do it for the life of me.
So I got in touch with the Council who did it for me.
So much for a service that’s supposed to cut down on staff time.
Then I tried to pay my Council Tax.
I couldn’t. When I clicked the link that reads ‘Make a payment’, I got a screen that looks like this.
What that means is that the script needed to create the payment form isn’t on the server – or it isn’t in the right place.
So the system designed to help simplify Council Tax payments won’t let you, er, pay your Council Tax.
So I let Colchester Council know via Twitter that it was broken. That was on 21 June – nearly 3 months ago.
— Ben Locker (@benlocker) June 21, 2013
Incredibly, the system still doesn’t work. I tried to use this system to pay my Council Tax this morning. I couldn’t. I got the same error.
Which makes me wonder. How many of the supposedly 3,420+ registered users actually use the site?
Not many. It doesn’t work. Why would you?
It gets worse though. IConnect has a portal that supposedly allows you to create petitions.
That’s important. It’s much simpler to get support from online petitions than the paper versions. But, as I found when I campaigned for the Council to allow its meetings to be recorded by members of the public, petitions created by most free online sites aren’t valid – and aren’t accepted.
So surely the Council’s own system solves that problem?
Maybe it would – if some of the £120,000+ had been invested in a system that actually works.
A couple of weeks ago, fellow Conservative activist Darius Laws attempted to create a petition on the site, calling for people to swing behind plans to turn our water tower, Jumbo, into a ‘Restaurant in the Sky’.
The site flashed up a message saying the petition would be moderated. He got no email confirmation. And has heard nothing since.
Similarly, on Sunday, I tried to set up a petition calling for significant changes to Colchester’s Council Tax Support scheme.
I got the same message about moderation. And have heard nothing. I set up the petition elsewhere.
So what has £120,000+ of our money achieved.
A site for paying Council Tax that won’t let you pay your Council Tax.
A portal for creating petitions that won’t let you create petitions.
Value for money, eh?
And who’s responsible for this appalling waste of cash?
According to the FOI:
The Portfolio holder for ICT is Cllr Paul Smith
Yes. The current Liberal Democrat portfolio holder for Business and Resources.
If you’re as outraged as I am at this waste of public money – which would have more than covered the shortfall needed by Abbots Activity Centre, closed down by the Lib Dem led cabinet last week – I suggest you email Councillor Smith.
His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org