Colchester Council wastes £120k on website – and it STILL isn’t working

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.

Here’s a picture of it, as archived by the Wayback Machine, on 2nd April 2013 (or you can check out this test version, still live at the time of writing).

Iconnect - April 2013

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:

New iConnect

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.

not found

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.

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: cllr.paul.smith@colchester.gov.uk

5 Comments Colchester Council wastes £120k on website – and it STILL isn’t working

  1. Mike Polom

    You’ve made some very good points made about efficient use of funds when it comes to technology, but i’ve one minor disagreement.

    You say you could build something similar for a few hundred quid of your time, and while it’s true that you could knock up a Drupal install and slap on the branding pretty quickly, it’s the back end stuff that takes a lot more time (and therefore money).

    Presumably quite a lot of the database work and data storage will have been bespoke (or certainly not off-the-shelf), so while £120k does seem like rather a lot for something that isn’t finished, many more development hours will have gone into this than would be obvious to the casual user!

    Now, time to finish the job.

    Reply
    1. Ben Locker

      Yes, point taken entirely.

      What I was trying to do (clumsily) was to say, as an amateur, I could make an amateur job of the front end for relatively little – not £120k.

      After, all – why bother with the back end if you can’t actually use it to do something useful, like pay your bills?

      But your point that to do it all properly isn’t cheap – that’s spot on. Though I wish a local company had had the chance to do something about it – and make a success of it – for significantly less than £120k.

      As you say – now it’s time to finish the job.

      Reply
  2. Justin

    Yes its a waste of money.

    But hopefully some of the 120k is infrastructure costs which may be able to be reused elsewhere.

    Or worryingly is there an ongoing maintenance cost?

    Reply
  3. Ben Locker

    Yes, there’s an ongoing cost.

    The response to my FOI said:

    “The only committed cost is the £8,000 per annum licence and support
    charge. Any additional costs would be on a project delivery basis as new
    functionality is added. There is no additional projected cost at this
    time.”

    I’m guessing new functionality has been added. There’s a new FOI there if anyone’s interested. I’d also ask how many users have actually managed to pay their Council Tax using this system. And if, as I suspect, the number is zero, why no-one has picked up on the fact the system isn’t working/isn’t being used for one of the main purposes it was designed for.

    Reply
  4. Justin

    Assuming the worst, the broader question is how are CBC ensuring their business cases and projects actually bear fruit and deliver on their promises?

    Hopefully you would have an independent audit / PMO function checking and either remedying or removing projects that don’t deliver.

    What’s daft about this is it is probably bugger all work to remedy and provide a working platform, which calls into question the prioritisation and performance management of the IT area.

    Let’s hope Cllr Smith puts a rocket up someone.

    Reply

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