Looming cuts spark vigorous response from Web designers

With Government cuts looming, Web design spend is being placed increasingly under the spotlight, but designers are in a strong position to defend themselves.

Last week The Daily Telegraph obtained details of local councils spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on Web design. Birmingham Council’s Web spend had already been documented and was by far the highest, an anomaly at £2.8m.

The paper disclosed that ten councils spent between £100 000 and £600 000, including Westminster, which spent £128 968 on its site, designed by Airlock, in 2009.

Westminster Council told Design Week, ’The relaunched site cost £129 000, and we have also recently replaced a number of IT systems linked to the website, which has saved the taxpayer almost £400 000 in running costs from April this year. This is why our investment last year was higher than usual.’

It’s not just council sites that are under scrutiny. The Central Office of Information published a report in June looking at website rationalisation, cost effectiveness and usage. In the wake of that report, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude sought to produce his own report on website ’consolidation’, which is set to be delivered in October alongside the Government’s spending review. A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office says it is expected to suggest closing up to 75 per cent of websites by the end of the financial year.

The knock-on effect of these cuts on the design sector is unclear. If the Government consolidates sites, efficiency may be improved and there might be new work for consultancies, but without a clear strategy quality may suffer and there could be less work.

Think Public carries out a range of Government and public-sector design across several platforms, including digital. Ben Kingsmill makes it clear that he wouldn’t defend undue spending on Web design, but says, ’Web design is not expensive if procured or managed properly.’

Kingsmill says, ’[When you create] a digital interface between city and state with the citizen put at its heart, the return on investment is enormous,’ adding that efficiently procured design also pays its way. ’Web design is not expensive when it’s done properly, and seeing design as an expensive luxury is a mistake.’

Kingsmill does admit, however, that, ’If a website doesn’t serve its purpose, that outweighs the investment.’

The lion’s share of Bell Design’s portfolio comes from Government projects, and Ian Allison, creative director at the consultancy, says that, as a designer and a taxpayer, he wants to see budgets deployed efficiently.

Consolidation ’should be driven by the needs of the end-users’, says Allison, with ’intelligent deployment of technologies – not the desires of a political administration [in mind]’.

Allison suggests Government procurement practice can itself lead to rising costs. ’Design services are rarely procured by people with expertise in communications disciplines… processes [seem more] designed to screw the last shilling from paper-clip wholesalers. We recently had a pre-qualification questionnaire that mentioned providing meals,’ he says.

By the time a group gets to meet a Government department to discuss requirements, access research and audit information, the project scope has often varied considerably, Allison says.

As Government procurement is reappraised across design disciplines, Alison says more consultancy engagement would help. ’I hope this time they talk to the experts first,’ he says.

Local council spending on Web design

Birmingham City Council – £2.8m

Essex County Council – £800 000

Medway Council – £600 000

London Borough of Haringey – £540 000

Northamptonshire County Council – £450 000

Figures obtained by The Daily Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act

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