Paying council tax is a legal requirement and the revenue helps fund services. Rules about discounts for single occupancy or students, and what happens if a property is empty or is a second home, should be made clear so that those responsible can ‘self-serve’ rather than phone the council. The same applies for people who may be having difficulty making payments. Clear advice about options will encourage them to seek help before the problem escalates.
Shire districts, English and Scottish unitaries and London boroughs.
This task was last tested in 2012, when 71% of councils tested (all but counties and Northern Ireland Districts) met the standard (equivalent to getting three or four stars). However, the 2016 test is harder, in that there are additional questions - Can I apply online for a single person discount? Can I find out if I will be charged if I own a property that is empty? Does the council offer guidance on what to do if I am experiencing problems paying? and can I choose to receive my bills or statements by e-mail?. There are also additional tests not in place in 2012: one of the new questions, the one about the empty property, has been designated the ‘essential question’, one that must be answered correctly if site is to score more than two stars. Another test, first introduced in 2015, is that reviewers must not come across any information that is out of date if the site is to score more than two stars.
Check ‘coverage’ to see if your council has been surveyed. Go to councils page and select your council. Look for link to task report under 2016-17 results
Provide a good or very good online service based on this survey
Better connected rankings
*Discrepancies in the figures are due to rounding off
Increasingly, councils are providing customer accounts, enabling people paying council tax to check their balance online. Just over 50% provide this facility, compared with 38% in 2012.
Whether the speed of change is keeping up with user expectations or the need for councils to ‘channel shift’ their website users is debatable. Revs & bens officers might argue that most people pay by direct debit and do not need this facility – it would be interesting to see the figures. Generally the advantages of setting up a customer or council tax account are not well described.
Just 30% of councils offer residents the option to receive statements and bills by email.
While councils prefer residents to set up a Direct Debit, where enquiries are being made on-screen, it should be made easy to pay online, with these offered as the first or second option in the list of ways to pay. Online payment using a bank card should be available and not just the more laborious option of for residents of setting up a BACs payment – although this is a useful further option.
Most Councils have a clear link to council tax on the home page, although some still tuck this top task out of sight under ‘Advice and Benefits’ or even ‘Council and Democracy’. This is a legacy of the old Local Government Navigation List which councils officers might be able to navigate but most of the public won’t. Council Tax is an important element in the council business and deserves a direct route.
Quite often a ‘Pay Council Tax’ link on the home page goes directly to making an online payment. For those seeking information about the range of ways to pay council tax, it's important that they are sent to the relevant page in the Council tax section and not just to the online payments system with no onward links.
Where visitors use the A-Z list to find services, most will be able to find council tax lists, but some may be confused by multiple micro-headings. This shouldn’t be necessary if the council tax landing page has an appropriate menu.
Most had links to discounts and exemptions, and the better council sites gave plain English descriptions of what these were. The location of the empty property discount varied between discounts and exemptions pages. The exemptions page was the least well done - often just a list of exemption classes that appeared to have been copied from a council tax manual.
While all councils provided information about the features of council tax, there were many that just presented this information, and did not offer further information on how to claim, provide the forms to self-service, or make it clear where to make an enquiry. Just over half of councils tested offer online forms for single person discount. Some provide pdfs, others nothing at all. How to pay information was usually clearly presented with Direct Debit the first method offered.
It was surprising that where councils offered online accounts some failed to explain adequately what the benefits of registering for an online account were. The register/login link could be hard to find and sometimes this was the only clue that such a service was offered. In some cases paperless billing was through an online account, though this was seldom made clear until you opened the registration page, and not always then.
A handful of sites offered Live Chat, but did not always indicate the times that this was available before opening the link.
All councils showed the steps in the arrears recovery process, many in officious language that could be quite frightening. It was good to see ‘real’ language like ‘Struggling to Pay?’ being used by some in links and text. Generally there has been a big improvement in use of plain English on this task.
Some sites advise residents to contact the council immediately they know they have a problem but don’t give any clues as to what action they may take after this. A minority go into great detail about how the council may be able to help by re-staging payments and give comprehensive links to other organisations, such as Citizens Advice, who can help and advise. Some that said 'contact us immediately' did not provide contact information at that point.
While many councils now interact with the public through customer services centres, there is an argument for offering a dedicated contact for council tax.
Many councils had information labelled ‘Changes to Council Tax exemptions from April 2013’. For some this was through a separate menu item from presumably the pre April 2013 rules. Councils often seem to feel the need to refer to the date of a change well after it is past. Current information is all that counts in the interest of clarity and simplicity, and references to several years ago give the impression that regular reviews of page content are not being done.
It is not helpful to website users (or to the chances of speedy payment) to say 'Other ways to pay are detailed on the back of your Council Tax bill’. One council provided a link to GOV.UK for information on the single person discount, simply sending the visitor straight back to the council. Carrying on to the bottom of the same page, there was a link to the single person discount application form. Not a good customer journey.
Finding the task
Completing the task
Argyll & Bute
This site provided good clear information and the full range of online services we were looking for. A very clear explanation of empty property discounts, under the heading 'Discounts for second homes / unoccupied homes' Excellent all round!
Aylesbury Vale DC
Well constructed, concise information, really good online services.
Clear landing page for this complex subject, with explained links. Perhaps rather too many of them - would benefit from some rationalisation. Good to see online forms. I found the left hand menu rather unwieldy. I think ebilling is worth sign posting more clearly.
Helpful page for people struggling to pay council tax with a range of internal services and external sources. Also good landing page with clear signposting to key areas.
Cheshire West and Chester
This was a joy to use. Clear links, clear and concise information, online forms, online account, ebilling. An excellent example of customer focussed implementation.
Excellent. Information is clearly presented and easy to find. There's an offer of 'live chat'. A helpful alternative to phoning and emailing.
Simple and straightforward navigation, clear signposting, concise text. Easy to use
This is a very interactive site with services fully online and a simple clean and modern design. The content had very good customer focus, with single person discount being the first promoted discount, and other information clear and well signposted from a very simple landing page. This is an example of how this site uses plain English and customer focus in its content. Note use of second person / active voice and that the most common type of discount is presented first.
This site was very usable and offered an excellent experience in completing this task. The online aspects are very well integrated with the main text rather than bolted on and this council offers the full range - e-billing, online account and online forms. Well done! My only quibble is that the council works very hard to ensure that I don't phone them, so using contact details link doesn't appear to deliver me a phone number at all - just pages online.
Wyre Forest DC
Excellent customer journey. Clear promotion and detailed supporting information.
Mansfield offers a useful description for empty properties
• Empty - A property that is not anyone's main home and is unfurnished
• Unoccupied - A furnished property that is not anyone's main home
• Occupied - A property that is lived in as someone's main home
See more at: http://www.mansfield.gov.uk/article/6180/Council-Tax-discounts#Empty properties
North Devon has a prominent scam warning:
Council Tax refund scam phonecalls
North Devon Council never cold calls, texts or emails residents requesting bank details. If council tax refunds are due or there is any change to your bill then you will receive a statement through the post explaining the situation. We do notcharge an administration fee.
If you receive one of these calls, do not give out any personal information and end the call as quickly as possible.
We have also heard reports of callers claiming to be NDC, offering to re-band properties for a fee. If you think your Council Tax Band is wrong you can contact the Valuation Office Agency for free.
If you are in any doubt of the authenticity of a call concerning your council tax account please contact us on 01271 388361 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To report a suspected incident of the scam call Citizens Advice on 0208 1850710.