In the digital age, having an effective and user-friendly website is essential for parish and town councils to engage with their communities – it’s one of the most accessible and effective methods of communicating to wide audiences.
Choosing the right website supplier is a crucial decision, as it can impact communication, transparency, and overall efficiency, not to mention the requirement to publish all the regulatory information. And with the introduction of compliance with WCAG 2.1AA level of accessibility made compulsory and a legal requirement for parish & town council websites to meet, the need to find a supplier that provides a compliant and suitable website is vital.
This article explores the three most prominent providers for parish & town councils: Aubergine, 2Commune, and Vision ICT.
Update Since writing this article early January 2024, 2Commune have written to all their councils notifying them they are existing the market and any council that has their website with them will have it taken over by the software developers, Cuttlefish.
There is a natural concern that, whilst 2Commune have the extensive sector knowledge, and so when the website passes to Cuttlefish and the support that many clerks rely on, will be lost.
When it comes to providing websites and software to councils, a deep knowledge of how they operate and the specific needs are paramount.
We’ve updated the comparison to now include Parish Online who also provide a small number of councils with websites and we have assessed their offering.
We’ve broken this review down into 8 key areas that need consideration:
1. Features and Functionality
One of the primary considerations when choosing a website provider is the range of features and functionality they offer. Aubergine, Parish Online, and Vision ICT each bring their unique set of tools to the table. We recommend you evaluate what features are essential for your council, such as online document management (minutes, agendas, policies etc), event & meetings calendars, and community information and noticeboards. Additionally, consider the user interface and ease of customisation offered by each provider.
The features across the Parish Online and Vision ICT websites we reviewed are broadly similar and meet the most and basic needs of parish councils. The Parish Online service seemed lighter and had less depth as their main business is developing and providing online mapping services and so the website appears to be a side-service that. The features and functionality of the Aubergine platform, particular those on town councils builds, show more page layouts and options for displaying regulatory information as well as the more community-oriented content.
2. User Experience
A website's success depends largely on how easily visitors can navigate and find information. Look for a provider that prioritises user experience (UX). Aubergine, for example, is known for its intuitive navigation, layout and clean design. Compare this with Parish Online service, which focuses on a simplistic homepage but does have a slightly confusing navigation with most of the official council pages under one tab and the Vision ICT offring, which might excel in certain aspects of website speed.
Consider arranging a demo of the website platform and its admin area offered by these providers to experience their platforms first hand – both from a public user but also consider the admin area and how simple it is to manage the updates.
3. Accessibility and Compliance
Ensuring that your council website is accessible to all, including those with disabilities, is not just a legal requirement but also a matter of inclusivity and is the right thing to do. Review the accessibility features provided by each supplier, such as text-to-speech capabilities and alt text options. Additionally, and check to make sure the platforms comply with the current level of requirement – WCAG 2.1AA (WCAG2.2AA from October 2024).
This is an area where Aubergine, in particular, might stand out with its commitment to universal access as they are the authors of the NALC Website Accessibility & Publishing Guidebook that was released in 2021 to all councils. Making sure that the way the website achieves is accessibility is also critical – using a plugin or overlay to achieve it is not compliant. Those overlays and pop ups (often visible with a small blue symbol of a man or wheelchair in the top corner of the website) are universally considered a greater barrier for those with disabilities and compliance with best practice website accessibility development needs to be baked in as part of the platform and not layered on top afterwards.
We recommend using the Wave by Webaim free browser checker on your website to check for surface level accessibility issues but remember, you need to make sure that the accessibility compliance is baked into the specification from the start – it can’t be added after!
4. Cost and Value for Money
Budget considerations are a significant factor for councils. While Aubergine, Parish Online, and Vision ICT all offer competitive pricing, it's essential to evaluate the value for money each provider brings.
Consider not only the upfront costs but also ongoing maintenance fees and potential additional charges for extra features. A comprehensive cost analysis will help you determine the long-term financial impact of choosing one provider over another. Aubergine and Parish Online’s costs come in slightly lower for some options compared to Vision ICT. The features and continued support by Aubergine adds an extra level often needed by clerks who are short on time. And at the moment are giving away a .gov.uk domain free for 2 years for councils wanted to make the shift over.
5. Security and Data Protection with hosting
Given the sensitive nature of the information often handled by councils, security and data protection are paramount. Examine the security measures implemented by each provider, such as SSL encryption, regular security audits, and data backup protocols. All these aspects should be ‘silent services’ and run as standard with your annual fees and not extras that you have to pay for. The annual costs for Aubergine & Vision ICT and are slightly lower than Parish Online, and the annual costs from Aubergine are more comprehensive and transparent as to what the packages include.
Assess their compliance with data protection regulations, such as GDPR, ensuring that user information is handled with the utmost care and in accordance with legal requirements.
6. Customer Support and Training
Effective customer support and training are crucial, especially during the initial setup and if issues arise down the line.
Investigate the support services provided by Aubergine, Parish Online, and Vision ICT. Look for options like online tutorials with videos and self-help support features as well as how responsive customer service teams are when emailed and called. One provider, Aubergine, offer free monthly Zoom refresher training sessions that their users can join as many times as they wish which we found to be a great way to provide support but also stay connected with the clerks to see what further features might be useful in the future – there’s also a video library for each part of the website admin tools to use whenever you need.
A provider with excellent support can make a significant difference in the overall experience of setting up, managing and maintaining your council’s website.
7. Community Engagement and Integration
Council websites should facilitate community engagement. The brutal truth is that most people don’t visit a council’s website unless they need to report and issue or make a complaint.
Consider the community engagement features offered by each provider, such as social media integration, online surveys, and maps as well as community noticeboards, events listings and local news.
Assess how well these features align with your council's goals for community involvement. For instance, Parish Online might display the local information from weather and highways providers, while Vision ICT may provide seamless integration with popular social media platforms and Aubergine provide a form building tool to easily add consultations and polls to your website.
Consider other community engagement tools, such as an app that you can use to encourage community members to download – which the council can then use to send push notifications about events and news.
8. Experience & knowledge
The local government sector is very different from the commercial world and the websites need to be set up and run in a very specific way to ensure both regulatory compliance as well as the ease of use for the clerks and council admin teams.
Choosing a website provider who works within the council sector and understands the specifics of what needs publishing and how things need to be displayed is a critical nuance that will make the difference. Look for a website provider that provides website for lots of other parish and town councils and see if they are partnered with any of the council associations. It’s also worth finding out if any of the providers have staff who are councillors. Vision ICT and Aubergine have been supporting the parish & town council sector for a number of years, whereas Parish Online are very new to the market. Aubergine are the official partner of SLCC (Society of Local Councils) for compliant websites for councils and have senior team members who are parish councillors and ILCA qualified.
Choosing the right website supplier for your parish or town council involves careful consideration of various factors.
Aubergine, Parish Online, and Vision ICT each bring unique strengths to the table. Ultimately, the decision should align with the specific needs and priorities of your council. By thoroughly evaluating features, council sector knowledge, user experience, accessibility compliance, cost, security, customer support, and community engagement, you can make an informed choice that enhances your council's online presence and fosters a stronger connection with the community.
Having reviewed all the strengths, features and overall performance of the three providers, Aubergine, Parish Online and Vision ICT, our view is that Aubergine provide the best, overall option in terms of service, options, design, value for money and sector experience with the clerks that took part in this review all reporting a great level of support and knowledge when they needed help.
Find out more about the parish & town council websites offered by all three providers here: