Sunday, December 02, 2007

Life through a distorting mirror

An intriguing article in The Sunday Telegraph (no link – print edition only) tells us: "Official websites cost up to £60 a user". The thrust of the story is that "taxpayers money is being 'squandered' on government websites that cost up to £60 for every visitor, with one registering less than one user a day".

This is the result of an initiative by Conservative MP Theresa May, who has been diligently pursuing the government with a series of Parliamentary questions on the costs of its internet operations, yielding the overall expenditure of £208 million per annum on about 800 sites – about £260,000 per site.

I have to admit that the story evoked what was probably the intended reaction – of disgust at what "opposition MPs" have branded as "profligacy". This was tempered with not a little smugness when I thought of the operating costs of this blog, compared with one Transport Department funded site. This cost £17,220 to set up and £94,115 to run but yielded only 1,536 visitors last year – hence the claim that websites cost up to £60 for every visitor.

Cursed with an insatiable curiosity, however, and a desire to see the "bigger picture" – plus a reluctance to accept anything at face value the media offers – I spent a little time going back to source, looking up Theresa May's questions on Hansard.

Of special interest – as you might expect – was the expenditure on the MoD websites, and here the data were fascinating. The Parliamentary Answer informs that the main MoD website took 17.6 million visits last year, at a direct cost of £177,875 and the Army site 52.3 million for the expenditure of £160,000.

Thus, the costs per hit respectively are 0.01p and 0.003p which, by any measure, is extraordinarily good value. Furthermore, these traffic levels not only underline the utility of the internet as means of communication but, in terms of the number of site visits, it gives the lie to the claim that the British public is indifferent to the fate of our Armed Forces. More than 50 million unique page views on the Army site suggest an extremely high level of interest.

As to the Telegraph story though, we can see once again the effect of selective use of facts. Nothing in the story is incorrect – it is based on unimpeachable facts. But the true situation is somewhat different.

Of course, a story that the government is enjoying mixed success with its internet efforts would not make a headline, but it does underline the salient facts that it is not only governments that are guilty of "spin" and that anyone who takes their information solely from the media is viewing life though a distorting mirror.

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