LITRG encourage Government to introduce a website kitemark
As more people are misled into using unofficial websites that charge for services offered for free by official Government websites, LITRG calls for the introduction of a Government kitemark for official sites to help the public ensure they are getting to the right websites.
As more and more Government services are being offered online, there has been a rise in companies offering additional or similar services for a fee even though the equivalent Government service is free or subject to a lower charge. The providers of these services may believe they are offering additional value that justifies their charges, while members of the public often complain of feeling misled into believing they were dealing with either the official Government website or a site endorsed or authorised by the Government.
Although some of these third party sites include statements confirming they are not part of the Government, the use of colours, look and feel of the site and other wording sometimes suggests otherwise. Often they will stop short of copying the official names and logos, making it difficult for Government departments to take legal action. Indeed, some of these third party sites may genuinely be adding value to the official Government services or offering additional services to those offered by Government, so whether a site is misleading may not be clear-cut.
Raising customer awareness as to unofficial vs. official sites is clearly one way to deal with this, and a concerted effort by the likes of Which? and Trading Standards will be helping inform some consumers in their choices. However, as highlighted in the recent report by the Advertising Standards Agency, people are still getting confused and being caught out, doubtless because googling for Government services such as ‘filing your tax return online’ or ‘renewing your passport’ often sees unofficial websites returned above official websites in the search results.
Google, working with Government Digital Services, have made some changes to their practices and have stopped selling advertising space to some of the companies causing problems, meaning that some official sites are now more prominent in the search results. However, the companies affected are often very determined and creative and in any case, it is impossible for Google to capture every eventuality due to the vast array of different Government services on offer and combinations of search terms that may be used. It is also very difficult for Google to distinguish between services that are not adding any value and those that are.
For example, if members of the public now search for ‘pay my congestion charge online’ the TFL website comes first on the page with no advertisements above it or to the side. However, searching for ‘tax refund’ still brings up advertisements for private companies which offer people ‘help’ to get their tax refund for a fee. Further down the page the HMRC website gives advice on getting this yourself – for free.
The launch of the ‘StartatGOV.UK’ campaign – advising people to use the GOV.UK search facility as the starting point in looking for Government services, may help to limit the activities of unofficial websites in time. But users’ Google/Yahoo/Bing habits will not change overnight and in any case, it is not always clear whether something is a Government service so that you might not even consider searching GOV.UK in the first place.
Looking for a Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card is a prime example. Whilst the body that administers the scheme is a non-departmental Government body (Construction Industry Training Board), it could just as well be an industry led initiative. It is likely that someone looking for a labouring job on a building site who needs to get health and safety verified will just Google what to do. To further complicate matters for the customer, the actual CSCS site has not been absorbed into GOV.UK, but barely looks official in comparison to some of the others that are returned above it. This makes it more likely that the worker will be misled into paying £80 or more for something that should cost £47.50.
LITRG therefore believe the key to helping the public steer clear of problems using on-line services is to ensure that official Government websites are as visible as they can be to the public. We think the best way to do this is to introduce a simple Government kitemark that could be displayed next to official Government websites in search engine results. This would ensure that no matter whether the service retains a separate site outside GOV.UK, what other advertising is on a page or where the site appears in the results, users would know, at a glance, which site is the official Government one. It would help create a ‘level playing field’ so that businesses do not gain an unfair advantage by appearing to be connected with Government when they are not. In addition, if such a kitemark was introduced, Government departments would have clear grounds to take action against anyone who tried to copy the logo inappropriately.
To support the aim of a kitemark, we would also like to see it publicised – perhaps in the form of a ‘Look for the Kitemark’ type advertising campaign. This would be particularly important around deadlines, such as the self-assessment 31 January deadline and the 31 July tax credits renewals deadline, when people may be seeking out Government websites and free services.