Richard Kingston

The challenge of digitising council services

Posted Nov 15, 2017

There has been a long standing ambition amongst local government authorities to be able to offer their services to their residents, businesses and visitors digitally. As far back as 2002 there was an eGovernment Strategy encouraging them to do so, recognising a significant opportunity at the time to meet rising customer demand and to generate efficiency savings.

This was more recently validated in 2016 when the Society for IT Managers (SOCITM) published their Business case for digital investment briefing paper which highlighted a continued increase in that demand and pointed out that ‘self serving’ customers were significantly cheaper to deal with than those turning up in person. They estimated that face to face interactions attracted average costs of £8.21 per time, while calls to contact centres were just £2.59 and on websites could be as little as £0.09! There was then, and remains to be now, a clear driver for providing digital access to services.

And so over the last 16 years (likely longer than that - Barnsley Council’s first website was launched in 1997) council’s have been investing time and effort into developing their digital offers. They’ve envisioned that in the fullness of time, as customers ‘shift access channels’, it will be possible to close public offices, reduce staff in call centres and reinvest the monies associated with those two things to grow digital opportunities further. There stands a spiral of increasing benefit for councils and customers.

But all that being the case, why then after all this time haven’t council’s succeeded? Why aren’t they offering full suites of digital public services already?

It turns out designing even a simple digital service is difficult! They can’t just rehash a traditional business process to fit around some shiny new technology. It’s not enough to just make adjustments to the status quo operation and expect that to be suitable or appropriate to meet the needs of this new digital customer. To accept that council customers are demanding something new has to mean exactly that and questions must be asked. What is it that our customers really need and whats the least painful way for them to get that from us? Does what we have on offer now satisfy that need? What could be done differently? Better?

The Local Government Digital Service Standard offers a great approach that can be taken to carrying out this inward reflection, to ultimately redesign and deliver good quality, user centered, value for money digital services. The standard is built on the back of the heavily researched GovUK Service Manual that identifies services as end-to-end processes, from the point of initial customer need, to the resolution of that need - not just an eForm at the front end that is submitted into an internal processing abyss.

As council’s take the opportunity to challenge these processes and to test their assumptions about their customers, it encourages them to do so consitently across all their access channels. A digital service mustn’t just be launched at the expense of a more traditional route in - despite that being the quickest way to realise the savings potential that’s available. There will always be a need for mediated support amongst the less technically savvy of customers. There will always be those who need a reassuring voice rather than a robotic confirmation or error message. Some customers will never adapt to digital technology. In short, council’s aren’t entirely in control of their service offers - customers decide how customer-centric they must be and there remains a core demand for the human touch.

It’s an incredibly challenging issue and the complexity we’ve found in redesigning our services and in the approach we’ve taken to doing so, has energised some fairly lengthy pieces of work that while effective, have swallowed up months, if not years worth of effort. Testing alone has proven to be a very protracted affair and often times systems integrations have been amazingly extensive and costly. Engagement with individual council departments has ranged from positive to down right fractious on occassion - we’ve seen some staff actively refuse to change.

And so at the moment, of the 986 council services delivered nationally according to the ESD Toolkit, in Barnsley we offer somewhere in the region of 630 of them. We’ve digitised only around 150 of those that we’ve published to barnsley.gov.uk and I’d argue that those created in the early days are far from perfect. I personally have been at this for the last 18 years and it’s very frustrating, although entirely understandable, that we’ve only managed to deliver such a relatively small proportion of what we ultimately must, but I believe the work is just and continuing is the right thing to do.

That said, accepting that digitising services is still an appropriate investment, how on earth do we ever actually reach a point that all of our services are available digitally? If we continue with our current approach, many more decades will pass and by the time we do eventually finish, there’ll be a whole new set of customer demands to cater for. Even now we’re seeing the mainstream rollout of smart home devices, voice assistants, wearables and Internet of Things devices. While the “eGovernment ask” of us remains, there has to be a new way of thinking about how it’s achieved!

I intend to research this further over the coming months with a view to submitting a proposal and business case in Barnsley for ‘reform’. I’d like to create an opportunity for us try something a little different, certainly something agile and iterative. My software development team have proven their worth time and again when it comes to pure talent and capability around this very sort of thing and so I’d like them to have a chance to get their teeth into the problem and to see what they can do.

I’ll post again and the story progresses.