Austerity and customer demand have driven Chelmsford City Council to trial online transactions, with nearly half of the services under trial now completed digitally only.
Chelmsford City Council piloted applications for residents’ parking permits and senior railcards online from November 2012. It used AchieveSelf online self-service portal from Firmstep. The portal is part of the Chelmsford council’s website, built using Firmstep’s AchieveCMS content management system.
Elaine Peck, customer services manager for Chelmsford City Council, said: “We knew there could be reluctance for people to go online, because historically they always wanted to meet and talk.”
However, cost imperatives and customer demand made the case for online channels unavoidable. “We are being affected by the welfare reform changes. One of the motivations to shift simple transactions online was to make time to work with customers affected by the changes,” Peck said.
“We also have a high working population in the area, so people want to do transactions quickly and at a time convenient to them.”
“But we were surprised by how many people were willing to do it, particularly for senior railcards, which is the customer group perceived most difficult to self-serve.”
Further services to go online
Read more about online transactions
The next transactions to go online at Chelmsford council will be pest control bookings and special waste collection. The council will also introduce an online direct debit facility for council tax payments.
“At the moment customers have to ring us and send us a paper form, which is grossly inefficient. It’s more robust if the customer is putting in their details themselves, as it de-creases the risk of human error,” Peck said.
The digitisation of benefits will be more challenging, she said. “It’s more difficult for people to follow progress of housing benefit online, for example as it needs back- and front-office system integration. But we are starting to work on those more complex transactions.”
But significant time savings could be made through online transactions.
“For example, if we said complete an online form before people came in, then that would start to shave time off interviews we have with them, and would advise them of the evidence they needed to bring in ahead of the meeting,” Peck said.
"So we’d be shifting the balance of responsibility to members of public. But because of the vulnerability of that group we’d need to carefully consider the support they’d need.”
She said the introduction of universal credit, which intends to make benefits accessible online, is too far away to affect the authority.
Exclusively digital channels
At the moment online transactions are just one channel option for customers, but Peck says she does see the council moving towards having that as the only channel for certain transactions.
“In the light of the success of simple transactions, we need to look again at the contact levels we are getting on the phone and face-to-face and see where we can reap the greatest reward with online channels,” Peck said.
“We know there is public demand for more services to go online, but to do it effectively we have to have integrated systems on the front- and back-end. And that is where it gets expensive."
Councils are currently caught between having to make savings but lacking the resources to invest in the necessary changes, she said.