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Councils must adopt a multi-channel strategy for public services

Caroline Baldwin

Local government should be adopting a joined-up multi-channel strategy for its public service offerings, according to a chief officer of Leeds City Council.

During a panel discussion at the Civica conference in Manchester yesterday, panelists said councils offering online public services will save on costs, but telephone and face-to-face services should remain in place for citizens.

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“There needs to be a blend of different types of channels,” said Dylan Roberts, chief officer of ICT for Leeds City Council. “And there always has to be a level of face-to-face and telephone because you are dealing with individual problems that are generally complex and can’t be answered on a website.”

Roberts said 80% of his council’s contact centre calls were just asking for information and were not transactional. “Saving avoidable contact should be fairly easy to do, just focus on the website and getting to the information.”

Moving public services online ties in with central government’s digital by default agenda. Whitehall is in the middle of transforming 25 exemplar public services, including electoral registration, student finance, as well as DWP’s Universal Credit, which has been criticised for writing off millions of pounds of wasted IT.

The government has calculated that on average an online service is 20 times cheaper than a phone transaction, 30 times cheaper than by post and 50 times cheaper than face to face.

Roberts said it is important to make the information easy to access, and written in a language citizens can understand. He introduced a chat instant messaging capability to Leed’s City Council’s website for those struggling online. Staff can communicate to the individual and educate them on where to find the information on the website next time.

“It’s been fairly successful with around a 30% reduction in the amount of calls we get,” he said. “Is that all down to website? It’s hard to prove these things.”

The digital divide

But there are worries that putting public services online will be detrimental to the number of Britons without access to the internet – known as the digital divide.

Debbie Denyer, head of business improvement at the Housing Solutions Group, said 45% of its residents don’t have access to internet, with 36% of that number saying they cannot afford it, while 20% don’t know how to use it.

“A lot of the work is around providing an accessible easy-to-use service, but also a culture change to provide Wi-Fi , laptops and training,” she said. “There’s a cost element you have to pay out first to provide savings. There is not an easy solution.”

Jonathan Milbourn, head of customer service at Harrow Council, said that while 90% of Harrow households have access to the internet, the council has provided self-service internet areas for citizens, when reducing its number of face-to-face services. Citizens can be shown how to open an account for services online and then access via the self-service or from local libraries.

“It’s a hard slog to push people and maintain them to use online services,” said Milbourn.

Roberts said the proliferation of smartphones is helping to decrease the number of people not connected to the internet. But Leeds does have a huge disparity between areas, some of which are very deprived and others affluent. He said the groups of services in those areas are different, and he said the council has implemented IT at a community level. “We bring in IT developers for hack days to develop for that particular community.”

Seamless customer service

But before services are transferred online, councils must ensure that they are streamlined and joined up across different departments.

Milbourn said online has the ability to take a lot of saving for IT from back-office checks, as well as front-office services. “We were one of those councils where to renew a parking permit citizens would need to show proof of address and their vehicle registration certificate form again, and we realise how ridiculous this was.”

Meanwhile, Denyer said services need to become more streamlined and allow different departments to speak to one another.

For us in the long-term we see the internet as a way of sharing services internally and also externally.

She said the customer should receive a seamless service and should not have to repeat the same questions or requests to different departments in local government.


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