When it comes to a paper trail, there's one thing you can be sure of: it's only ever going to grow longer and become harder to follow. Councils are only too aware of this problem. They create and amass vast amounts of information about the residents in their borough, which they may need to access at short notice.
Much of this documentation hails from the Revenues and Benefits Service, the department responsible for collecting council tax and dishing out benefits. Collecting, storing and accessing this tax and benefits data is a particularly time-consuming and complex task for the London Borough of Brent. Almost a quarter of its residents live in council or housing association accommodation and nigh on a third of households − that's 32,000 homes − qualify for housing benefits.
It's clearly vital the council deals with this mountainous pile of documents as efficiently as possible, otherwise it could leave tenants unable to make their payments on time and the council out of pocket. Equally, the council doesn't want to make overpayments, as it could incur penalties if it's found to be at fault.
The process problem
Brent had already made the giant leap from paper to electronic processing in 1995, opting for an outsourcing arrangement running electronic document imaging system ViewStar. Even though it was happy with the system, by the early 2000s the system was sagging and spluttering under the demands put upon it.
"One of the most difficult things was that it was built in an old programming language called Lisp, so it was incredibly costly to make changes and the people needed to make these changes were a rare species," recalls Margaret Read, head of revenues and benefits at Brent Council.
The rigidity of the system was also hampering the department's performance. "Revenue is such a volatile environment, subject to legislation, so the key thing for me was flexibility," says Read. With such an unyielding system, it was taking staff far too long to make the legislative changes needed and there was little room for growth. This lack of flexibility also meant staff had evolved the way they work to fit the system, rather than use the system as an aid to their activities. It was high time to put people back in charge. "We wanted to get a workflow system that met our needs rather than be driven by it," explains Read.
When the outsourcing contract ended in 2001, the council decided it would be better value to bring the system back in-house. This move coincided with a wider initiative to assess all aspects of its service delivery and IT priorities in a bid to improve overall efficiency.
The council turned to support services company Capita, which had already been given a broad responsibility to run the council's IT systems, to seek out a workflow system to fit its current, and just as importantly, its future needs. Domino, the council's standard workflow system, didn't fit the bill, but eventually Capita pinpointed Global 360's NX Enterprise business process management system as having the credentials for the job. In November last year, the system went live.
One of the key benefits of NX Enterprise is that it can cope with the 0.5Tbytes of current and historical data in the department. Swapping to magnetic media rather than relying on optical jukebox storage has greatly speeded up the time it takes to access archived documents. Not only does the system ensure document flow is more efficient, it has also had a positive effect on staff working practices.
Employees are no longer constrained by a non-responsive system. NX Enterprise makes it easier for staff to see how work is progressing and to spot any potential bottlenecks. As work can be automatically routed to the right person, it also frees up manager time to actually manage rather than simply allocate jobs.
From a personal perspective, Read has found it far easier to manage her own productivity. "I have absolute visibility of what work I've got and when it's done," she says.
This new approach has had a dramatic effect on the success of one of its key customer services, the council's One Stop Shops. These six information points, dotted throughout the borough, provide Brent residents with an easy and efficient way of accessing information, including documents.
Around 10,000 Revenues and Benefits customers use the service every month, but as there had been only one PC hooked up to ViewStar information at each information centre, it had been a frustrating process for staff and customers alike. NX Enterprise has put an end to the queuing.
Lessons learned and the future
"For me, the biggest benefit has been pushing performance forward. When we took it over we had a huge backlog and we have cleared through all that now," says Read.
It's enabled Read and her staff to have a much clearer picture of the day-to-day running of the department and to spot where improvements could be made. Luckily, the system implementation went pretty smoothly and staff found it straightforward to use.
With hindsight, however, Read realises the department should have taken longer at the start of the project to really nail down requirements. "We lost time at the beginning because we described particular requirements to Global 360, but as time went on our requirements changed and they'd already done the work."
Now the department is looking at fully integrating the workflow solution with the council's main benefits application, as well as with its CRM and other front-end systems.
Capitalising on its new-found flexibility, the council also hopes to offer staff the possibility of remote working or creating satellite offices. Customers will have more choice too. "The next stage is to provide web services so customers can get information centrally and a copy of bills or fill in forms online," says Read.
Whichever path the department chooses, Read is now confident it can rely on a document management system that is agile and malleable enough to cope with anything central government or its customers ask of it.