The Covid-19 pandemic means that many citizens are contacting their local authority online for the very first time.

Unable to communicate with officials face-to-face, they expect seamless and effective service through digital channels instead.

This increasing use of digital channels is here to stay. Citizens now have higher expectations of online council services and want a digital customer experience similar to that provided by retailers.

Local authorities want to meet these aspirations; to do so they’ll need to adapt further, improve their approach to citizens’ data and technology, and be willing to learn from others.

Discussing the future

That was the message from Andy Start, CEO for Government Services at Capita, and Jackie Belton, Chief Executive of Bexley Council, when they took part in a recent discussion about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for local government.

The discussion was part of The MJ Future Forum in September 2020, which centred around finance, social care, dealing with the pandemic, relations with Whitehall, and challenges and opportunities for the public sector.

Its theme was how the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed citizens’ expectations of council services, and how they engage with them. 

A new way to connect

Andy noted how, after a decade of austerity, local authorities’ spending power has been significantly reduced. Even with an increase in 2016/17, they still have 21% less money to spend than they did in 2009/101. At the same time, they are having to cope with an increasing demand for their services that started even before the pandemic.

As the country shifted operations online, almost overnight councils have had to quickly find a new, digital way to connect with citizens and provide services, he said. But, while councils have made significant advances, the customer experience they provide still lags behind the private sector. Top performing industries average 8.1 / 10 for digital experiences, while the UK Government scores 5.7 / 10 overall2.

UK councils deal with 600m interactions each year3. Out of these, an estimated 400m are online, which leaves 200m interactions costing about £8.50 each to hold face-to-face and £2.50 for a call – a significant amount of money that could be saved from councils’ hard-pressed budgets while improving the service for citizens.

Rising to the challenge

Jackie shared Bexley Council’s experience of responding to residents’ expectations, and how it had been helped by Covid-19.

The residents’ and council’s expectations are aligned, she said. They both want clean, green, safe places to live and raise a family, good schools and a safety net when needed, with minimal council intervention. But residents also expect their interactions with the council to be slick and efficient, at the same level as with big online retailers.

This has led the council to create a digital customer journey that’s better, quicker and more cost-effective. So it has smoothed the customer journey, using digital channels more and making them more accessible and productive.

“The more enquiries the council can resolve online or at first request, the better it is for all parties,” she said.

The council’s role post Covid-19 

Capita has helped local authorities across the UK to make this digital journey, working alongside them to transform their services to new remote models by providing software, hardware, network support and workforce training.

Andy said that it has been “genuinely impressive” to see what can be accomplished when local government and its partners come together around a unified purpose. He estimated that, in the past five months, councils have undergone more transformation than they have in the past five years.

These changes have been bigger than simply working from home. Established patterns of behaviour have fallen away. There are fewer people in already-struggling town centres, and local businesses have seen their revenue fall. New claims for Universal Credit increased by at least 400% in March and April 2020, and analysis by the Institute of Employment Studies shows that 1.4 million people made a claim for the benefit in March 2020, compared to the average monthly figure of 235,000 the previous year.

It’s no wonder that the demand for grants has increased. Andy said: “At the height of the crisis, Capita teams were dealing with 400 grants a day to businesses on behalf of councils using Capita’s Digital Grants Management system, but this level of support cannot be sustained indefinitely.

“For many citizens, Covid-19 has brought about the first meaningful interaction they have had to have with the council for years. They are used to simple, intuitive digital experiences on their terms, much like they would receive from retailers or banks.”

The panelists agreed that citizens are frustrated with current channels’ effectiveness, due to a lack of clear information, accountability and smooth access. They want and expect quality digital experiences that are easy to access and that deliver the services they need.  Automation is a valuable, though imperfect, tool for redesigning services to achieve this, and councils should make a start.

“Local authorities face a growing expectation to modernise public administration that they can only really achieve and sustain by redesigning their services,” said Andy.

Transformation is underway

Jackie explained how Bexley Council has innovated during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

She said that most of Bexley employees are working effectively remotely. The council has now put all its public decision-making meetings online, broadcasting them live to allow residents to listen to decisions being made.

Its local voluntary sector partners have also made great leaps in their digital offering and capabilities, enabling residents to receive information and referrals more effectively. Communication has shifted online and the council updates its website frequently to provide the latest information on Covid-19 and its services. It has also embraced the use of e-forms to automate everyday tasks, introducing instant messaging and email queuing to ensure that customer contact agents can answer all enquiries.

The biggest prize for the cash-strapped council, said Jackie, is the opportunity to re-think its use of land and assets, while improving customer service.

Andy added that Capita has seen customers and partners enjoy significant benefits from auditing and transforming their processes. This includes removing silos between services and divisions, helping senior managers to empathise with citizens and understand where the digital experience is falling short, mapping trends using data and customer demographic information, and using artificial intelligence, chatbots and robotic process automation to improve the customer experience and drive efficiencies.

He said that Capita is currently testing an exciting new intelligent and automated customer experience service that’s demonstrating the significant benefits of removing large chunks of administration and introducing self-serve functionality.

Looking to the future 

In conclusion, Andy noted that, just as we’ve seen with banking, retail and healthcare, digital public services are now the baseline. How can councils rethink the delivery of local services in the same way that the private sector has had to? Might this involve thinking about new partnerships and ecosystems? And what lessons can we take from other industries to ensure that we don’t exclude people from digital public services?

“If there’s one critical element to embracing digital in citizen experience, it’s making sure that the vulnerable aren’t left behind,” he said.

“Local authorities will have to make some difficult choices about how they operate in the future: how they’re structured, the services they deliver and how citizens use those services. To make the right choices, they’ll need to think differently and – crucially – put citizens, data and insight, and technology at the heart of change.”

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