Public Services > Local Government

Digital initiatives: looking beyond the technology

Published 29 November 2016

Driving digital initiatives requires a great customer experience as much as technical excellence says James Collingridge, partnership manager at Peterborough City Council


It’s common knowledge that budget cuts across local councils have left authorities looking for ways to tighten their purse strings. This has led to many introducing digital processes to help reduce costs and streamline systems, allowing staff to concentrate on giving residents the level of support they deserve -- something that a computer can’t do...yet.

Just look at Plymouth City Council which is using tools like BookingBug to bring constituents closer while saving money, or Birmingham City Council using the Agilisys Care platform to ease the burden of social care cuts.

But what isn’t discussed often enough is how to boost these technically excellent projects with the education, means of communication and layers of customer experience that ensure you get a positive response when rolling them out.

In this article I want to take you through a similar challenge we faced at Peterborough City Council. Our team needed to find ways to free up almost £1m of budget without unfairly impacting our residents or restricting access to crucial services.

Here’s how we did it.

Look outside your own bubble

When working on public sector projects in previously unchartered waters, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what excellence looks like. At Peterborough we found ourselves in this situation.

We had already established that introducing a charge for garden waste collection could help make big savings; vital during an era of reducing local authority funding. The next step was identifying how we did this in a way that was best for our residents.

Not many of these projects had been embarked on before in the public sector so looking at innovative initiatives further afield became important. We scoured the private sector for similar projects to gain some insight and inspiration.

We started looking for the best examples of companies collecting recurring payments without burdening customers with extra work. This is how we found our technology provider GoCardless , a direct debit platform that was already helping 20,000 businesses do exactly what we wanted.

So the first takeaway here, is: Don’t be afraid to look at what the private sector is doing to satisfy customer expectations and learn from these experiences. 

Communicate sooner rather than later

Nobody likes a surprise, especially when it could incur additional costs. That's why communicating any changes and highlighting their benefits to residents early on can be key.

Once we had chosen our tech provider for the project we wanted to ensure our residents were prepared for the new charge and understood why it was needed. This might seem obvious but one council took the blunt approach of simply stating: “We’ve introduced a charge for garden waste collection. If you want your garden waste collected, sign up using the link below.”

This runs the risk of alienating residents and leaving a vacuum of information for negative opinions to fill. Instead, we looked to Harrow Council for advice on how it should be done. As they explained to residents in their FAQ section :

“Balancing our budget, whilst delivering vital services, is becoming harder. It’s a position we share with councils everywhere ... It’s all part of our commitment to be a greener borough and the best for recycling in London

This kind of explanation sets the situation out honestly and clearly. These tough choices, about where to spend money and make savings, really affect people’s lives. Making sure every detail from the roll out date to related costs are clear from the outset  and we wanted to minimise the impact further down the line.

Put a system in place that makes it easy

Once we explained why the charge was being introduced, we wanted to do everything possible to make the process simple for residents. We’d already done the hardest job of communicating why we needed to charge for garden waste, we didn’t want to throw all that away with bad processes!

Ensuring you understand the bigger problem you’re trying to solve is key. For us it was all about taking recurring payments. This allows you to ensure the tech you choose is flexible enough to support similar initiatives in the future. For example if we ever offered Direct Debit as a payment method for other purposes, then we know GoCardless could support it.

Functionality isn’t the only element of this though. It’s also about perfecting what I’ll call the resident journey’. Think about when you’re shopping on Amazon, the experience is so slick and so quick you can find yourself wanting to use it again and again. This is what local councils should be aspiring to when introducing digital initiatives.  

Don’t hold back

In a world of increasingly available digital tools, local councils should no longer feel restricted by tight budgets. Especially as these platforms are often more cost effective than their predecessors. Soon the councils which fail to ‘go digital’ will soon find themselves lagging behind.

Here at Peterborough City Council we’ve been trying to stay ahead of this trend. Even before winning Smart City of the Year  we have been praised for our innovative approach to new technology. Launching our Garden Waste service with GoCardless was the next step in this journey. But it’s the sum of these parts that is having such an impact on our council as a whole.

Now the cogs are whirring about what’s coming next and I encourage you to do the same. It’s time to get on an even keel with the private sector players and show them that the public sector can also wield digital to provide great customer experience.

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