Local Government Digital by Design - Building Better Vending Machines
I last wrote about 'Building Better Vending Machines' last June when I suggested that the current drive to provide self-service, digital by design services to citizens might be fraught with problems. Nearly nine months later I have seen nothing that persuades me I was wrong.
Just by way of a recap, Building Better Vending Machines (BBVM) is a phrase I shared with Pete Doyle, CEO of the SocialRetail Group when we were discussing the lessons learned from the retail industry in their drive to do everything on line. Building self-service web sites where the customer could only buy what the retailer wanted to sell probably served the retail market eight years ago, but what about local government and its customers? Building a vending machine where citizens can only ‘buy’ what the local council wants to ‘sell’ doesn’t sound very much like customer service to me.
Local government faces enormous pressures on budgets over the next five years. The Spending Review in December 2015 and the subsequent settlements, and finally the Chancellors March Budget, painted a rather bleaker picture of local government finance than many expected. Recent activities in global markets might also suggest the future isn’t that certain or plentiful. But is digital self-service the answer (or at least one of the answers)
There is no doubt in my mind that there are some inefficiencies in local government processes and systems. Ever since we started on the e-gov trail in 2006, great claims have been made for the savings that could be made, if only we could just join all this stuff up. Ten years later there are few notable examples of councils realising those claimed savings, but, if my experience is anything to go by, no shortage of councils are still trying, and still spending significant sums of money.
I read with interest the governmentguidance published in December on the use of capital receipts which now gives local councils more freedom to sell off the ‘family silver’ and buy more new ‘shiny things’. The categories for ‘approved expenditure’ are:
- Sharing back-office and administrative services with one or more other council or public sector bodies
- Investment in service reform feasibility work, e.g. setting up pilot schemes
- Collaboration between local authorities and central government departments to free up land for economic use
- Funding the cost of service reconfiguration, restructuring or rationalisation (staff or non-staff), where this leads to ongoing efficiency savings or service transformation
- Sharing Chief-Executives, management teams or staffing structures
- Driving a digital approach to the delivery of more efficient public services and how the public interacts with constituent authorities where possible
- Aggregating procurement on common goods and services where possible, either as part of local arrangements or using Crown Commercial Services or regional procurement hubs or Professional Buying Organisations
- Improving systems and processes to tackle fraud and corruption in line with the Local Government Fraud and Corruption Strategy – this could include an element of staff training
- Setting up commercial or alternative delivery models to deliver services more efficiently and bring in revenue (for example, through selling services to others)
- Integrating public facing services across two or more public sector bodies (for example children’s social care, trading standards) to generate savings or to transform service delivery.
And there at number 6 is the option to fund the next round of ‘Building Better Vending Machines’! I expect the suppliers of the software to local government are jumping for joy.
Published in the same week that the Chancellor announced further reductions in local government funding Nesta published a report ConnectedCouncils, A digital Vision of Local Government in 2025 which claims £14.7Bn per annum could be saved if we just connected it all up.
And this brings me to one of my main concerns. In the last 5 years I have been involved in many integration projects as local councils seek to join up their web sites, CRM and back office systems, and have been horrified by the costs that are being paid from the public purse to integrate systems.
The real problem is that each local council is different. Although nearly all the services they operate are statutory, each council chooses to do things their own way. A typical district council will have around 30 IT systems ranging from Council Tax to Electoral Registration and could expect to spend over £300,000 per annum in licence fees to their IT suppliers. On top of this, where integrations are required into a self-service web site, suppliers are charging each local authority additional fees that can sometimes amount to £30k.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the development, once funded by ‘council A’ was shared with ‘council B’ at minimal cost. But this doesn’t happen, and although the IT suppliers are not blameless here, some of the fault lies with local government itself. In its pursuit of being ‘local’ each council seems to combine the 30 or so systems in differing combinations. In 30 years of local government service I have never seen two councils have exactly the same set of systems (even those who have Shared IT services). If you try and track the decision making process that arrived at a particular combination of suppliers for a council, you will soon discover the vagaries of public sector procurement where price determines everything and value is rarely considered.
So why should each council have a different system for each of its services? I am not claiming that Universal Credit is an outstanding success (either in its implementation or the social impact it is beginning to have) but surely one national system for a national service makes sense in cost terms. Being of the age where I lived through implementing Unified Housing Benefit, which became known as Housing Benefit, I saw the colossal cost of dismantling a national system and creating local systems in the early 80s. Maybe some joined up thinking will prevail and see the number of systems rationalised in some way, but I suspect that this won’t happen unless there is some form of ‘coercion by government, either by taking systems away from councils, or, perhaps more likely, by taking more money away. The Budget announcements on Small Business Rate Relief could set an ominous precedent.
But what about what the citizen wants? Undoubtedly they will want 24/7 service for transactional type services such as payment of Penalty Charge Notices, Bulky Waste Items etc. but perhaps they should be asked?
I am sure that councils have been consulting with their customers over a number of years, but I haven’t really seen many use Social Media effectively to engage with the growing number of customers who expect other, non-council services delivered in this way.
From my research over the last year, most councils are using social media to ‘broadcast’ their messages to anyone who might be listening, rather than using it to engage people in a conversation.
Maybe, if we changed ‘Talking into Listening’ we might find out what our customers really want and stop joining systems up, just because we can. I will save this discussion for next time.