05 May 2021

Using technology, data and insight to create a new customer experience across local government

Guest blog: Simon Freeman, Managing Director for Capita Local Public Services, and Chris Melia, Capita’s Customer Experience Director for Local Public Services, discuss the challenges that local government has faced during the Coronavirus pandemic. As part of our #DigitalPlace week

Putting citizens at the heart of service design is the key to future success.

Simon: Chris, as our Customer Experience Director, you work closely with our local authority clients. Over the last couple of months, what have been the major changes you've seen as they’ve had to adapt to new ways of working and new requirements from citizens?

Chris: I think local government has done a fantastic job in responding to the challenges we've seen over the last three months. Local authorities were already facing significant challenges before the pandemic and the way they’ve worked to ensure that residents and businesses have been able to keep using key services has been exceptional.

Two things have stood out for me:

  1. Local authorities have very quickly mobilised their workforce to work remotely so they can continue to deliver services in times of increased demand. This has been a significant step, and will no doubt change the way that councils operate in the future.
  2. Citizens have still needed to use key services and local authorities have successfully moved services online or via self-service in response. These services been used in high volumes and by customers from all demographics, which is testament to the speed and thought that councils have put into the design and their focus on the customer experience. We now need to ask whether we still need to provide these services face-to-face and if citizens need to still speak to a human agent about their council tax bill.

It’s clear to me that councils have implemented both of these changes faster than planned because of the recent challenges, which is evidence that, when the barriers are removed, change can happen quickly and successfully.

Simon: There’s no doubt that the pandemic has provided opportunities to do things differently and to finally implement new approaches that local government has been aware of for some time. What do you see as the main challenges facing councils now as we begin to emerge from lockdown?

Chris: They’re having to provide services that meet customers’ expectations, while experiencing increased demand and operating with reduced budgets.

I have a particular focus on the customer element. The reality is that the last favourable digital experience a customer has will become the benchmark for every future one, including those with the public sector. This means that local authorities face a growing expectation to modernise public administration that they can only really achieve and sustain by redesigning their services. The key is to provide services simply, accessibly and cost-efficiently, with the help of data and customer insight. It’s important to design services based on what the customer is telling us and what the data suggests rather than what we think is right or how the technology dictates. The adoption of digital has been so fast and easily accepted, that I think it's unlikely that citizens will want to go back to using the more traditional methods of engagement.

Simon: How do you think local authorities can prioritise and meet these challenges?

Chris: There’s a lot to do and prioritising the different activities can be difficult, but I believe customer engagement is key to meeting these challenges.

Working alongside residents and businesses to design service delivery will help to ensure that services are used in a way that suits both the customer and the council. Budget challenges mean that local authorities are going to have to make some difficult decisions that may not be universally welcome, but engaging with citizens in this way ensures that they feel part of the solution and encourages them to use the most appropriate channel. This will become increasingly important as councils will need to transition even more quickly to digital self-service in the next 12 months.

Wise investment in technology will also be critical. Councils will shift more rapidly to cloud-based solutions and increase their use of low code to enable the quick development of new applications. This will be driven by cost and the ability to respond quickly to changing requirements.

Changing the way services are delivered and used in the future will also require councils to make significant changes to their cultures and how they train their employees.

Simon: It’s clear that local authorities are going to have to think differently if they’re going to continue to deliver high-quality services to citizens in the future. What innovations have you seen in customer experience that have helped to create better outcomes for them?

Chris: We’ve been talking about insight and analytics for a long time, but we’ve rarely seen it used in this way to drive significant change or provide senior leaders with actionable data with which to make decisions. Gathering data from multiple sources and having the skills and technology to analyse it can help to create organisation-wide change. Sharing the information with teams that don’t interact directly with citizens allows them to see the impact their daily decisions has on customer experience.

We’ve seen our partners enjoy significant benefits by:

  • Removing silos between their services / divisions by engaging them in evidence - and insight-based discussions about customer service. This allows them to pursue joint initiatives to solve shared problems.
  • Helping senior managers to empathise and visualise the most painful experience gaps for their citizens, to allow them to make better decisions. Likewise, helping operations to understand where demand comes from, prompts them to take action.
  • Intelligently and rapidly using data alongside customer demographic information to understand patterns and predict the impact of significant events. This enables councils to reduce demand and costs.

Artificial intelligence, chatbots and robotic process automation will also be key to improving the customer experience and to driving efficiencies. We’re currently trialling an exciting new intelligent and automated customer experience service with Bexley Council, which is demonstrating the significant benefits of designing a service that removes large chunks of administration and introduces self-serve functionality to reduce the amount of calls hitting the contact centre or processing teams.

Simon: That sounds like an exciting project and one worth following. What have our clients' successes been in the digital transformation space Chris?

Chris: I’ve been incredibly proud of how we’ve been able to continue delivering services for our clients despite the pandemic. In a lot of cases we’ve been asked to provide additional services and we’ve been able to do this very quickly.

Even more impressively, we’ve continued to drive transformation forward with several of our clients remotely. The focus for all our clients has quite rightly been on responding to urgent demand from citizens and to the changes caused by the pandemic. But we’ve still been able to accelerate progress with some significant transformation programmes for them, which they’re starting to benefit from now as activity begins to slow down.

Before the pandemic, we would have collaborated with our clients onsite to deliver these transformation programmes, which would have involved lots of workshops in council offices with colleagues and partners. But even though we haven’t been on site, we’ve still been able to drive significant transformation. We’ve run workshops remotely, using some really exciting tools and techniques that have actually been more effective and efficient in some cases.

Simon: How have you adapted ways of working within your own team during the pandemic to ensure clients and citizens get the extra support they need, and what are the challenges your team now face?

Chris: The team have responded exceptionally well to the new ways of working. This has been a worrying time for everybody, but they have stayed focused on supporting clients and maintained a superb level of service.

As a team, we’ve embraced the change and found many new ways of collaborating with our clients, partners and colleagues to maintain momentum and hit milestones. We’ve introduced remote workshops and whiteboard sessions, which is definitely something we will continue with. We’ve been able to collaborate far more than we normally would and it has really enhanced our partnerships with our clients.

To support team members’ wellbeing, we’ve introduced some interesting ways of keeping in touch with each other. We’ve had regular video social drinks at the end of the day, coffee mornings, quizzes, bingo and weekly check-in sessions.

The challenge will be to resist the temptation to revert back to our old ways of working in the future. We’ll also need to ensure that the quick changes we have put in place to respond to the pandemic are culturally and technologically sustainable.

Simon: So, in the light of all of this, what do you think the future looks like for local government and how can councils prepare now?

Chris: I think we’ll see much more remote working, as we’ve proved that the technology needed to enable the vast majority of people to work from home or remote sites exists and works. We’ll see different ways of delivering services through agile working. The appetite from citizens is there to use online services, and we’ll see the inevitable move to digital services continue to accelerate as a result.

There’ll be a continued focus on commercial services and how local authorities generate more income in the absence of funding, and also on how they can build stronger partnerships with local businesses and community groups to deliver services in a different way.

I’m certain that there will be some difficult choices to be made about how local authorities operate in the future: how they’re structured, the services they deliver and how citizens use those services. Making the right choices will require councils to think differently and – crucially – put citizens, data and insight, and technology at the forefront of the change.