Chris White, head of digital solutions at Capita Software Services, looks at how councils can use single sign-on citizen portals to improve services and support vulnerable residents.
The digitisation of public services since November 2012 – when the government published its first digital strategy calling for “digital by default” – has shown just how innovative local authorities in the UK can be.
In that time, costs have been cut, time has been saved and citizens can pay for their parking permit online or check school term dates via their phone. Local government has embraced channel shift in many ways, with award-winning apps and money-saving online services.
However, the often piecemeal nature of digitisation means local government is missing out on many of the advantages that better integration could bring.
Local authority departments operating in silos still suffer from a tendency to put the delivery of specific services at the heart of their digital offering.
Instead, they should look to the consumer sector and the citizens’ needs at the core of their design, and aim to make services easy-to-use, accessible and personalised.
For instance, some councils’ revenues and benefits systems are planned separately to school applications, parking, and refuse. This means that multiple systems are used, making it difficult for a citizen to locate all the services they require online, and they may even need to remember multiple passwords.
And this can backfire for the council, because customers that find it hard to engage with businesses online will naturally revert to traditional channels, such as the phone or face-to-face meetings, which dramatically reduces any efficiency savings that effective digital services offer.
A more customer-centric approach to digitisation will deliver more efficiency savings and lower costs. It will also improve services by encouraging collaboration between departments and other services, such as health or the third sector, and can provide earlier interventions for vulnerable citizens.
Recent developments in management software – such as digital ‘person-centric’ portals offering citizens a single sign-on – mean that, in the future, digitisation projects can drive real change.
The benefits of single sign-on
There are clear and significant benefits to a single online portal. Not only does it drive down costs and improve value for money, it will help local authorities engage properly with each of their customers.
Having a single digital entry point will provide access to a range of public services, reusing and consolidating the authority’s existing online processes, while at the same time delivering new processes simply and quickly.
As new services are added incrementally, the council pays for only what it needs, when it needs it. It also allows the council to create services that respond to, and match, the changes in customer need and the way they choose to interact with the council.
And these new services can be designed around the citizen, regardless of departmental walls, so savings and improvements in service are multiplied, and the return on investment is proportionate to spend. The council will be able to save on expense by avoiding developing and creating tools that citizens don’t want or won’t use.
As citizens use the portal, a full picture will be built up, becoming more detailed every time they visit.
The content can be personalised and will link back to the relevant council back-office system, creating a joined-up system for the user, and improving their experience of dealing with the council online.
We see this regularly with online shopping – the user’s preferences become clearer, previous purchases are recorded, and each time it is quicker and easier for them to complete a transaction. This is the level of service consumers are starting to expect from local authorities and other public agencies.
Meanwhile, it allows the council to be more proactive and communicate with the citizen using their preferred channel – it also cuts out unnecessary contact.
Dealing with digital exclusion
The government’s “digital by default” strategy makes pointed reference to ensuring those who are digitally excluded are not left behind, and encourages the development of services which can be used by anyone.
Leaps in technology are helping to make services more accessible to all – for example, automated payment processes, voice-recognition systems or even the translation of paper forms or handwritten letters into electronic data via a combination of scanning and OCR techniques.
This will ensure that those who are reluctant, or unable, to embrace online services can still reap the benefits.
And a customer-centric portal – or, more specifically the inter-agency, inter-department collaboration it will foster – has its part to play in this.
By breaking down silos, and enabling the collection, analysis and sharing of data, early intervention will be encouraged, and devastating cases of failed engagement with vulnerable children and adults are more likely to be avoided.
Take the London Borough of Hackney’s work to put its residents’ needs at the heart of service design through its digital engagement programme, and the web portal it has created for customers to access online services.
Once registered, the portal lets residents apply for new services and track the progress of existing transactions – eliminating the need to wait or queue – from one easily-accessible point.
It gives residents a personalised, interactive and secure 24/7 online channel through which they can transact with the council across a range of departments. It also gives them more choice in how they access council services.
There are more than 11,000 Hackney residents registered on the portal, 7,700 of which have subscribed to services. It also offers the council valuable insights into their customers, allowing staff to tailor advice and services to individuals’ needs.
Great strides towards digitisation have been made by local authorities in the past four years. But we are now at a crucial juncture, where these advances can be brought together to better serve residents and their needs.
This is how ‘channel shift’ will truly start to transform local government as we know it – making it responsive to people’s needs and enabling the proactive management of future demand.