Swindon: how a ‘traditional’ council is playing digital catch-up

Ensuring vulnerable people are not excluded is central to Swindon council’s digital access drive. Gill Hitchcock reports.

Credit: Pxhere/CC BY 2.0

Swindon Borough Council is playing digital catch up. If all goes to plan, by March 2020, 85% of its transactions and interactions with residents will be completed digitally.

Its aim is a far cry from the current situation. Glyn Peach, Swindon’s director of digital services and corporate programmes, says: “We are quite traditional in how we fulfil services. And by that I mean many of the people who want to transact with the council walk in to see us. Those who don’t often phone. And, believe it or not, we still have people who write to us.”

Every year, Swindon receives nearly 70,000 visits from residents to complete the tasks they require. For instance, if people receiving benefits have a change of circumstances, the council expects them to call in bringing evidence of their entitlement to support. 

Meanwhile, its contact centres receive 500,000 calls each year and a million more go directly to council departments. “Very few of those who want to contact us are free between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday, and that’s the time we will answer the phone when you want to apply for a parking permit, make a planning application, or tell us about a bin that we’ve missed,” says Peach.

This autumn, however, Swindon’s cabinet approved a blueprint to transform the way it interacts with residents and visitors. Titled the Customer Access Strategy 2018-21, this document outlines how Swindon will provide residents with more control over when and where they contact the council, and make better use of its dwindling resources.

Swindon has identified research showing that 80% of its residents regularly use the internet to perform online transactions, such as managing finances, booking holidays and shopping.

The Customer Access Strategy aims to achieve a public sector version of this. 

“We have seen what has happened with the rest of the world, in terms of delivering those Amazon-like services where no one minds what device you are using, what time of day it is,” says Peach. “And we are looking for that quality experience for our residents, tenants and service users.”

Proportion of transactions Swindon wishes to conduct digitally by March 2020

Annual volume of calls to the council’s contact centres – with twice this amount being directed straight to individual departments

Savings the council is required to make by March 2020

Approximate number of citizens served by the council

Year in which Swindon Borough Council was formed

Two-thirds of Swindon’s contacts with residents are a result of not helping people get what they need at their first attempt. A programme to re-design council services, which sits alongside the access strategy, is seeking to address this. The digital component will be that technology will be introduced to improve the timeliness of communication and the accuracy of the response.

A website redesign is already under way, with a key aim of ensuring the council provides information in a way that suits the different needs of individuals and responds to their feedback. 

“A lot of the surfing time of the people of Swindon these days is done on a mobile device,” says Peach. “There is no point in building solutions that only work on a nice big PC screen or laptop. We absolutely have to make everything device agnostic, so it will run on any platform and work on any kind, shape and size of device, as best we can.”

Swindon has not tendered for an implementation partner. It used EY to help scope the access strategy, while Methods Business and Digital Technology is helping with digitisation and process planning. But it has its own transformation department and most of the redesign is being done in-house. 

The council is also looking to other local authorities for inspiration. 

“When you are not the most modern council in the country, then catching up can be helped by looking at your colleagues who have done very well,” says Peach.

“I am really pleased that we do a lot of sharing with other local authorities. Right now, we are just about to go to market for a new library management system. And we will be sharing that with Gloucestershire council, reducing the cost of procurement because we will share it between the two of us, and have some economies of scale.”

He thinks local government will benefit from digital innovations developed by private sector companies flush with the financial resources to “do the heavy work in getting it right”.

Swindon serves an area where employment rates, median salary levels and broadband coverage are above the national average. It means that Swindon’s residents are less likely to be digitally excluded than people in other parts of the UK. It has used Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index to suggest that nearly 80% of residents can use online services.

Of course, digital is cheaper, and savings will contribute to the council’s requirements to cut its costs by £30m by March 2020. 

But the strategy is clear in its aim of increasing digital take up is so that it can direct increasingly scarce resources to help the 20% of people for whom digital usage is not an option. Typically, these are people who are older, have learning disabilities, little or no English, or on a low income.

Council staff will be trained to support residents to access digital services, by advising or guiding them through online processes. Face-to-face appointments will be available, but at two reception centres rather than five. 

“Many of the people who want to transact with the council walk in to see us. Those who don’t often phone. And, believe it or not, we still have people who write to us.”
Glyn Peach, Swindon Borough Council

“There are a lot of changes going on, all at the same time,” says Peach. “So there are challenges in maintaining good services while we go through big change programmes. That can be difficult. The change-readiness of our organisation and the support that the transformation team provides is very important for me. That is where I keep a close eye.”

What he envisages next is a plan comprised of several projects, each with outcomes mapped to performance indicators. The take up of digital access channels and the footfall in reception centres will be good barometers.

“The one thing I would say is that we are very genuine about wanting our residents to help us on this journey,” says Peach. “Some of our residents move around the country and they come to Swindon and they think: ‘you know what? It was much easier to register for a parking permit, or whatever, when I was living in, say, Wigan’. Some of them use something at work, and they think the council could use this and save some money. 

“We are open to all and any ideas that could come forward.”

Sam Trendall

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