Apps, automation and allotments

Durham County Council’s head of digital Alan Patrickson lifts the lid on the authority’s citizen-focused five-year transformation journey

Durham Castle and Cathedral sit on the banks of the river Wear   Credit: Jungpionier/CC BY-SA 3.0

Like most councils, our challenges are clear: how do we improve the customer experience at a time when budgets are continually being cut? How do we encourage people to do things online when they’ve always telephoned the council with their issues? And how do we embed a customer service ethic through the whole service cycle?
At Durham County Council our approach has been to listen to our customers, making the voice of the customer available to everyone involved in the service delivery cycle.
Our strategy since 2014 has been relatively simple: make it easier for people to contact us; make our services customer-focused; and use customer feedback to improve.
We’ve used these three threads as a basis to transform the customer experience for our most high-profile services, dramatically improving customer satisfaction and achieving substantial efficiency savings.
In many areas, this has meant changing the way we work to move towards delivering a better and more cost-effective customer experience – not only at first point of contact, but right the way through the customer journey.
At a time when council budgets have been cut significantly, protecting frontline services, improving customer service and increasing satisfaction with fewer resources continues to be a major challenge.  To address this challenge, Durham embarked on an ambitious and innovative digital change programme to further enhance the customer offer and access to online services.

Number of citizens transacting online with Durham County Council

Proportion of allotments across Durham that are now managed online

14 million
Number of page views of Durham County Council’s website in 2018

We recognised early in our digital journey that, to deliver sustainable transformation, we needed to focus on three elements: people; process; and technology. 

In practice, this begins with redesigning our services from a customer perspective. To do this we used all the available customer feedback and created mechanisms to capture data where it previously did not exist.
We worked with all stakeholders, and in many cases customers, to redesign processes ensuring they were streamlined, efficient, and met customer needs and expectations. 
The remit of each review is to provide the best customer experience end to end by:
Using a digital first approach to increase choice to customers – we never ‘switch off’ contact channels to force customers online, our approach has been to make the online offer attractive so that people will instinctively use it
Improving omni channel access for customers
Increasing automation to get things resolved as quickly as possible 
Providing automated updates to customers
Providing customers with the ability to provide feedback on our services
Providing managers with data, information and intelligence to continue to improve services and get it right first time
Freeing up resource to provide a better service to areas of greater need
Channel shift
The significant work we have undertaken to improve our website and online services has resulted in a substantial channel shift. Over 137,000 customers are now choosing to transact with us online through our easy-to-use ‘do it online service’. 
Our public-facing digital channels continue to grow year on year with sessions on the council’s main website up 17% across the year to January 2019 and over 14 million page views in 2018. Online is now our most popular contact channel for service requests. Over the last 12 months, we have received over 170,000 service requests online, which significantly reducing processing costs.
The range of online take-up has been extremely wide with some of our key services receiving over 90% online take–up. Had these channels not been available, an additional £446,000 and 14 customer service agents would have been needed to meet customer demand. We have even received an enormous online take-up where we wouldn’t have expected, for example in areas like allotment contracts, with 79% of customers now managing their allotment online. 
Real-time fully automated performance dashboards are now available to senior management… this means that performance against service standards, channel shift and customer satisfaction is accessible at any time
Not only is reporting online easy and convenient for customers, it also enables us to direct requests straight to the front line. For example, 50% of noise and 36% of antisocial behaviour complaints are made outside of normal working hours and are now automatically directed to the relevant officer without waiting for our offices to open.
We have developed mobile phone apps sparingly, and only in cases where there is a specific user group and a specific need, such as a student app designed to help support Durham University students living in the city to access specific services, and a swimming app to increase swimming participation across the county. These are proving to be popular within their target audiences.
Reducing our avoidable contact is also paramount to achieving our goals. Processes now have automated emails to keep customers up-to-date with what we are doing and to notify them of changes, reducing the need for them to contact us.
SMS messaging is now used to proactively update customers and to inform elected members of a wide range of issues, such as delays in routine waste collection or road closures in their local area. 
Our online customer portal, website and app portfolio are also used for proactive customer communications through notifications and alerts.
Customers can now provide much more feedback to us when completing a request, either through our website, by completing one of our automated satisfaction surveys, or by registering a compliment, suggestion or complaint. Feedback mechanisms are now embedded in service review and service design. 
As a result, increasing numbers of people are providing feedback on their online experience and while the results are very favourable, there is always improvement to be found. 

Amount saved by the council that would otherwise have been spent on telephone customer service staff

Number of satisfaction surveys completed by citizens

Year in which Durham implemented a three-pronged strategy focused on contact, customer-centricity, and feedback

Over 4,600 fully automated electronic satisfaction surveys have been completed by customers and this information is actively used to change and shape service delivery. These in combination have resulted in significant customer improvement across the board. 

Operational effectiveness across services has also improved though digital transformation resulting again in improved customer service, a virtuous circle. For example, up-to-date technology installed into fleet vehicles, has proved successful in gathering data which has been used to reschedule work programmes to make them more responsive and efficient.  
Real-time fully automated performance dashboards are now available to senior management making performance and feedback fully transparent. This means that performance against service standards, channel shift and customer satisfaction is accessible at any time providing huge benefits in terms of service improvement, accountability and providing better information for decision-making and continuous improvement.
While we feel that, as a council, we have made real progress in this area and continue to find new opportunities to improve, and developing a transformational culture within the organisation, the improvement starts to become self-generating, as service areas and staff continue to identify ways reshape our services and improving customer experience. 

Join Durham County Council at the PublicTechnology Local Government ICT Summit on 19 September and discover more about digital transformation in local authorities. The one-day event in central London is free to attend for the public sector. Click here to secure your place today.

Sam Trendall

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