The benefits of welfare ICT

Written by Colin Marrs on 30 May 2014 in Opinion
Opinion

Channel shift can help councils deal with new pressures caused by welfare reform including the bedroom tax, according to Kurt Goldman.

The government’s plans to make digital the default channel for accessing citizen services haves been met with apprehension from some sections of the local government sector.

This is understandable - introducing channel shift often requires new skills, considerable planning and, crucially, the confidence that services and citizens’ experiences will be better for it.

A common barrier is the fear that embracing this kind of change may exclude some citizens and that authorities will meet resistance from a public that is used to accessing council services in more traditional ways.

Thankfully, experience has shown that behind the rhetoric of ‘digital by default’ there are very real efficiency and customer service benefits to be realised.

The recent welfare reforms, such as the so-called “bedroom tax”, have added some complexity to the situation by placing a greater strain on front-line citizen support services.

In our local government partnerships we’ve seen the volume and complexity of enquiries increase considerably in the wake of these changes.

This is because, as citizens grapple with new requirements, they inevitably call for a greater level of support.

In responding to this, local authorities may be tempted to place a greater focus on traditional telephone and face-to-face support services, but in contrast, this new challenge has actually hastened the need for councils to provide a broader range of options.

In order to free up resources to tackle more complex enquiries councils need to proactively manage citizens towards self-service

Pushing on an open door

In my experience, councils’ fears about citizens’ reluctance to use new channels do not ring true.

From supermarket check-outs to online banking, consumers appreciate convenient self-service options and there is no reason why public services should be any different.

The obvious place to start is to move the more straightforward services online – such as council tax payments.

However, the key to success is ensuring that these options are introduced alongside a programme of cultural change and business transformation that supports and coaches citizens towards adopting them.

Self-service ATMs can be an effective gateway for channel shift.

Empowering people to conduct their own payments reduces the number of cashiers required and can accelerate payment processing significantly.

Payment kiosks allow citizens to pay council tax and other local authority bills quickly and securely, across a number of partnerships with good success. 

In Sefton, for example, two years on from their introduction alongside online payment methods, only a nominal number of cash payments and an ever reducing number of postal cheque payments are now touched by cashiers, representing less than three per cent of payments received from customers. 

Crucially this has been done at the same time as retraining employees to take on more general customer service duties.

This means teams on the ground in customer service hubs now provide more of an advisory role - assisting citizens with new payment methods, directing them to self-service channels and resolving more enquiries at first point of contact.

It can also free up resource to put behind new support channels such as social media, which - while still in its infancy for many local authorities - can be an effective and efficient first response to enquiries, by redirecting citizens to sources of information online.

Equipping advisers with tablet computers allows them to ‘walk the floor’ of customer service centres demonstrating how payments can be made online and where key information can be accessed.

The benefits for benefits

Redeploying resources in this way, allows advisors to identify and separate citizens who may be in need of more traditional support and then direct them appropriately.

It’s this kind of filtering that should be seen as the key early objective of any channel shift programme.

Councils shouldn’t view it as mothballing traditional channels in favour of others, but rather as a way of identifying those processes that can and should be delivered digitally.

Benefits services are a good example. Some may feel that making online the default channel for complex benefits applications is a little draconian but it can actually improve the process for both applicants and the council.

Of course there is still a need to provide support for people struggling to use online channels, but if this is backed by accessible information via council websites, social media and dedicated demonstration PCs in council hubs, it can be kept to a bare minimum.

Ultimately, channel shift has to happen within local authorities and while some reluctance persists, experience is showing that those that take the initiative and provide the right support will be surprised by the level of acceptance by the public.

Kurt Goldman, is customer service solution lead at business process outsourcing provider Arvato UK

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