IT Systems and Data Protection

10.11.17

A smarter approach to digital transformation

Catherine Bright, Smarter Digital Services (SDS) manager, explains how a partnership of 12 councils across Kent and Surrey are jointly funding a responsive, independent, not-for-profit consultancy to help them to achieve their digital ambitions.

We all know the digital landscape has shifted considerably over the last few years. Business as usual is no longer an option; our customers now expect and want to access services digitally, and a sustainable future for local government depends on changing the way we do things. In 2013 local authority chief executives across Kent set up SDS, a team that could support all of them by providing external challenge, expert advice and valuable resources to improve and increase digital services, reduce costs and enhance customer experience.

The SDS team has skills and expertise in capturing customers’ experiences and redesigning business processes and services based on needs. Over the years we have worked on a wide range of projects, from redesigning garden waste booking processes to developing online taxi knowledge tests.

A recent challenging project involved redesigning the way people access homelessness advice and apply to join the housing register. Across Kent we found that around 60% of applicants that applied to join the housing register did not qualify to register. Processing the applications and determining who qualifies to join the housing register or who is eligible to make a homeless person’s application was taking up a lot of staff time.

It was also frustrating our customers as they invested a lot of time and effort completing the lengthy forms, submitting information and waiting for a response, only to be told they did not qualify for assistance and could have been looking for support elsewhere.

To save time, money and make things easier for our customers, we worked with housing teams across Kent to develop three new online tools:  

  • An online homelessness triage tool (helpwithhomelessness.info), to quickly enable people to see if they would be eligible for homelessness support from the council and other available assistance;
  • An online housing application pre-assessment form which asks the customer a short number of key questions giving them an early indication as to the likelihood of being accepted onto the housing register (kenthomechoice.org.uk/assess);
  • A redesigned, scaled-down, simpler version of the full housing register application form once customers have completed the pre-assessment.

To develop these tools the SDS team held workshops with all local authorities to agree common question sets. We then carried out several rounds of user testing to ensure that customers could easily understand the questions, and used the GDS style guide as we know these are proven to be accessible.

All three tools are now in use and we are starting to see the impact they are having. To date four of the seven local authorities using the homelessness triage tool have seen a reduction in applications, and we are seeing a reduction of 209 housing register applications a month across Kent. We are continuously monitoring and collecting feedback on the tools to improve them, and our next challenge is to develop them in line with the Homelessness Reduction Act. The tools have also been built in such a way that they can be easily adapted and used by other local authorities.

The key learning points we have taken from this project have been:

  • Don’t make any assumptions about your users ‒ really understand user needs and focus your designs on these;
  • User testing with just five to eight people will likely expose 80% of the issues;
  • Use open standards and open sources that are freely available – don’t reinvent the wheel;
  • Take an iterative approach – start small, test and improve.

Case studies of all our projects can be found on our website along with more information about the team and the services we provide. Local authorities in Surrey and Cambridge have recently joined the partnership and we are looking to support more local authorities, so please do get in touch to find out more.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

E: catherine.bright@tunbridgewells.gov.uk

T: 01892 554123

Tw: @SDSProjectTeam

W: www.smarterdigital.info

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