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Delivering citizen centred savings with digital

Source: Public Sector Executive Oct/Nov 2014

Hugo Pickford-Wardle, chief innovation officer at digital consultancy Matter, talks about the growing importance of digital in the public sector and delivering savings for local authorities and their citizens.

Local and central government are migrating services to digital channels in an effort to improve service provision for citizens and – just as importantly in the current economic climate – to deliver cost savings.

Throughout the public sector, services have been reliant on expensive, ‘call-centred’ service delivery, but this is becoming increasingly outdated – offering both poor delivery and return on investment.

In addition, an increasingly tech-savvy population is beginning to expect its interactions with government agencies to match the simple, efficient, end-to-end service delivery it experiences as customers in the private sector.

Citizen centred savings

Digital consultancy Matter has developed a white paper that explores key digital trends already making a real difference in both local and central government. Hugo Pickford-Wardle, chief innovation officer at the company, told PSE that the most important trend is ‘citizen centred savings’.

However, Matter’s report highlights that there continues to be a “general lack of understanding of how digital models of public service design can deliver agile, easy-to-use, consumerised services at a lower cost”.

But there is a school of thought that suggests service-user led and stakeholder projects will ‘democratise’ public digital services and spaces.

For instance, it has been suggested that citizen input will increasingly migrate online in the form of social-networks and forums, which allow citizens to become architects of public service-style provision.

Pickford-Wardle said: “There is obviously a lot of talk about the savings that need to be made in government, but also an assumption that this leads to a reduction in services and a worse situation.

“What we see with this trend is an opportunity to use a change in the actual customer experience – based on the technology available and with a different metaphor for how you’re interacting with customers.”

An example of this in action is with Casserole Club, a volunteer-based public service relying on an online platform, where volunteers register to share extra portions of home-cooked food with people in their area – a sort of Big Society meals-on-wheels.

The project was launched after a successful pilot in which more than 200 plates of food were shared in the Reigate and Banstead areas in Surrey. Casserole is supported by a website and carried on the futuregov platform, which allows authorities to access it and implement it.

“It means there is a better outcome – even though there has to be a change in the way that services are funded because of the financial landscape,” said Pickford-Wardle. “It is one of the biggest challenges: trying to match up the financial landscape with the expectation of customers. I believe matching these will be vital.

“Digital provides a way of creating low-cost touch points, which you can use to create new experiences that a citizen is going to have. A big part of this is about validated channel shift, which is one of the other trends.”

Validated channel shift

The white paper revealed that self-serving customers are ‘cheaper’ to provide for than those who use telephone or face-to-face services. According to Harvard Business Review, over 50% of call centre customers have already visited the website that relates to the service they are calling about. Increasingly, investment will be made in promoting channel shift – but that shift alone will not provide ROI unless migration is retained.

The key to channel shift is ‘stickiness’; creating online service delivery platforms that are efficient enough to attract customers and keep them engaged in the transaction. Matter says that to create ‘sticky’ solutions and control costs, service upgrades will be delivered incrementally through tested and trialled programmes.

An example of this was when Birmingham City Council worked with Matter to create a bespoke online system for businesses applying for funding from the Urban Broadband Fund, part of the government’s Super Connected Cities programme.

Originally, the process was paper-based and time consuming, but through testing and diagnostics, the delivery team built a system that allowed the process to be completed online. Since its introduction applications have increased ten-fold.

“When we make that channel change – which doesn’t have to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, especially if it is just a content  change – it is measuring it that proves that the change has had the proven channel shift impact. And, actually, what you are focusing on is the measurement not just across the digital services, but across the calls coming into the call centre or office operation as well.

“That’s where digital can make an enormous difference to the cost base of an organisation, even though some of the changes can be quite small to have a big impact.”

Open data opportunity

Pickford-Wardle believes open data will play a huge part in delivering more services digitally. “I also think data is going to help drive efficiencies and change the models that you use to engage with citizens,” he said. “For example, in America we’re seeing that the states can predict crime hotspots, using the volume of data where crime is likely to happen, which has changed the policing structure.”

He added that there is a “nervousness” in the public sector, as well as the private sector to a certain extent, to give up the reins to data.

“At times there seems to be confusion over what is data that is sacred under data protection laws – because it contains personal, sensitive information – and data that has been anonymised and can be used in a number of ways to deliver services in really cost-effective ways,” said Pickford-Wardle.

However, when done effectively, the rewards can be substantial. Essex County Council, for instance, is using analytical and diagnostic methods borrowed from the commercial sector to plot the customer journey of people using its website to book adult learning courses – a process that employs several interacting systems.

Along with Matter, the authority analysed the end-to-end journey to identify strengths and weaknesses, testing the most effective links to deliver a smoother transaction.

Payment and procurement

Pickford-Wardle also noted that running this type of service analysis, which creates a set of data, can help encourage council finance directors to invest more into digital.

“We are finding that finance officers are really supportive of this lean startup approach because having a set of measured data helps them make decisions – because they don’t want to be a blocker,” he said. “But if they don’t have any data to base their decision on, they’re being asked to take an enormous risk to spend capital on something where the benefits haven’t been clearly articulated.”

Matter’s CIO added that he believes the G-Cloud framework will become the standard by which external service providers are procured, allowing for better control of finances within organisations, leading to cost savings and faster more efficient programmes of work. There was even talk that “CloudStore will become the public sector equivalent of iTunes” – where organisations will source approved services and suppliers. The marketplace is also evolving and, as time progresses, more categories will be added.

“The G-Cloud framework is a great starting point, and I think one of the problems at the moment is that there is a lack of understanding of it,” said Pickford-Wardle. “Once it is more widely adopted on a day-to-day basis, it is going to be really positive. Any change is culturally hard to implement and what you’re asking with G-Cloud is for the profession of procurement to change. As G-Cloud framework utilisation increases, customers will see more public projects delivered on time and within budget.”

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