Putting technology at the heart of public services to improve the citizen experience

Local councils in the UK public sector are under increasing pressure to deliver seamless, easy-to-use services, which are accessible to a diverse demographic, as cost effectively as possible. Councils in England will face an overall funding gap of £6.5 billion by 2025, even before COVID-19 is factored in. Coupled with this deficit, local councils are expected to deliver public services that emulate the end-user experience constituents receive from private businesses. Citizens are used to summoning their favourite meals to their homes from local restaurants at the click of a button and ordering Ubers straight from their phone. Understandably, many want the same digital experiences from the public services they are accessing, and paying for. At the same time, local governments are having to cut costs wherever possible to cope with the pandemic and are turning to technology to help them deliver cost efficiencies while improving the overall citizen experience. 

To deal with an influx in enquiries, many councils have pulled back their public service from face-to-face interactions where they can, in part due to COVID-19. This has accelerated a need for digital transformation strategies, with local government bodies fundamentally reviewing how they best deploy technology to deliver first rate public services that put citizens at the heart of everything they do.   

Here, we take a look at some of the ways that digital technologies can help local governments improve the experience of public services for their residents. 


A digital first, citizen-led approach


Some councils have redefined public services their constituents receive from being ‘service-led’ to being truly ‘citizen-led’, focusing on their constituents’ needs and preferences. Both Hertsmere council and Plymouth council have their constituents at the heart of their messaging and put their policies as citizen first.  

Councils have accepted more risk by reducing checks and increasing trust, especially in the more complex service delivery areas such as applying for parking permits, council tax, and disability parking exemptions. It’s important that councils strike a balance in their communication tools, enabling all constituents to get in touch and request services. This can be difficult in some areas where digital services are not widely deployed to provide a complete ‘one and done’ service, leading many to contact public services via traditional methods such as via phone or email.


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Getting a grip on avoidable contact


To drive efficiencies and ensure as many citizens can be supported as possible, many councils’ goal is actually to minimise the amount of contact it has with its constituents, through the use of self-service portals, FAQs, chatbots and ensuring information is easy to find without having to contact a council representative. However, reducing this ‘avoidable contact’ still remains the biggest challenge. A CRM system might increase case throughput, but there is still a significant cost created by siloed, disparate systems, typically from multiple suppliers across any one council. This often leads to a failure to join up the various service components across the organisation and provide a unified experience.

Customer service frontend ‘AI engines’ are today redirecting phone calls to self-service forms, and citizen apps are delivering common interactions on smartphones, removing the need for any human intervention altogether, except as a safety net.

Failure demand is a significant area for public services to reduce contact—e.g., if a citizen cannot easily find the information they want, or they have not been updated on the status of a request or cannot complete a simple transaction online. Even unclear communication leads to unnecessary contact, seeking clarification.

Understanding residents’ demand is, therefore, the first step in managing it better. It is the challenge of the sheer breadth, range and number of services offered that makes it hard for councils to build a coherent and digitally-based citizen service strategy.


Improving the citizen experience


While turning to the private sector for best practice on how to get customer service right has its merits, it’s important for the public service sector to consider its mission. Of course, private businesses will often focus on the monetary value of customer interactions, albeit by delivering excellent customer service. The public sector has a range of non-financial statutory obligations to protect people, often with complex needs spanning different services, including with partners, such as healthcare and police.

As a result, service pathways are hard to define and change regularly. So, any CRM model has to be either highly sophisticated to accommodate these (and therefore costly to implement and to support), or relatively simplistic (undervaluing the potential power of a full CRM implementation).


The modern digital council


There are some simple components public sector organisations can use to become modern digital councils:

  1. Review your service strategy:
  • Set organisation-wide culture, standards, and methods for citizen interaction that eliminates no/low value activity 
  • Focus on identifying digital solutions that can help reduce avoidable contact rather than simply increase throughput or streamline existing practices
  • Be adaptable. Don’t invest in rigid systems and methods and expect things to change
  1. Review your digital strategy and legacy IT constraints:
    • Ensure that any technology holding back digital and citizen service plans, whether on price or performance, is removed
    • Focus on new tools and AI powered technologies such as chatbots 
    • Design for primarily digital interaction but from the ‘outside in’ (citizen’s perspective), which will help ensure digital public services are accessible to all

Digital transformation in local government can help build a digital model of constituent services, where the end-user, not the service, comes first. 

If you want to find out more about how local councils in the UK can rethink its approach to technology and digital transformation, head to our community.