The transformation of local government services remains a priority. Earlier this year, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) came out in support of a white paper - called Reforming Local Government: Power to Local People -which calls for a recasting of the relationship between all tiers of elected government. The paper, which will form the basis of a Bill, seeks to address the pressures councils are facing, including dwindling revenue, an older population and rising public expectations; and in the Welsh Government’s view, the perception that local democracy isn’t achieving everything it can to address people’s lives.
There is certainly a sense of urgency to address these issues. Civica has made a number of recommendations for effective change, including personalised and automated services based on deep citizen insight, greater opportunities to self-serve and a more integrated approach enabled by multi-skilled, cross sector workers.
As a unitary authority committed to serving a population of 95,000, we’re only too aware of the need to protect front line services, rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of the changing citizen (known to be more demanding and digitally savvy than ever before), while reducing our expenditure. In fact we’ve been on a modernisation programme over the last four years, which has informed our technology strategy including a move to electronic documents and more flexible working.
However, delivering on our ambitions requires a new way of doing things. We’ve already achieved £20m in savings over the last three years, and to meet the challenge of a further £8.8m saving this year and another £8m next year (equivalent to 15% year on year saving) will only be possible if we take a more holistic approach to how we run our operations. This requires a fully joined-up approach supported by the creation of strategic partnerships.
What remains constant is our commitment to safeguarding and investing in our communities, fostering local talent and local job creation. This autonomy is not only important from an historical and cultural point of view but also an economic one. While Wales has borne significant austerity measures, we haven’t been as badly hit by efficiency cuts as our English counterparts. We naturally want to preserve this position of strength by finding solutions that can be maintained within Welsh borders.
As part of this journey we undertook a review of our revenues and benefits service; precipitated by the fact that to some extent we had become a victim of our own success. Our collection rates were very high but the underlying system was creaking. We were apprehensive about meddling with the system and endangering our collections record (which would only pile pressure on the council to save more). To compensate, we had maintained our rates through sheer human grit – which is an admirable but unsustainable approach. We had yet to embrace modernisation. We assumed that, by introducing more automation and self-service, we would replace people with machines. Given the financial climate we didn’t want to add to the unemployment figures.
By entering into a partnership with Civica we have been able to retain a commitment to our service levels (and an oversight of how these metrics are being fulfilled) while dictating the conditions for the preservation of our workforce. In April we opened a transactional processing centre – ‘Canolfan Elwy’ with Civica to process revenue and benefits; staffed by the original team which transferred to Civica. Not only was transition seamless but we have been able to introduce a great deal of efficiency, thereby putting us on track to take out £80,000 in savings from 2015-16 and £120,000 between 2016/2017.
In October 2015, the second tranche of the transformation will be complete. The OnDemand service, housed in the Elwy centre, will be operational, combining the best of public and private. Given the training and skills the team will have acquired, these former Denbighshire employees will join the OnDemand service to offer an expedient, short-term service for other authorities in acute need of support. Local organisations across Wales will be able to access OnDemand services to address backlogs, manage peaks in activity and process workloads at short notice without having to buy-in onsite expertise. The centre represents a step change in the way we think and do things by consolidating opportunities for job creation and pay-as-you-go services; all the while delivering on the Welsh Assembly’s passion for services ‘made in Wales’.
Linking back to the need for meaningful, sustainable and dramatic reform in local government, it’s even clearer to us that there are opportunities to do things differently and become more commercially savvy with the right partnerships. In our experience, making the partner responsible for driving continual innovation through the organisation, while sharing accountability for service delivery, has safeguarded the project’s success.
By recasting the model for service delivery and creating the only centre of its kind in Wales, we’ve seen the fallacy of taking a territorial approach to service delivery. We used to think we were the only people that can deliver these services. We now realise that in some cases, there may be others that are better placed to provide certain services. However, we will always be good caretakers and possibly the best brokers of resident’s concerns.
By Councillor Julian Thompson-Hill, Denbighshire's Cabinet Lead Member for Finance