Councils today are under greater economic pressure than ever before. The continued austerity means budgets are being stretched to their limit as a result of 40 per cent budget cuts (*) made by central government.
The budgets local authorities have are therefore even more valuable, especially to those constituents who rely on critical services, such as: social care for adults and children, emergency services and housing benefits.
For local authorities today this means it is essential to understand how to best spend the funds available to meet the needs of local citizens. However, Chris Smith, head of public sector and service industries at Bluefin Solutions, believes the public sector needs a customer revolution. Only then, he says, will the industry truly understand the needs of its citizens and be best equipped to serve them.
For most local authorities the ‘getting to know you better’ process with its citizens is already underway, but like most relationships it’s complicated. There is a disparity between how well local authority departments know their own customers compared to others, therefore gauging an overarching consensus on what customer knowledge exists, and how well it is put to use, is difficult.
However, if a local authority’s remit as a service provider was put under a microscope, it would have to be argued that no other service led organisation in the UK responds to and supports so many different citizens with such vast and varying needs.
With such complicated provision that encompasses thousands of people, it’s understandable to see why some local authorities find getting to know their customers a difficult and time consuming task.
To paint the picture; Cardiff County Council alone is responsible for 352,000 citizens and provides or supports over 700 services. An average citizen comes into contact with up to four Council departments for different purposes (for example: council tax, registering to vote, liaising with a school and bin collection and recycling) and will register their personal details with each of them. It is rare for departments to share that information with each other, or have the technological capabilities to do so, which leads to duplication and a missed opportunity to have a holistic picture of each person.
Local authorities have been using technology based systems to drive down operational and service costs over the past few years, and have achieved great results. This has paved the way for more technological advances, which have been spearheaded by central government reports supporting the greater use of technology in the public sector as a whole.
The Policy Exchange Report 2013 ‘The Big Data Opportunity’, for example, clearly outlined the impact a better data management and enhanced technology would have on citizens and front line services. The report states: “For citizens, the application of data, technology and analytics can cut paperwork, get questions answered more quickly, help people find and claim the benefits they are entitled to, and tune front-line services more closely to individual needs and behaviours.”
To truly take a citizen–first approach, local authorities need to understand their needs and what services they access within the council. Being able to do that via an outline platform will make the process even quicker and easier.
The public sector has already started looking to the technology being used by the private sector to gather customer data. CRM (Customer Relationship Marketing) systems, which give a 360 degree view of customers, have been an integral part of the sales and marketing armoury of private businesses for some time and the most forward thinking local authorities are now following suit. As a result, for the first time councils are able to see the interaction all departments have with each citizen – and are reaping the rewards this can bring.
A change instigated by technology always brings with it a number of challenges. The local authorities which are leading the adoption of customer-centric technology are therefore already starting to overcome the hurdles that others will face in the future. Legal issues and concerns about data storage and privacy all present stumbling blocks to the cost savings that can be achieved by putting the citizen first and revolutionising services. Some local authorities are working in isolation to overcome these hurdles, but others (rather cleverly) are sharing best practice and information.
Local government in the UK should look at its international counterparts, many of which are making great strides to ensure their services have their citizens’ interests at the core. A great example is in the city of New York, where there has been the creation of the Mayor’s Department of Analytics. This has defined the standards for working and storing data and created a virtual network of how it can be shared across all organisations and their citizens. As a result there is a greater understanding of what citizens’ needs are and how services can be shaped to address those needs in a cost efficient manner.
*According to the Local Government Association ‘Transforming local public services using technology and digital tools and approaches’ report 2014
By Chris Smith, Head of Public Sector and Service Industries at Bluefin Solutions