Allerdale Borough Council is a small borough council with big ambitions. What we do, we do well but we need to do it more effectively and at a lower cost.
We currently have a team of around 239 dedicated staff who work hard to help our residents, visitors and business owners and we consistently get high satisfaction survey results from the community.
The district is rural with seven main towns, Workington, Cockermouth, Keswick, Maryport, Wigton, Silloth and Aspatria.
There are two UNESCO world heritage sites, one national park and an area of outstanding natural beauty. However, there is also an ageing population, poor road and rail infrastructure, and only a handful of large employers.
The Allerdale Council Plan 2019-23 has three priorities underpinned by Transforming the Council which in turn features channel shift as a key strand of the transformation strategy which will link to the Council Business Plan.
The challenges faced by Allerdale are those facing councils across the country. As government funding reduces and the gap to balance the revenue budget widens, we recognise that we need to work more efficiently, embrace new and emerging technologies, automated processes where possible and encourage customers to self-serve where appropriate.
There are however also specific challenges faced locally, some due to the geography, the rurality, poor transport links and some as a consequence of the lack of high speed broadband connectivity. The lack of transport links is mainly due to the sparse rural nature of the population. Allerdale is also recognised as one of the areas of poorest broadband connectivity in the UK which although improving as superfast broadband is rolled out, the district still has no ultrafast broadband available and this, linked with poor mobile phone coverage presents significant challenges to a local authority looking to make savings and deliver efficiencies in service delivery.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, Allerdale looked to see which authorities had been successful in developing and rolling out digital channel shift and identified that Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC) had achieved excellent results in this area, they had also established a commercial team to share their experience with other authorities.
A business case was prepared and submitted to the LGA Productivity Experts Programme for grant funding to engage the AVDC Seed team to carry out a review of the current position and make recommendations on how to increase digital take up of services by our customers, partners and staff.
The Seed Team carried out a thorough review across the organisation and identified that trying to adopt a generic channel shift strategy would be unlikely to succeed. Their conclusion was that what would be required was a well-planned, concerted, cross organisation focus to enable channel shift.
Indeed Allerdale had already identified that introducing new technology and moving to cloud based services to enable new ways of working had thrown up cultural issues in getting staff to adapt to, and adopt those changes. In some ways, whilst the IT team had moved ahead with new technology the business had been left behind and so a ‘New Ways of Working’ training programme which incorporated sections on business transformation as well as a number of modules to cover collaborative working using Microsoft features like Teams was introduced to bring everyone up to speed with the features, advantages and benefits of working with the new technology.
The AVDC Seed Team shared experiences from implementing its own channel shift strategy to provide the foundations for Allerdale’s own strategy. The diagram below was developed by AVDC as part of their own transformation journey and is a prime example of adapting the learning of other organisations to help illustrate graphically the effectiveness of the different communication channels.
There are no great surprises in the fact that automation and self-service are cheaper delivery methods, nor that the more traditional customer interactions are more costly. There needs to be a mix of channels and by aligning services to the appropriate channel there will be opportunities to reduce costs to serve.
The report pointed out that calculating exact savings can be tricky. Up-front investment to make it easier for customers to access council information and services are often required including changes to service delivery which may, at least initially, obscure savings.
Allerdale have already invested in digital platforms and introduced a number of systems to enable customers to engage with us digitally. One system covers waste collections information and reporting and another, council tax and benefits. There is a council account called myAllerdale with an app and of course a payment engine, each system requires a separate login.
Whilst customers look upon us as one organisation (in the same way they view the Amazons and Ebays of the online world with one login and password required to access everything), for cash strapped councils this is not the case. Our organisations operate across a range of specialised IT systems and integration is both difficult and costly so a pragmatic approach has had to be adopted.
The report highlights that digital uptake will depend on where different customer groups are in their take up of digital channels. Our plan is now to use Acorn data to map the face to face customer demographic in the various areas and identify the best way to communicate with these customers to encourage them to use different online channels.
We plan to introduce a Barclays Digital Eagles approach to encourage customers to serve themselves where appropriate. We will do this by working with our area office staff who will become digital advocates. Telephony staff will focus on advising customers of the benefits of our online offer, signing them up for the myAllerdale account as part of a targeted campaign.
The right services need to be targeted for the less expensive channels. Trying to move the wrong services online will not be successful. We will be focusing on the high volume report it type enquiries alongside payments and general enquiries in the first instance. The second phase will be looking at benefit claims for change of circumstances and new claims. Indeed the lesson here is to analyse and evaluate before making evidence based decisions. After all, why spend thousands of pounds to automate a process that has only a handful of applications a year compared to the high volume areas of litter, dog mess, missed bin collections etc. Lower volume, more complex enquiry types often still require a two way interaction and do not lend themselves to effective self-service.
Whilst Allerdale is well along its journey to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its services through digital, there is still a lot more that can be done. Following the recommendations of the report, the next steps have been to establish a digital transformation group to carry out the actions detailed below:
- Align the Allerdale Digital and Transformation Strategies
- Agree to a set of digital principles that the whole organisation can buy-in and sign up to with a definite 'Digital First' approach designing processes around digital access as the preferred option.
An example of this in practice is where we are designing Pest Control and bulky waste collection processes to be an on-line booking and payments service. This will save money by enabling the customer to choose the type of service they want, the date they want it carried out and to make the payment upfront online. The appointment then goes directly to the staff carrying out the work with no need to have a customer service or administration intervention along the way.
- Engage all stakeholders – this includes parish and town councils, community groups, partners staff and of course our customers to communicate the benefits and address concerns
- Work with council departments to adopt the digital principles and make them part of their own team plans and processes by including digital as part of the council plan
- Create a cross functional digital change team that can look at how to optimise council services and understand what process and business changes are required to implement channel shift
- Understand the customer journey and baseline current costs to enable process and service redesign promoting channel shift
- Put in place the right governance to set targets and monitor progress
- Create a comprehensive communications plan that takes all stakeholders on the journey including departments and teams, members and customers.
- Take tough decisions and follow through along the way
Understanding the cost to serve is essential and work will be completed over the next few months as part of a programme of service reviews which will identify costs and subsequent savings to be achieved. As this work continues there are some quick wins which can be implemented relatively easily in changing the way payments are received and processed.