John Chilver, Deputy Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources at Buckinghamshire County Council, tells why it is vital that the fight continues to convince taxpayers and staff to do business with the Council online
Everyone is on the internet these days, aren’t they? Isn’t it true that new technology is old hat now for this digital generation who are all online 24 hours a day?
Well actually no, not according to our research which proves there is still a crucial battle to fight to win the hearts and minds of the public. The reality is that there are large swathes of people who still need to be convinced that conducting their council business online is not only easier but will also save them and their local authority stacks of money. That is why Buckinghamshire County Council has embarked on our ‘Bucks Online’ digital campaign with a view to driving take-up of our council services available online.
But for those of you still unconvinced by the merits of such a campaign, here are some facts unearthed by our research:
- 25% of the calls received by our contact centre in 2014 were for services already offered on our website with 24% of callers being unaware they could have done the same thing online;
- In the year preceding our campaign, only 28% of people contacting our Council had done so digitally, according to a survey carried out on our behalf by Ipsos Mori;
- Nationally, more than 70% of 16-24 year-olds and over 65s did not use the internet at all to interact with local authorities, according to research carried out by the Office of National Statistics in 2013.
These statistics show just why we need to do more to help people transact with us digitally, rather than calling us on the phone, particularly for simple things such as renewing a library book or reporting fly-tipping.
Putting more services online is something we’re totally committed to doing. It’s a no-brainer when you consider online contact is the most cost-effective for organisations at 15p per transaction, compared with phone (£2.83) and face-to-face (£8.62) contact. And don’t just take my word for this because these statistics are from Socitm, the national professional IT body. To date, our Council has invested significant funds on overhauling its website, enabling more people to access services and complete transactions online more quickly and easily.
We already have around 64 different services available on our website, from renewing library books or applying for a school place, to reporting a pothole or booking tickets for events. We also collect payments through the site for a number of services. But we must not rest on our laurels and are working hard to ensure these functions are improved. Meanwhile, we are determined that all of our new online services will be as simple and easy to use as possible.
Among services we’ve developed are new ways of reporting potholes through a simple to use the web page and an interactive mobile app, Report It, which allows people to upload photos and track the status of their reports. I am delighted to reveal that Report It has now been set up for people to also report broken street lights.
This is all revolutionising the way customers interact with us because it is simply so much easier and quicker than ever before to let our Council know when there is a problem. It’s also simple for people to then follow-up the issue they’ve reported – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
This is not just about whizzy smartphone apps; it’s perhaps even more important that our website is fully mobile-enabled for the easiest and smoothest web access from any device, and this is something we are continually improving on.
Other initiatives we’ve brought in include the extension of live chat, which is already a feature on our schools and libraries web pages. This will be seen more widely across the website. Later this year, we are also due to unveil a personalised My Account function, which will allow people to see and track their transactions, applications and reports.
Our ambition is to make our online services so good that everyone uses them as their first choice for getting in touch with us.
However, we are aware that some of the public – and indeed some of our staff – still need convincing.
We need our employees to act as our advocates on this and champion the digital-first approach; if they are enthused and fired up by our digital offering, then they will spread this enthusiasm to others.
Some of the ways we are encouraging staff to think ‘digital first’ include drop-in digital surgeries, roadshows and workshops and, for those already digital-savvy employees, we have e-communications and social media forums to help nurture employees’ skills and passion for the digital revolution.
To help get residents on board with our digital ambitions, we are engaging directly with people at libraries, children’s centres, shopping centres, supermarkets and community events such as coffee mornings. Printed promotional material is a key resource to help us reach residents in as many ways as possible, through locations like GP surgeries, community halls and dental practices.
At the same time, we’re working with organisations across the county to ensure people have both the skills and access to be able to get online. All of our libraries have access to the internet if not Wi-Fi, and job centres are opening more access points. We can also offer incentives such as free internet use for library members.
However, let me reassure you, this doesn’t mean people won’t be able to phone us or visit us in person when they need to, as we know that sometimes personal contact is important.
But what it does mean is that simple transactions, such as reporting a pothole or renewing library items, can be completed day or night.
It really is a ‘win, win’ situation for residents and us; residents will be able to access services online anytime and the savings we achieve will enable us to carry out vital work elsewhere.
One day, it’s possible everybody will be online and will be utterly comfortable in using digital services. But until then, our battle continues to help the public to Do It Online.
Deputy Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources
Buckinghamshire County Council