Digital by Default Moving Government in Right Direction – But Still Room for Improvement

In our work with various local councils and national government departments we see on a daily basis the progress and improvements that the Government’s Digital by Default strategy is delivering. From enhanced accessibility, greater efficiency and cost savings a plethora of benefits have already been realised. 

While huge strides have been taken in driving public sector services forward there is, however, still much further work to be done. A reminder that the digital strategy can’t simply rest on the laurels of past successes was delivered this week by Newcastle City Council as it argued that current initiatives on open government and shared government data are not delivering the expected benefits. 

Responding to a question in Labour’s Digital Government Review asking whether the current initiatives on open government data and shared government data are delivering the expected benefits, Newcastle City Council said: 

“The open data initiatives are based on what ministers think should be published rather than what citizens have actually requested in consultation. The impacts have been negligible in terms of assisting citizens or growing businesses.”

 The council went on to say, in response to a later question: 

The government needs to support local authorities, community agencies and other stakeholders in encouraging more people to use digital services, especially people from disadvantaged environments.” 

Newcastle City Council’s response is a reminder that government and local authority digital services have to deliver what citizens want – not what is assumed that they need.  It is all very good delivering more efficient services, but it must be done in a way that has the end user at heart – to encourage the end-user adoption which is critical to channel shift success.  Solutions such as a flexible service delivery platform, are available that can deliver the cost and efficiency benefits in line with user expectations – and it would be wise to use these more widely. 

UK Government Looks to Lead the Way with Digital Services

The UK Government is to provide an update on its efforts to transform and improve 25 high-volume services to make them Digital by Default in line with its Digital Strategy next week.

Stephen Kelly, Chief Operating Officer, HM Government will speak at Digital Government 2014, to be held at the QEII Conference Centre in London on Tuesday, outlining the progress that has been made in turning government services digital. He will also outline steps to achieve consistent progress, to deliver a saving of £1.8 billion annually, and make the UK the “most digital government” in the G8 by 2015.

At Firmstep we have already seen both national and local government take huge strides forward in turning key services digital. We continue to work closely with several county councils to help them offer streamlined online services and only last week made public the work we have undertaken with Department for Education to help them digitalise key services including schools’ applications for academy status, funding and Risk Protection Arrangements. 

With several government officials speaking at the event it will be interesting to discover how the government plans to not only take more services digital but also do so with a consistent level of success and cost efficiency.

More details, including registering to attend the conference can be found here.

Department for Education Aligns with Government Digital Strategy with Firmstep Platform

The Department for Education (DfE) is using Firmstep’s Platform to enhance its delivery of digital services and comply with the Government Digital Strategy for online services. The full story is here.

Using the AchieveForms solution DfE is streamlining processes for key services including schools’ applications for academy status, funding and Risk Protection Arrangements. 

Where users were previously required to download, complete and return documents manually with a range of supporting information, applications can now be submitted online in a more efficient and cost-effective way.  For schools’ applications for Academy status, the flexibility of AchieveForms has enabled the DfE to eliminate the need for users to manually key in basic information for their school, such as address and contact details.  Users simply enter their school’s Unique Reference Number, and the form automatically accesses data from EduBase, the DfE’s register of educational establishments, to populate the relevant form fields.

Following the initial success with the forms that are currently live, the DfE plans to rebuild and develop over 100 forms, each of which will benefit from enhanced functionality and automation which was not previously available.

Are council services lagging behind public digital demand?

A recent survey has highlighted the gap between the public’s and local governments’ perception of council digital services.  Consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers’ review of the local authority sector found that 75% of council leaders believe their council is embracing the opportunities that moving online offers in delivering better services to the public.

But just 29% of over 2000 members of the public agreed that this was the case.  The survey also found significant regional variations in how citizens use digital platforms to interact with councils.  Almost half of Londoners (48%) and people in Wales (47%) had interacted with their councils digitally in the past month, compared with 29% in the East Midlands.

One-fifth of the public said they had used their council’s website to access information and one in ten had paid for a public service online in the past month.  When asked if they wanted more services to be available digitally, almost half of the public agreed.   

The report also highlighted that both younger and older demographics were keen to use more online services:  a clear majority of 18-34 year olds expected better digital services, and over 40% of over 55s also supported the idea.  There’s more data here.

More mobile momentum for council services

Mobile access to the internet, and more mobile-friendly online public services could help to address the UK’s problem with digital exclusion, according to a new report from Socitm.

The report, ‘Rapid growth of mobile: the long-term answer to digital exclusion?’ quotes ONS figures showing that the proportion of the population using the internet has quickened significantly in the past 12 months, with some of this growth likely to be down to new, mobile-only users.

The report also suggests that mobile devices are a powerful tool to bring new Web users online, because of their ease of use and lower financial commitment when compared with a conventional PC or laptop.  This is supported by recent data from Ofcom, which showed that increasing adoption of tablet computers by people aged 65-74 has boosted the UK’s online population. 

However, a note of caution was sounded in Better Connected 2014, Socitm’s annual survey of all local authority websites, about the quality of the mobile experience when accessing council websites.  According to the organisation’s Website performance service, between January and April 2014, satisfaction for mobile users of council sites averaged 39% lower than those who accessed services on a laptop or desktop PC.  So it’s critical that the website’s or service’s mobile experience is as good as from a conventional computer.

Isle of Man Government Enhances Citizen Service, Boosts Efficiency Using AchieveForms

The Isle of Man Government is using AchieveForms as a key element in its online services programme, which aims to make as many services as possible available from its website to improve access for citizens, while reducing administration costs and processing times.  The full story is here

Where citizens previously had to download and complete static PDF forms and return them by post, applications can now be submitted directly online, with the forms’ information being processed automatically through integration with back-office systems.

AchieveForms is also increasing inter-departmental productivity, and supporting further financial savings by eliminating the need to outsource development every time a department requires a new form to be made.  Any requests for the creation of new forms can now be managed and actioned by the Government’s online services team. 

Kath Kermode, Head of Enterprise Application Delivery for The Isle of Man Government, said:  “Since starting to use AchieveForms in September 2013, we’re seeing real benefits in terms of enhancing public access to Government services, and reducing the cost of delivering those services.  Having Firmstep’s product in our toolkit gives us the ability to quickly develop the right access solution to meet the perceived service need.”

As the Government serves a relatively small population, with approximately 80,000 people living on the Isle of Man, cost of delivery is a key issue for services which may be in relatively low demand.  Where previously it would not have been practical or financially viable to offer these services online, Firmstep’s solution enables the Government to deploy even low-usage forms in a highly cost-effective manner - even with services which may have fewer than 100 users.  

Going live on G-Cloud 5

With G-Cloud 5 (G5) set to go live, as before our complete range of online customer service and engagement solutions will be available from CloudStore’s Software as a Service (SaaS) category, making purchasing and deployment easy and quick, and enabling organisations to quickly start gaining benefits, enhancing services and realising efficiencies.  

The Firmstep Platform has unique integration capabilities, enabling it to link to almost any council back-office system and giving easy, open access to data with no need for complex programming or system changes.  This helps councils and local authorities to quickly roll out online solutions that exceed customer expectations, deliver better services, and successfully achieve channel shift.  

Have council efficiency savings reached the end of the road?

According to a new Local Government Association survey of councils’ financial strategies, councils are starting to reach “the end of the road” for saving money through becoming more efficient, following £10 billion worth of cuts over the past three years.

However 20% of councils still believe that next year’s planned cuts could be met through efficiency savings on their own, without cutting services.   While these figures represent the two extremes in terms of driving efficiencies, there is also a middle ground, where making services more efficient can generate savings to offset the need for funding cuts.

And as we’ve explored previously on this blog, some popular services can even become self-funding, if the right approach to promoting the service is taken – and the management and administration of the service is done efficiently, as North Kesteven DC found with its garden waste recycling, which used our AchieveForms solution to handle registration.


Taking Tablets: Key to Online Service Uptake?

New data released by communications watchdog, Ofcom, has shown that the number of internet users aged over 65 has grown by more than 25%.  It’s believed that this has been driven by increasing adoption of tablet computers by people aged 65-74 – the Ofcom data shows 17% in this age group now use a tablet for Web access, up from 5% in 2012. This has contributed to an overall rise in Internet use from 79% of all adults in 2012 to 83% in 2013.

According to Ofcom’s Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report 2014, 42% of over-65s are accessing the web, up from 33% in 2012.

Perhaps this rapid growth in the use of tablets could help to boost online service access and usage?  It certainly highlights a point that we’ve raised previously, which is the need to ensure that online portals and e-forms are accessible and user-friendly on any device, from conventional PC to smartphones and tablets, to maximise usage.   With some councils reporting mobile access to services approaching 25%, it’s important to make sure that online interaction isn’t a bitter pill for users.

Shared Services Drive Savings and Channel Shift

The latest shared services map from the Local Government Association (LGA) shows that sharing services is now the norm, with 96% of of councils now taking part in some kind of sharing.  The LGA reports that the total saved by councils sharing their services has increased by £83 million since last year to £357 million.

An estimated £75 million of savings come from sharing of IT and back office services such as legal, audit and HR, and there’s still enormous potential for this to increase, as councils move away from their existing, cumbersome and costly CRM systems towards cloud-based solutions. 

An example is Bolsover District Council and North East Derbyshire District Council, which have a shared deployment of Firmstep’s Platform to transform their customer services and drive channel shift.  Both councils are using Firmstep as a cloud-based local government alternative to their previous Northgate CRM system as part of a strategic alliance to improve services and cut administration and IT overheads. 

The councils will also develop citizen self-service portals using Firmstep’s Platform, to give residents easier and quicker online access to services that will generate ongoing savings.