City Council invests £1m in a 'retail store' experience. Shuns digital-by-default.

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez January 27, 2015
Plymouth City Council has gone for a digital-by-preference approach, rather than toeing the central government line of digital-by-default – claiming it's not what citizens want.

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Those of you following digital going ons in government will no doubt be aware of the 'digital-by-default' mantra that has been pushed by Whitehall in recent years. The principle is key to central government's digital agenda, which aims to shift as many services as possible online, in an attempt to save as much as £1.8 billion a year.

This approach has been controversial in many respects, with the opposition party claiming that the current coalition government hasn't done enough to ensure that a 'digital divide' doesn't emerge, and has said that inclusion hasn't always been a top priority for the Cabinet Office. The announcement of a digital inclusion strategy last year was dubbed “too little, too late”.

I'd like to point out that whilst 'digital-by-default' doesn't necessarily imply that other channels won't be available, there is a fear that they will be ignored or made less accessible with the advent of a plethora of digital options.

And it seems that Plymouth City Council agrees, following the announcement that it has invested some £960,000 in creating a 'retail-type store' on the high street, alongside shops and banks, for residents to come and interact with the council and get support for carrying out their transactions.

I spoke to Plymouth's customer services project manager, Aaron Osborne-Taylor, who believes that if the council had pushed ahead with digital-by-default, it would have “gone down like a lead balloon”. He believes that providing face-to-face customer service, of the quality that can be found on the high-street, is actually what residents want and should be a priority. He said:

Plymouth has embarked on a transformation strategy, like a lot of others. The difference with Plymouth is that we have gone 'digital-by-preference' and not 'digital-by-default', because we are very keen to preserve and maintain a good relationship with the population and the demographic.

[We are not] looking to cut cost out and take everything down to a bare minimum, but actually do things more efficiently, but with the existing needs of the customer in mind.

Osborne-Taylor explained that given that Plymouth is quite a small city, where everything is quite centrally located, and that residents – or 'customers' as he likes to call them – are quite used to popping into council premises and doing their business that way, rather than via telephone or the web.


Prior to creating the Council's transformation strategy, it carried out a lot of analysis over the last year, through such things as focus groups, to find out what residents actually want from the city. Osborne-Taylor said that this informed the design brief for the customer transformation strategy, and one of the main things that came out of it, was that the public-facing element of service was very important. He said:

The digital-by-default strategy would have gone down like a lead balloon. So part of the next stage was looking at how to deliver those services better and more innovatively, whilst maintaining the face-to-face.

A lot of research was done into retail environments, particularly financial services, because it has a similar pattern of 'appoint and consult', rather than purchase. So we looked at a lot of banking models, about how they drive a positive customer experience.

We wanted to get away from the traditional 'take a ticket and wait for two hours', where residents don't know what's going to happen and then when they do finally see someone, they are behind a glass screen.

All that's gone. It's very much about open space, a bright building, no queuing area – a real positive retail feeling. We have even matched the retail opening hours. We are a service and as a council we want to actually serve the customer, not just respond to the customer.

Some of the features of the one-stop-shop include a mezzanine for customers, 62 customer service staff, 50 computers with 27 inch screens, 13 self-service machines, 9 customer service booths, 2 paying-in machines (one of which is accessible 24-hours a day), 4 disability-friendly drop in-in desks and 6 interview rooms.

One of the things that Plymouth City Council wanted to address with the 'store' was long queuing times for residents, where


Osborne-Taylor describes the traditional situation of people coming in to be seen, getting a 'queue ticket', waiting for hours, and then possibly never actually resolving the problem.

This has been addressed through the use of a 'meet and greet' function in the store, where the Council has equipped staff at the front of house with iPads and rolled out cloud-based software in the form of BookingBug.

The staff, when meeting a resident entering the store, triage the customers by finding out exactly what they need and whether or not they actually need to see someone for a more detailed appointment. If they do, the meet and greet staff then book them an appointment that is convenient for them, using BookingBug. Osborne-Taylor said:

The key difference then is that they are booked - so if someone comes in and there's a five hour wait, we will say 'no', let us book you in when it's convenient for you. You even get a reminder that you've got an appointment booked.

BookingBug has also proved useful in terms of resource planning, where Plymouth City Council is beginning to get an idea of how long certain appointments take and what staff are needed for those appointments – allowing for better planning. Osborne-Taylor said:

It goes much deeper than that. So when people come back for appointments, they can check in, then as part of that check-in process it marks appointments through to completion and notes the outcome.

That gives us a huge piece of management information for future demand modelling and demand planning. So we already know from the system that some appointments for certain services are longer or shorter. All that kind of thing really helps us improve the service and helps us plan for what staff and what resources we need to put in place, and at what time.

Empty shopping cart on black background © nikkytok -

Whilst Osborne-Taylor believes that there are “threats” with digital-by-default, namely creating a digital divide and reducing the levels of satisfaction that residents feel when interacting with their local council, he does still believe that investing in digital platforms is important. Digital platforms just shouldn't be the only option, he states.

The over arching strategy is digital-by-preference, so the next phase of the strategy is to invest quite heavily in new web platforms. So, making sure that the latest technology is available and making sure that the self service options are there and they are strong.

We want to make sure that wherever possible, people don't actually have to interact with the council at all, so if we can serve by information, rather than transaction, that's better. There is a big effort across all service channels to actually speak to the customer and to find out what they actually need, not what they think they need. The real objective is to reduce demand –but do it in a positive way by making sure we respond to and satisfy the customer via whatever channel.

Some councils have gone really hardcore, to the point where residents can't even speak to a member of staff anymore. And that's really not what's right for customers.