Harrow Council gets to 90% resident self-service for problem solving

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood September 24, 2019
A new approach to resident communication in the past five years has meant shrinking its old physical contact centre capability has provided opportunity - not issues

Image of Harrow

We’ve been on a digital transformation journey for a while now. But there is still a way to go!

It’s a sentiment that will be familiar to many local government IT leaders burdened by legacy tech and processes that just stubbornly won’t go away. But at least in some cases, a new way of thinking about how to work with residents can prove the lever to finally unblock the dam.

That’s what seems to have happened, at least, to Ben Jones, Head of Digital at Harrow Council, the local authority for the London Borough of Harrow, who told diginomica/government, the source of that quote.

Jones explains the context - and challenge - that journey’s taking place in:

Our call centre was built about 15 years ago, and it covered all council services. Every bit of customer contact went into the call centre - there was nothing else. We didn’t think the majority of our users actually wanted to come into the civic centre, or have to make a call (after all, they’re so used to doing things online in every other aspect of their lives), but our processes had been making them.

The next element in the story will be all too familiar to other local authorities - cost pressure.

Like every UK council, we’ve faced very serious financial pressures, and parts of the contact centre had to close. This meant that digital services had to step-up, as we had to improve services while still making savings.

However, Jones and his team were determined not to waste a good foundation here, as they see it:

We’d put a lot of work since 2007 in creating good digital processes. Creating digital services is not just a technical process; it’s about customer analysis and process mapping, and we think a good call centre has been an important foundation for digital at Harrow: a lot of the work in creating good processes was done in the call centre.

Which is very helpful, because if you digitise a rubbish process you end up with a rubbish digital process. In any case, having solid processes in place meant the council could decide what to digitise, and when.

Single view of the customer

The core work here, Jones told us, had been what he calls an early investment in a single customer account across the council so that users didn’t have different logins for different services:

There is one customer account and that helps enable deeper interactions, because as soon as we can authenticate who we’re talking to, we can offer deeper digital services. We’re always trying to operate as once council in our digital efforts - I can’t get across how important that is in setting customer expectations.

As a result, when the decision came to start closing down some of the physical call centre five years ago, the process was not as disruptive to residents as might have been the case. In hard numbers, for example, call volumes have been reduced by 51% over the past five years, with Harrow having to deal with answering 900,000 calls a year to only 407,000, which Jones says translates to a direct bottom-line saving of £2.5m a year.

Face-to-face visits have decreased 92% over five years. We’ve gone from 27 customer service booths to four, and have developed a self-service centre, where people come in and advisors help them carry out tasks on the website.

Email challenges

Not all moves to electronic forms of communication, however, always work out: in Harrow’s case, some hard lessons had to be learned about email, for instance.

Six or seven years ago, the council started moving everyone to email - but we quickly regretted it, due to the unstructured nature of the channel. People weren’t providing enough information to complete the transaction, which started rounds of back and forth email - but residents expect a very quick response to email, and soon ring up, thinking their email had been missed. The query would be answered on the phone and then over email too, so there was a lot of double handling of queries.

The good news here is that there’s been a gradual move away from direct email to Web forms, which are now the Council’s favourite method of contact, he says:

Webform usage has increased 167.6% over the past five years and the email load has reduced by about 46%. That’s good, as forms give us exactly the information we need and we can also set expectations as to when we’ll respond. Finally, web visits have risen 53.7% and our personalised ‘MyHarrow’ account log-ins have risen 166.5% - we now have over 500,000 logins each year, and 90.2% of enquiries are now through self-service.

Getting increasingly ‘personal’

A big help in this shift over to digital, says Jones, is use of the Continuum CMS (content management system) from supplier Jadu.

It’s always worked well for us, but a big part of the next phase of what we’re trying to achieve here will be the CMS’s personalisation capabilities and integrations.

Which will be handy, he says, as the next step is the physical closure of almost all that’s left in the old contact centre.

Digital is going to have to start dealing with a lot more complicated transactions, which have traditionally been its domain. This is at a time when it’s getting increased expectations of online experiences from customers, so we’re now reviewing all of our digital processes and creating a new website that focuses on personalisation.

That’s to say, instead of everyone seeing the same Harrow Council site when they connect, the idea is to change that to anticipate what a visitor is looking for on the website, he confirms.

We need to get to a position where what a visitor sees when they visit depends on factors such as time of day or season but also the individual.

A key part is joining the customer account and the website tightly together, so the information flows and the council gets a lot more powerful signals. By doing that, we’ll know what type of accounts people hold, and what type of transactions they make - so if a visitor logs in from an area that just had a bin collection yesterday, we can guess they might be on the website to report a missed bin and prioritise that transaction. 

We’ll also know their locations, and all this information can be passed to the website from the account, providing very powerful intelligence. That will help us a lot, as we’re under increased pressure to sell commercial services - and with a personalised site, we’ll have a lot better targeted ads going out for council services, so if we know the person has two children, so we can spotlight a kids cookery school, for example.

With work on what sounds like a pretty convincing example of digital transformation set to be complete by the end of March 2020, Jones is confident that there really is life beyond physical contact centre - but does remind us that,

All of this fits in with a need to make digital services easy and attractive to use… because there may not always be an easily available alternative!

Image credit - Image sourced via Harrow Council

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