Residents consider a local authority as a single entity. They have little knowledge of or care about the business lines and structures of the organization. Yet the business processes and the technology of a local authority can present the resident with a labyrinth to navigate. This not only frustrates the resident but also increases the costs and efficiency of a local authority. Runnymede Borough Council has used a technology modernization programme to simplify its process for both the Surrey borough's citizens, councillors and council staff.
Runnymede was one of 48 councils that the Conservative Party had led until the local elections of 2023. Since May 2023, Runnymede has had an independent council chamber. The Borough Council encompasses the communities of Addlestone, Chertsey, Egham, Thorpe and Virginia Water and is named after the water meadow where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 by King John.
Linda Norman, Corporate Head of Customer, Digital & Collection Services at Runnymede Borough Council, took on the technology brief in 2019 and began using technology to deliver new services to residents; she says:
The chief exec decided to put IT with me, as service was at the heart of everything we do - and IT was the enabler. I changed it from IT to Digital Services because it wasn't just about IT and keeping the lights on. As Digital Services, we have expanded the team into two areas: Transformation; and then Infrastructure, Security & Operations.
Norman admits to being enthusiastic about technology, but as you discuss the public sector with her, it is clear her zeal is the citizen and how to deliver services to them; and this is what has informed her plans to simplify services. She says:
A council tax manager refused to write off the court costs of a case where a person on benefits had moved and told the benefits team that they were moving. This led to a debt in council tax and a summons. The debt was for about £30 once the account had been amended, and the court costs were £60. The council tax manager insisted that they had not been told and the costs were due.
You could argue that the council tax manager was right, but Norman's lesson from this incident, in a 30-year career in the public sector, is that citizens believe that telling one member of the council means they have informed all relevant parties. In other words, the public believes the public sector is joined up and collaborates. She adds:
What we want is for the customer to have a single view of the council. It doesn't matter who they tell about a change in circumstances.
Technology plays a part here, but so does process transformation, she says:
When I arrived at Runnymede, the annual Council Tax bill landed on Monday, the benefits payment on Tuesday and the rent bill for local authority housing on Thursday. So a resident had three different letters, which is a ridiculous level of cost and when the resident looks at these and sees a difference in benefits calculation, they don't understand, so tie it all together, and that is what we are doing.
Runnymede is among a growing number of local authorities developing a single customer account for its residents, as well as aiming to make every citizen contact count with a unified citizen experience online. With single accounts, local authority citizens can manage everything from garden waste bins, care alarms, to meals on wheels. Norman says this will engender that feeling of dealing with the council as a single entity rather than having to know how to reach community services, planning or revenue & benefits departments.
This not only simplifies the council, it brings local authorities into line with the digital influences and services citizens are used to, such as Amazon or their digital bank. Norman says:
Customer expectations are changing all the time, people expect online services, and they just couldn't do that with Runnymede as we didn't have the technology. More and more people want to report graffiti or fly tipping on their mobile phones; they don't want to wait for the council office to open.
Reaching this point requires both a customer-focused technology estate, but also a customer-centric culture. With her combined role of customer, collections and digital, Norman has developed just such a culture:
In job interviews, even for technologists, I always ask, 'how does this relate to customer care?
Her entire team, including Norman, are trained to ITIL 4 to ensure there is continuous improvement. Norman says so much of public sector contact with the citizen should be the same as the Tell Us Once policy that was brought in to make registering a death less burdensome.
Part of taking on the technology brief at Runnymede Borough Council included being tasked with finding £250,000 in annual savings. Norman secured £1.8 million in funding to improve the technology estate. She says:
We had legacy technology that had not been invested in. There was a rolling contract with no proper contract management; they were just renewed on a purchase order.
Five core systems, revenue, benefits, planning and housing, were modernized along with a major hardware refresh. This included moving onto Microsoft Windows 10 and E3 licensing. Norman decided to remain with the NEC (formerly known as Northgate Public Services) applications for business continuity reasons. A new five-year contract with NEC saw the public sector applications upgraded, providing Runnymede with a recovery module, e-claims and a landlords portal.
The upgrades have reduced duplication and improved the end-user experience for council employees. When Norman spoke to diginomica she was embarking on HR and payroll application modernization, and she has her sights on finance and environmental health over the next two years.
Although tasked with making significant savings, Norman says Runnymede Borough Council needed convincing of the case to invest in new technology during a period of austerity from the central government. To do this, Norman wrote a postcard from the future, which she describes as a visualization of the standard of service the council will have that will make peers' wish you were here'. She says:
It allows you to look at where you want to be and work backwards. If you have a visual of what it looks like, then people can believe in it.
Charter for connectivity
With the core technologies modernized, Norman was able to begin creating a more joined-up local authority. Key to this was the adoption of a digital platform that would combine and integrate the full range of council services.
In November 2020, Runnymede Borough Council selected the Jadu Digital Platform and completed the implementation within 10 months. Stephen Bowen, Head of Digital Innovation at Runnymede Borough Council, says:
It was a complex integration, and we completed it in-house with a team of three.
Runnymede Borough Council has been able to simplify and improve its customer service. The local authority had previously shared its content management system with a neighbouring local authority; this didn't integrate in real-time with the other systems used by Runnymede. Today the borough has 1,500 web pages and 150 forms on a single platform, Norman says:
When we looked at our old website, we had 21 email addresses. The public didn't have a chance, and we didn't have the mechanisms in place to work collaboratively. What we want is for the customer to have a single view of the council.
Channel shift has been important in local authorities. For Runnymede, over 80% of subscribers to the garden waste bin service have resubscribed online and selected direct debit payments. This has eradicated a complex system of allocation, missed bin collections, reminders and citizens calling the local authority. Runnymede also integrated its telephony and CRM with the Jadu Digital Platform, connecting all channels, and benefiting citizens and customer service representatives. Revenue of £14 million has been collected since August 2021. Norman says:
Eight thousand five hundred people renewed online, and we had £500,000 in the council accounts and with no complaints or postage costs.
Customer, Digital & Collection Services are arguably the three most important pillars of any organization. Borough councils may not have the scale and scope of multinationals, but as Runnymede demonstrates, putting these three together as a unified force improves business processes, which in turn improves customer service.