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Using cloud to get to a more customer-driven future in Hertfordshire

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood September 6, 2019
St Albans City and District Council says exploitation of a Salesforce-based platform has started to change perceptions.

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Feeling hampered by your legacy systems, but still need to improve customer service? Don’t stress. Just get rid of the baggage.

That’s the view, at least, from one local government IT leader in the middle of trying to do just that - Caroline Croft, the Digital IT Manager at St Albans City and District Council.

Croft and her team work in one of the more pleasant work environments in the UK, St Albans, being a unique English Cathedral City with a colourful history, with everything from Roman remains, a variety of examples of outstanding architecture, accessible heritage sites, and conservation areas. Indeed, set within Green Belt land just off the M25, A1M and M1, Croft’s District includes a Cathedral, a historic city centre and newly refurbished offices close to the mainline station.

In any case, St Albans has the same kind of onus to save money but deliver ever-improving services for residents as authorities in less salubrious parts of the country - and Croft confirms that customer focus, digital transformation and workforce development are the underpinning principles of the council’s plan for a properly ‘customer-driven’ future.

Croft set the scene for us:

Last year, our workforce development work centred on the development of our new organisational values and behaviours. These put residents and other customers firmly at the centre of our work, and reflect how we want our services to develop. Caring for our community, working together, and developing confident people are at the heart of this, and we have chosen these themes to help us become the truly trusted and service driven Council we aspire to be.  

To keep us focused on our customers and what they tell us they want to see locally, we are structuring our work to support the delivery of the following key outcomes: a vibrant economy, a thriving community, a great place to live and work and a cost-effective Council.

‘We wanted to have a platform that was under our control’

To meet these corporate goals, though, would mean overcoming internal inefficiencies, she told diginomica/government.

Our business problem was that we were using legacy systems. Because of that, we had no clear view of the customer, and data was not being utilised to its fullest extent. Our environment was complex, and needed to be simplified to improve support and availability for citizens.

Croft stresses that this lack of a clear view of the customer was not just holding St Albans back, it was hindering her ability to transform the user journey:

Decision making was based on our perception of who the customer was, rather than the reality, and this was hampering the transformation journey. We wanted to have a platform that was under our control, with the ability to self-manage a substantial amount of the transformation journey.

The decision was made to try and dissolve these issues by moving to the cloud - specifically, Salesforce as implemented and extended for local government use by a specialist preferred public sector partner of that vendor, Cambridge-based Arcus Global.

The Salesforce platform gives us this agility while this partner’s local government experience has been continually supporting us through this journey. We also see the company as a forward-thinking organisation that want to work with us to find new innovative delivery options, and are open to sharing ideas and learning with us; working with them feels like a partnership.

Sounds great, but what does all this talk of partnership and innovation look like at the sharp end? Croft explained that the first step on the journey to that ‘customer-driven’ future was to build a special customer portal, the MyStAlbans District service in 2018. There, housing customers can self-serve their housing needs and finances while other residents can also manage their Council Tax bill and services. 

Over 13,500 residents have now signed up to her new self-service digital platform - a move that means residents have easy and instant access to a growing number of council services. For example, householders can order replacement recycling boxes, or let the Town Hall know if it missed emptying their bins that week. Residents can also sign-up for consultations, see their current Council Tax balance, and tell the team about issues like noise or litter, at the click of a button, she points out.

Why is all this helpful, we asked?

We have simplified the customer transactional journey, freeing up resources to concentrate on delivering other services for people who truly need our support. It also improves our decision making as we can now based on data, plus it also supports the overall St Albans digital transformation journey.

Essentially, self-serve functioning enables the citizen to transact with us when they want to, rather than when one of our offices are open. It also changes the way our citizens perceive us in terms of us being a modern and open-for-business service.

New council website with business performance support on way

An interesting sidelight on all this improvement is that Croft found that the people contacting St Albans most via phone were actually a much younger age-group than she expected. There was a clear communications gap, it turns out, as many of the transactions they were contacting the Council for were available online - but there was a perception amongst citizenry that the Council wouldn’t have online services! She continues:

Plus, we are now able to tailor highly personalised information that’s really relevant to citizens as residents of the District. They can zoom in on their home, their street, their neighbourhood, their ward and their town or village, through a password-protected, secure online account. 

Such digital advances mean we have much better management information and data available to help us target improvements, find efficiency savings, and direct change.

Even more excitingly for residents of the District, this is all being seen as just the first step in the journey. Croft told us a completely new council website will be launched later in the year, including a business portal, which she envisages as enabling local business to transact easily with the council and ‘significantly reduce’ their administrative burden.

Summing up the impact of a Salesforce-based public sector solution in this corner of Southern England, for Croft and her fellow managers:

We wanted a solution that could grow with us as we shape our services and develop new ways of engaging with our residents. The legacy applications that we use were not agile enough to change in the way and at the rate we need them to. Based on our experience, my advice to other local authorities thinking about digital transformation is, don’t be afraid to change the technology platforms that you use: be bold!

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