Community service portals: engagement and enhanced services?
The idea has smouldered in the corridors of Whitehall and the association of local government IT managers (Socitm) without ever catching fire.
In theory, moving local authorities’ counter-based services online could transform the cost of services. Socitm research originally identified potential savings per transaction ranging from £4.83 to £9.56 per item - when using online services instead of traditional face-to-face delivery. This approach could provide billions of pounds of savings over the long term.
However, it’s one thing to provide services online, it’s another to encourage citizens to use them in the numbers required to make significant savings that justify the original investment.
One idea attracting attention positions the council’s web site as a community hub rather than simply an extension of the enquiry desk. This model aims to create a virtuous circle by allowing the community to design and publish their own content and encourages community participation by providing facilities such as forums. This creates a more interesting site for citizens who will then use the site more frequently as a source of local information. In the process, they become more aware of the services available online and are more likely to use them.
Councils have unrivalled local insights, community links and existing technology platforms to act as an umbrella or simply sponsor community-based portals. In many boroughs, these localised services are already being provided by third parties such as charities and self-help groups. Some pioneer councils have set up their own portals for specific areas like reporting litter and anti-social behaviour. Others are working with business intelligence experts to profile local communities into constituent groups down to neighbourhood level, to establish which services could be delivered entirely online.
So why have many council’s failed to go down this route? There are a number of reasons. Many councils perversely may have become victims of their own drive to be efficient businesses. They perceive their role only in terms of the services they deliver and neglect their role as a focus for a community.
Some council hesitancy may come from the perceived risk associated with deploying new IT systems and the return on investment. Many authorities already have invested in IT systems that can be connected to front-end web portals to provide wider services to local citizens. There will be some investment needed but the community model advocated here can spread the cost of building and maintaining across the wider service community. At the moment, although the logic is clear, making the business case for savings from portals may be perceived as more ‘risky’ than continuing existing efficiency savings programmes.
A service portal is a long term investment in personalising services while driving savings. It also provides a mechanism for council’s to reshape and redefine the way they engage with their community. The building blocks - streamlining council IT platforms, the need for community services and councils’ to review the way they support their community - are there. With no let-up in budget reduction measures foreseeable, portals may be an idea that will start to help local government to enhance its services while making a step change in costs.
Paul Smith, CTO, Civica
LGC’s efficiency channel, providing the latest local government news, comment and analysis.
In association with Civica, software and IT service providers, specialising in public sector work, including local authorities.