Nearly a year ago, the government’s digital champion Martha Lane Fox, above, published a report entitled Directgov 2010 and Beyond: revolution not evolution. It called for the public sector to shift its contact with the public to digital channels.
More from: Channel shift: it's only just begun
The report said that as well as delivering better services for citizens, moving 30% of government service delivery contracts to digital channels could save the public purse more than £1.3bn a year. If we moved 50% to digital we could save £2.2bn a year.
So what progress has local government made towards establishing digital as the default channel? We surveyed officers across the country, and found that while there is some enthusiasm for channel shift, there are significant hurdles to be cleared before Ms Lane Fox’s vision can become a reality.
We began by asking what were the three main ways councils communicated with service users.
As we might expect, the most popular was the voice call, with 89% putting it in their top three. Our survey also revealed that councils still expected citizens to make the trip into council offices if they wanted to access services, with 78% of respondents citing that as one of the three main ways. See graphic below.
The expensive face-to-face contact was, as might be expected, unpopular with only 12%.
Certainly, there was some evidence of channel shift: 69% listed their website in the top three. Yet, remarkably, email (28%) was only marginally more popular than traditional snail mail on 24%.
What was most startling was almost no evidence of any shift to the channels that have been transforming customer contact in the private sector over the past three or four years: social media and mobile.
Our respondents do expect some degree of shift before 2015. For 94%, the website will be taking on a key role as voice calls drop to 66% and face-to-face contact at council offices falls to 29%. E-mails will rise a little - to 39% - and letters will plummet to 2%, with mobile apps taking off in a big way for 29%. Social media with 19% and SMS with 7% will make an appearance.
Respondents were clear about why this channel shift is desirable - 48% cited cost reduction as the primary driver and 35% ease of citizen access to services.
One respondent summed it up well, saying: “The digital channel will give us an extra and quicker means of communicating with the public.” Interestingly, only 11% said it was to meet citizen demand.
Jonathan Prew, managing director of Serco’s local government business (see right), says a detailed understanding of the views, needs and priorities of service users is critical for achieving a successful channel strategy and service transformation.
“With the vast majority of respondents acknowledging the clear benefits of digital channels for improving access to services and reducing costs, the use of multi-channel service delivery by local authorities continues to gather momentum,” he said.
It may be that there is little demand among the public for digital service delivery, but the growth of internet and mobile take-up suggests that it cannot be far away.
There are, of course, many people who do not own a mobile phone, are not online and who prefer to telephone or visit their council. Even so, there is much that can be done to provide the equipment and the skills to help people go online.
We should also bear in mind that digital communications can open up council services to many of the most disadvantaged people in society.
Yet, there are two very clear reasons why local authorities have made little progress in this area. When asked for the main obstacles, 57% said it was a lack of resources - both in people and technology - and 34% cited internal resistance to change.
One respondent said: “The problem is inertia. Everyone will insist on calling anyway.”
So, local authorities have much work to do in this area. Some councils are already making progress. Only one of our respondents did not intend to improve its website - 63% were consulting service users about how they wanted to deal with the council.
About half were benchmarking their progress against that of other councils. Eighty-two per cent were running, or planning to run, communication initiatives advising citizens on the different ways they could access services.
It is a start, but if local authorities are not to fall far behind public demand - if they are not to miss huge potential cost savings - they need to take channel shift much more seriously.
As Martha Lane Fox concluded in her report: “For years, businesses have been using digital communications to improve services and engagement with their consumers. Government should take advantage of the more open, agile and cheaper digital technologies to deliver simpler and more effective digital services to users.”
This article has been published in association with Serco, the service company which has been delivering public services for more than 40 years. The survey on which the main article is based was commissioned by Serco and carried out by LGC from 12-31 Augusts. The report was independently written by LGC. See LGCplus.com/Guidelines