3. Strategic options
“Strategy is a set objectives, policies and plan that, taken together, define the scope of the enterprise and its approach to survival and success” Richard Rummelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy
We have examined a set of strategic options for the development of our digital services, and conducted a qualitative assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, and the fit with BCC.
Option one: Government as a Platform
Government as a Platform is a term used to describe the building of a common infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes. Each component of the common infrastructure is designed to be ‘interoperable’ – it can be used in conjunction with other services and easily be replaced.
For local government, this can mean both using assets developed by central government, other local authorities and/or, developing assets that can be used by other partners (e.g. partners who deliver services on behalf of the council.
Verify is an identity management solution, developed by the Government Digital Service, which can be used to verify a user’s identity as part of any other ‘interoperable’ system. The same solution is used to verify the identity of an HMRC customer paying tax as a passport applicant.
This approach avoids duplicating core functionality across multiple digital services (e.g. every service creating its own alerts and notifications feature). For us, it means we can use assets that have been developed elsewhere and have been tested by millions of users across the country. However, the market of platform products is still nascent – core functionality for local government is not yet available. Verify, for example, is not commonly available for local authorities.
Building stand-alone components can ensure that each is ‘best of breed’ rather than purchasing software that is better at some functions than others (e.g. a better payment gateway than user interface). However, it does also require that the platform is given sufficient support to ensure it continues to meet user need.
Making most of the opportunity to use a variety of platforms requires development capability to integrate platform products and interoperability of existing systems (e.g. business applications) and given the strategic importance of this, and the need for understanding how the platforms fit together, these skills would be required in-house.
Buckinghamshire County Council should make use of third party platforms wherever possible. It should avoid purchasing integrated solutions that do not enable components to work together.
Option two: Adopt the principles and approach of the Government Digital Service
The principles and approach of the Government Digital Service is set out in the government’s digital strategy and the service manual. It sets out a standard, a method of developing digital services, and a set of design principles that have been developed through thousands of hours of user research.
Citizens Advice developed a set of digital services following the principles of the government’s strategy, service manual and design principle. Doing so saved the charity £500,000 because it was able to retire a previously critical piece of business technology.
Whilst there are important differences in the look and feel between the government’s and Citizens Advice digital services, there are a set of commonalities where the user need was the same (e.g. trusted, impartial advice).
The core assets produced and maintained by GDS are well-researched, trusted by users and supported by a rolling and transparent programme of user research that ensures they continue to meet user need. Many of our customers will use services provided on GOV.UK, and some will do so more frequently than the services they access from the council. Therefore, adopting the same approaches helps provide some users with greater reassurance and understanding of how to use the service.
Much of the GDS approach has been designed to deliver transactional services – typically mandatory services involving registration, application or payments. Whilst the council provides many services like this, it has a set of additional marketing and democratic functions that aren’t provided via GOV.UK in central government. In particular, our public health activities often seek to support behaviour change.
Whilst there may be opportunity to learn from other local authorities, there are more differences than similarities in the approach. And much of the thinking and design is not developed openly. So copying another county council may be a shortcut to meet user need, or may simply be adopting the style preferences of another organisation.
Adopting GDS approaches is an efficient way for the council to follow practice that we know has been tested with users at scale. However, we will need to research what users want from our marketing, democratic and behaviour change activities to understand the extent to which we need to vary the GDS approach to these functions.
Option three: Redesigning services for digital
Each service is redesigned to understand what users need and maximise the potential of digital to improve the customer experience and reduce the cost of delivering the service.
The DVLA redesigned driving licences for digital channels. Applications are handled online and for some customers, the service can find their photo from their passport application, reducing the need for manual intervention.
The paper counterpart licence, which records penalties, has been removed. Instead the information can be viewed via a web service and shared with authorised third parties (such as vehicle rental services).
Service redesign increases the likelihood of meeting customer expectations whilst transforming the cost-base of a service. Migrating paper-based forms to web forms, or paper notifications to email delivers incremental efficiencies. However, there remain key frictions to a ‘best in class’ digital customer experience. For example, school applications require paper documents to be scanned, submitted and manually checked to confirm a customer’s eligibility. Theoretically this can be all delivered digitally without manual intervention.
However, the council provides significantly different types of services to different customers. There are services for vulnerable customers, such as social care, where a smaller proportion of the customer base might prefer to use a digital service. Some other services will still need to issue paper – such as birth certificates – to comply with legislation. Others are inexpensive to administer and low volume per year – e.g. applying to store petrol – and fundamental service redesign may not deliver a return on investment.
Redesigning services sequentially can reinforce silos or distinctions between services that do not work for customers (e.g. separate services for school admissions and home/school transport). A ‘service by service’ approach could also lead to technology being developed twice for individual services that performs the same function.
The scope for service redesign may also be limited by the business applications that administer them (for example, a database that does not enable data to be easily imported or exported).
Redesign of our major services is essential if we are to deliver services through digital that are so good that people prefer to use them over other channels. However, this approach will not suit all of our services.
Option four: A portal for customers to access multiple services
A web portal typically provides a group of customers with access to multiple services, often (but not necessarily) enabling some personalisation of the interface, the content and the range of services.
Banking websites provide a range of content and services for a range of core and peripheral banking products – but exclude third party services (e.g. money management software)
Development of a portal to access services may be particularly relevant for certain types of customers who need a limited range of specialist council services. Our business customers – such as schools customers – all have a common set of needs and are less likely to need to access the broader range of council services.
A portal could provide some benefits in consistency of the user interface between services, and enable further contacts (such as webchat or notifications) to be personalised to the user to a greater extent than a set of separate digital services.
However, the majority of council customers are likely to need to access different services at different points depending on their needs and the stage of their life. For example, whilst there are a set of services that a parent may wish to access, they may also have a role as a carer of an older person. Users may also want different types of relationships with different services – e.g. attending an event at a country park compared to social services support for families.
Given the currently limited range of digital services and lack of understanding of user need, the council is more likely to improve customer satisfaction and save money by redesigning its services for digital channels rather than migrating them to a portal for specific customer groups.
A portal, such as Schools Web, may be attractive for particular groups of business customers but is unlikely to be a key user need for the majority of residents.
Option 5: Outsourcing delivery to a partner
Outsourcing provision of digital services to a partner could be tied to improvements in customer experience and reduction in cost.
The London Borough of Barnet has outsourced delivery of its customer service functions to Capita. Under the new support and customer service contract, Capita delivers a range of services for the Council including corporate programmes, customer services, estates, finance, human resources and payroll, information systems, procurement, revenues and benefits. The contract is worth approximately £320m over 10 years.
The council is moving towards becoming a ‘commissioning council’ in common with many other local authorities. Key services, such as transport, are already provided by private sector partners. The Transport for Buckinghamshire website was developed and hosted by Ringway Jacobs as part of the contract.
The existing model of commissioning has led to fragmentation of the customer experience. For example, customers who do not use the TfB website will phone the BCC contact centre but are not able to use its webchat. Further outsourcing of individual digital services would lead to greater fragmentation.
However, there are a set of services that are still provided in-house which would require ongoing provision of digital services. Whilst these are delivered in-house, the potential benefits of outsourcing would be limited as the provider would have limited levers to redesign the service.
The council’s other key customer touchpoints – front of house, contact centre and complaints – all remain in-house
The currently mix of service provision limits the potential benefits that could be accrued from outsourcing responsibility for the delivery of digital services. Without a mix of service provision limits the potential benefits that could be accrued from outsourcing responsibility for the delivery of digital services. Without a wider outsourcing of customer service provision, the attractiveness to a potential partner may be limited.
Last updated: 2 May 2017