Industry voice: When Bracknell Forest Council launched a digital service to allow residents to handle housing benefit and council tax discount claims online, it was inundated with people who wanted to create an account.
The My Benefits account allows users to log in using a Facebook, Google or Microsoft account - open a claim and view current data online, including payments made, payment methods, payment dates and reductions.
The portal from IEG4 allows claimants to submit notes, changes in circumstances and requests to the council, and then track progress of the response. Take up of the digital accounts has saved a significant amount of time for the welfare and housing service, with phone lines now open for just four hours a day instead of eight and a half.
Bracknell Forest’s director of adult social care, health and housing Gill Vickers (pictured) says: “Everything is online. People can track their benefits online just like a parcel and it covers all of the transactions that were previously done on the phone. People were calling us asking when their money would be going out but now they can see this information themselves online.
"We looked at the data to see when people called and what they called about, and put the top 10 questions online so that people could find the answer to their questions without calling in.”
The system was specifically designed to reduce errors and the time staff spent rectifying them. Forms automatically validate data, such as national insurance numbers, with information already held on the system. For customers, this has created a more user-friendly and intuitive experience, reducing the time spent filling in forms and waiting for payments.
Customers quickly began to notice an improvement, and today almost 60% of claimants have actively chosen a My Benefits account.
Feedback from users has been encouraging. One, who had previously found it difficult to get into the council offices, explained: "Setting up a My Benefits account was really easy. Being able to make a claim, tell my caseworker about a change of circumstance without having to phone or come into the council office is really convenient and I can also keep track of my claim being processed."
Vickers is not surprised by the great response from customers. “Historically, we’ve used long paper forms. Replicating these online and getting them to be context sensitive has long been a challenge for those involved in processing benefits.
"However, My Benefits forms were designed to enable, not prevent, people from transacting with us. We now only ask for evidence that is critical - we are really clear about what we need and we have reduced some information requirements to minimise customer frustration,” she says.
Making the service very simple to use has required some serious groundwork and, before launching My Benefits, four 'super-user' officers from the welfare and housing service conducted in-depth user testing. They trialled the digital service on around 20 different scenarios from hypothetical claimants; for example, a single parent with a part time job, also claiming benefits. It was also tested on a variety of devices including staff’s own mobile telephones and tablets.
Vickers says: “When you adopt the position of a customer, you see their frustrations and where problems would be encountered, for example, we had to adjust our email set up to enable acknowledgements to be sent and not fall prey to 'spam filtering'.”
According to Vickers these elected ‘super users’ motivated colleagues, gained new skills and promoted a sense of inclusion in the programme across the welfare and housing service.
When testers did find a problem, the partner, IEG4, iterated the software until each test case ran smoothly. "We provide £33 million a year in housing benefit alone, so it is vital that the data is correct. We threw everything into it and IEG4 worked alongside us,” Vickers says.
Vickers says that the programme’s success can also be explained by considered communication and promotion prior to launch.
“It was a really hands-on approach. The welfare and benefits team promoted the service to claimants by letter, via an emailed video, presentation through social media and on home visits. At the council office, officers had a conversation with customers about the initiative rather than expecting them to sit in front of a screen having it explained to them. Customers liked the fact they could upload their information online and don’t need to come in,” she adds.
The team ensured stakeholders were engaged from the start and set aside time to demonstrate the system to councillors to ensure they understood it.
When choosing a partner to work with, the council needed a solution that could be easily integrated with its existing document management system.
IEG4 ensured that it could pull information from the council’s back office system via an API, to enable vital data, such as customer payments, to be displayed. In addition, IEG4 provided a look and feel that was “fresh, modern and more than just a clunky bolt-on", says Vickers.
The project turned out to be ground breaking; a cloud based system that has been part of the council’s implementation of agile working.
There was a natural concern around risk says Vickers. "It moves us from a traditional 'version control' approach to a requirement for testing and shipping fixes overnight which can be a resource issue for ICT departments. However, there is potentially less risk than taking longer to turn things around and delaying the benefits of the new system," she says.
“In addition to all of the benefits for our customers, the savings have been significant. With the service having moved online, teams make fewer face-to-face appointments, calls have been greatly reduced and postage costs eliminated. The savings have spread beyond the welfare and housing department alone", she says.
This has had important implications for the entire organisation. In the future, there is potential for it to be a portal to other council services, such as public reporting.
“It’s brought more than a silo service saving. The system has complemented the council’s wider transformation programme,” says Vickers.
She believes that the solution has provided an opportunity for a profound change: a complete redesign of its frontline service. The change has been profound for claimants too.
If you’d like to find out how IEG4 can help to improve and deliver your digital transformation needs, the company is hosting events on 4 October in Cheshire and 24 October in London. To book your place click here.
In addition, IEG4 is also exhibiting at IRRV Annual Conference in Telford. To arrange a demonstration during IRRV click here.
Main image from IEG4