By Amanda Derrick OBE, ex-Programme Director and Dr. Lorna Peters, ex-Business and Research Workstream Lead, Connect Digitally Programme
'Connect Digitally', was a central-local partnership ending in 2012 which transformed cumbersome, expensive paper-based citizen services to more efficient digital ones and ensured high take-up of digital channels. It was funded by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and led by Hertfordshire County Council.
Amanda Derrick was awarded an OBE in the New Years Honours 2012 for Services to Children and Families as a direct result of successful leadership and delivery of the programme.
The Connect Digitally Services programme focused on applications for school admissions and free school meals but also supported digital delivery of services such as online payments and cashless catering.
The initiative designed and delivered digital-by-default public services, leaving behind resilient, reusable and sustainable services which have, to date, delivered millions of digital transactions for both citizens and government organisations.
But importantly, the programme model is applicable to the delivery of digital transactions in any public service and therefore has much to offer local authorities in solving the problems they face today.
One example of the programme's success is 80% take-up nationally for Online School Admissions. This figure is remarkable for any government service, but considering that the service is delivered by over 150 different local authorities, it demonstrates that it is possible to scale up innovation, transfer solutions and achieve high channel shift across multiple organisations and over a wide demographic.
The programme's Online Free School Meals (OFSM) Eligibility Checking Service (ECS) transformed a paper-based bureaucratic service to an online real-time one.
The service is based on sharing data between central and local government. Citizen data provided by the local authority is checked against data from DWP, HMRC and Home Office, reducing the cost-to-serve and removing the need for citizens to provide paper proof of benefit which reduces the application process from three months to as little as three minutes.
The application of the service beyond OFSM has been widely recognised and it is now used to check Funded Early Learning for Two Year Olds - creating a huge cost saving for local authorities and a fast, efficient process for citizens.
It is extremely rewarding to know that the services we designed, developed and delivered are now 'business as usual' and that digital is the primary channel.
We published a blueprint of our service delivery model in 2012 as eight core elements and this model remains relevant to government bodies implementing digital services today (links open pdf documents):
- Transforming Citizen Experience: we put citizens at the centre and designed services around them, addressing usability, digital inclusion and end-to-end service.
- Scaling Up Digital Innovation: working with partners we identified and agreed what the minimum features and functions for each service would be - certain features could be added later.
- Driving Change across Government: we recognised that many public services are delivered via complex delivery chains and worked with early adopter local authorities to provide digital leadership and demonstrate success which helped to develop trust across all our partners.
- Overcoming Barriers to Digital Transactions: we identified blockers, delivered solutions and set out to myth bust (one myth was that the demographic receiving Free School Meals would not use digital channels).
- Reducing Costs and Delivering Benefits: we identified potential benefits for all - citizens, children, local authorities, central government, commercial suppliers and schools - including cost savings for local authorities and improving outcomes for citizens.
- Collaborating with Commercial Partners: we developed and agreed standards for data formats and common features such as checking age and gender appropriate to school applied for. We also stimulated commercial innovation - something that Cabinet Office wants Government to do.
- Communicating Effectively: we delivered workshops, videos, electronic newsletters and a discussion forum, which established trust and instilled confidence.
- Providing Open Source Products: we worked with Government departments and local authorities to develop quality tools and products which could be utilised and adapted by partners such as local authorities and schools.
What made Connect Digitally so successful was that we focused on people and outcomes, we were clear on the vision and had the determination to overcome the barriers.
We were flexible in our approach, accepted failure as part of the learning process, moved forward incrementally, appreciated and celebrated the successes of all our partners and continued to set high targets and goals.
We built up a strong, committed team that maintained focus and was prepared to work together and with trusted partners.
Belief in the team and in our ability to co-ordinate complex service delivery and seeing the bigger picture while staying focused on the details helped us to achieve far greater success than we ever anticipated.