By integrating a suite of intelligent forms directly into the main revenues and benefits system, Central Bedfordshire has streamlined processes and improved the citizen user experience.
Like all councils in recent years, Central Bedfordshire has been looking to reduce costs by shifting service delivery from face-to-face to self-service – whilst at the same time improving the citizen user experience.
In the latter part of 2015 it became clear that their existing online housing benefit and council tax support form was in need of an upgrade. At the same time, plans were afoot to further improve service delivery with a new suite of forms for housing benefit change in circumstances, council tax occupation, vacation, direct debit and single person discount, and business rates occupation, vacation, direct debit, and discretionary relief.
Having investigated possible options the council was keen to work with an established supplier, one that had proven it could deliver projects on time. According to Stephen Knight, service and performance manager for revenues and benefits service at Central Bedfordshire: “IEG4 was the best match in terms in what we wanted delivered. They had a very good base product and were able to very quickly localise and enhance their solution to provide us with what we needed.”
It took just a few weeks to go live with the first set of council tax forms, coinciding with the annual billing process, and a total of five months from start to finish to design, integrate and implement all of the revenues and benefits forms.
“The advantage to having intelligent forms in the same solution is that they work with each other,” says Knight. “If an applicant is applying for council tax support for example and states that they are living alone, the relevant Single Person Discount application questions will immediately be put to them.
“This streamlines the application process and makes the task of applying easier for the citizen.”
Knowledge transfer was a key component of the project. As Knight explains, his team can now “mix and match and update forms themselves if the explanations or question wording is not working". He adds: "We monitor where people have trouble with the application and can make changes on the spot to make the customer journey easier.”
IEG4’s eGovHub architecture offers user content management for the forms, which enables councils to localise text to suit specific circumstances. Knight cites the example of when the claim form went live it originally asked about 'the number of dependent children': the council found that some respondents were including children at university away from home. The team reworded the question to specify the number of ‘dependent children living at home’.
“It is normally usual to have to go back to the supplier with a change request for even simple wording changes," says White. "But the team were able to make the wording changes themselves as soon as they realised it needed doing.”
He says the main benefit from the new forms is the self-sufficiency: “If there are simple changes needed quickly we are not at the mercy of a supplier’s upgrade cycle. We can do it immediately, ourselves.”
He is also however, keen to point out that the council will be making savings on print, paper, scanning, rekeying and postage costs. The paper version of the housing benefit form is currently 26 pages long, and when a completed form is returned it has to be keyed into the system manually.
“With the eClaim the information entered by the claimant is ported straight into the main system,” Knight explains.
As with any transformation in work, the new process was met with mixed feelings from staff.
“In any change like this there is an initial culture shock as the move away from the status quo is so radical," Knight says. "But we have been supporting staff through the change and the processing team are now seeing the benefits themselves. We have proven that it works and have worked with staff to adapt forms where necessary.”
This user involvement in the product development is key to successful adoption, he believes.
“It is essential in these difficult times for local government to modernise processes and use technology to its full advantage. But we need to support our people to deliver the results. We must explain and engage and encourage users to try the technology. In most cases when they see the results they come around.
"It is also crucial to give the customer a better service with better information and access to self-service – which in turn directly reduces our costs.”
IEG4’s forms are built using their eDesigner product. The council is now looking at using the base product to give it the capability of building its own forms in-house “as the need arises”.
All the heavy duty coding of the form is done behind the scenes, making it easy for users to create and maintain sophisticated intelligent forms online. Field workers can also use the forms on mobile devices offline, ready for upload as soon as the worker reconnects to the internet.
Meanwhile, management and reporting tools are instantly available when a form goes live so that monitoring starts from the outset.
IEG4 is developing its intelligent forms under #LGaaP, or Local Government as a Platform, principles, using open integration and enabling the re-use and sharing of forms between councils that opt for IEG4’s hosted service. This will help them to avoid duplication of development effort when building a forms library.
Knight is excited about the potential benefits such a move would give to the team: “eDesigner is a hosted service, so this also opens up the possibility of sharing forms with other councils. There is already a community of eDesigner users building up, where we can not only share the forms we have designed with other councils, but we can also take advantage of work done by others. It is a great way to prevent ‘reinventing the wheel’.
“We all have the same core functionality requirements; localising the content and ‘look and feel’ is very simple and it would be a great time saver.”
He adds: “The best bit about this project though is that all the revenues and benefits forms we initially needed were successfully designed and rolled out within five months.”