Industry voice: IEG4 managing director Paul Tomlinson outlines an approach to online services that can meet both the needs of a local authority and the demands of the citizen
In today's financial climate, engineering and then delivering the shift to online citizen services is a financial imperative. The difference in cost of a face-to-face interaction compared to digital self-service is so significant that those savings reinvested back into the organisation could potentially make the difference to saving a frontline service.
With 89% of adults in the UK now using the internet (according to the Office for National Statistics), there really is no barrier to citizen self-service for the majority of people.
People today are used to self-service, Amazon-style functions, and 24-hour availability 365 days a year. Unfortunately, most councils are yet to gear up their digital services to match the best of consumer offerings.
Socitm has done fantastic work over the years pushing local authorities to place the right information on their websites, such that it is now the norm for the ‘10 most sought-after pieces of information’ to be easy to find and accessible on council websites. Although an improvement on what went before, the information still, because of the workflows around the siloed information, tended to be council, or at best postcode, specific, and could not always address citizens' individual questions.
The citizen account was born: get the citizen to log in, verify themselves, and then bring meaningful, context relevant data to the surface. The ideal would be to also answer those 10 most commonly asked questions with citizen specific data from the back office silos.
However, this proved not to be easy: the plethora of legacy systems and services made it difficult to create an effective, transactional, citizen account; and surfacing the 10 most commonly asked benefits questions with meaningful information on the citizen’s account is tricky. But at IEG4, we ‘do’ tricky - if it means that people can get the information they need, 24/7 in real time.
Our solution lies in the concept of Local Government as a Platform (LGaaP), in which council departments see themselves as a single body responsible for delivering services through consistent channels in a cohesive and standardised manner – and then adopting the technology to make this possible.
This means bringing together the templates and data for different processes in to one place, making them configurable and adaptable for different uses, rather than taking an individual development approach to each. It can work in the back office through use of an API framework automation, and, crucially for the citizen, then through a customer portal, providing one familiar version of a feature – such as an online form – that can be adapted for a series of back end processes.
This not only provides savings on development, licensing and maintenance costs, but the consistency in approach supports collaborative working.
IEG4 used this concept as the foundation in building one of the most recent citizen accounts to market, OneVu. In effect, we took the opportunity to assess the market, learn from others’ mistakes and identify the key platform components for success: one citizen log-in, self-service and automatic progress tracking alongside context relevant, dynamic data from back office silos.
We have also looked at how people like to verify themselves, from using GOV.UK Verify Local to internal verification to social media accounts. And we have enabled our solution to give the citizen the choice.
It is proving to be the case that social media provides one of the greatest opportunities to drive up citizen use of council accounts. According to Ofcom’s latest figures, 76% of all adult internet users have a social media profile; even among the over 75s the figure is 41%. Enabling people to use their own, familiar, social media identity to access their council services simplifies the user experience and enables a conversation between the citizen and the council.
OneVu therefore integrates with social media messaging systems, such as Facebook Messenger or Skype, underpinned by the Microsoft Bot Framework and enables citizens to be kept up to date on progress via their preferred communications channel. This is a two-way process enabling the council, for example, to request evidence, and for it then to be submitted and acknowledged by email or social media. Using the Microsoft Bot Framework as our conversational platform enables us to future proof as we will be able to integrate other social platforms such as WhatsApp easily when their APIs are released.
These chatbots will underpin our OneVu Virtual Customer Assistant (VCA) where our own API framework will integrate back office silo data; with data driven standard Q&A sessions with the citizen only handing the ‘conversation’ to a council officer when necessary. This augmented intelligence will free up officer time to focus on judgement in complex cases and only need to interact in standard process where the robot hasn’t learnt enough yet.
With our VCA being based on Microsoft Bot Framework it is easy to see the next step to voice driven conversational platform, which with Microsoft natural language capabilities can be multilingual.
There is an issue to be considered. Social media accounts do not have a high authentication level, but, where required, additional or ‘two-factor’ techniques can be applied to strengthen the process, e.g. for high risk transactions such as benefits applications. Councils can find the appropriate balance between frictionless transactions and a simple user experience on the one hand while safeguarding against fraud and error on the other. It is only by getting this balance right that the shift to self-service will ultimately be delivered.
Meanwhile, accessing these services on the move in this mobile, ‘always on’ world is essential, and the availability of an app to deliver online and offline services is core to the user experience.
We designed OneVu's app to enable just that; reporting on the move for location based incidents like broken streetlights or fly tipping and uploading the information to the council’s OneVu system as soon as a connection is available. This enables the council to 'map it, action it, fix it' and then report back to the citizen on progress.
OneVu gives the citizen what they need and expect from their local authority – that ability to easily find information and interact while at home or on the move, and in a manner that is both flexible and secure.
Applying the concept of Local Government as a Platform, in which council departments see themselves as a single body responsible for delivering services through consistent channels in a cohesive and standardised manner, provides the foundation to giving the citizen control of their online council services. IEG4 is now facilitating our own LGaaP ‘club’ whereby users of our eDesigner and OneVu enterprise products can share electronic forms. This will make available over 200 ‘free’ forms to fast start any council's digital transformation.
If you’d like to find out how OneVu from IEG4 can help to improve and deliver your digital transformation needs the company is hosting an event on 6 June in Manchester and 12 June in London, to book your place click here.
In addition IEG4 are also hosting OneVu Webinars, to book your place click here.
Photo credit: iStock/Wavebreakmedia