Matthew Cain 17 March 2020

Following the principles of the Local Digital Declaration

For an organisation to develop digital services that are flexible to the changing needs of customers, there must be a strong emphasis on exactly what they are aiming to achieve.

As one of the original signatories of the Local Digital Declaration and owner of our own manifesto, HackIT, Hackney Council is at the forefront of bringing public services into the digital age.

The Local Digital Declaration emphasises the need to design services around what users need and to work in the open wherever possible to promote collaboration and good practice. The manifesto, meanwhile, reflects the priorities of the agile approach: more doing, less planning, think big, act small, make decisions together; fail fast and be ready to learn, share experiences and perspectives, and always act ethically.

However, it’s not about a programme of change to reach an endpoint. We don’t know exactly where we are going to be in three to five years, but what’s important is our ability to do new things better, to make change and to do it more quickly.

An important element is to learn by just getting on with things. Identifying quick wins for the organisation for the betterment of citizens. We saw an opportunity to improve the change in circumstance (CiC) in Benefits. Historically, this involved processing over 100,000 documents a year, with about 45,000 being dropped off by customers at the designated office. It was taking an average of 20 minutes to process each one, and ten minutes to help someone report a change at the contact centre front desk - with the cost of processing each CiC standing at £11.63.

We knew that digitising the process promised benefits, but we were cautious to start because of the identified risks. These included: the need for complex integration with several back-office systems and questions about the likely level of take-up amongst the public. But, we developed a very detailed business case for it and decided to act on the principles of our manifesto by making a start and learning through doing.

Among the steps was to create a multi-disciplinary team, including customer services staff, benefits officers and web development specialists. A trusted team to discover the right outcomes to keep the effort focused on user needs.

Another was to understand the users. This is a challenge, as CiCs often involve vulnerable people at a difficult stage in their life, with the circumstances being quite complex. The customer service team’s expertise was vital for their insights on the experiences of people using the service and their ability to respond to the proposed changes.

A key step in the long-term service transformation was implementing IEG4's eGovHub intelligent forms platform. Using eGovHub, the team developed three big improvements within the customer journey, beginning on our website. There is often vulnerability that comes with a change in circumstance and involves steps such as signposting people towards services, for instance, job searches, training opportunities or benefits entitlements.

Obviously, there will be more benefits to come, including 24/7 access to the service, a reduction in processing times, better management reporting and analytics, and improving the experience for vulnerable residents. In addition, potential savings are estimated to be more than £100,000 over the life of the IEG4 solution.

We already have learned some valuable lessons to feed into future projects. One is that there are dividends in the ‘learn through doing’ approach, as it leads to a better understanding of problems and provides indicators to where there is more to learn.

Another is that there is no best approach for the delivery of a digital service; it is about what works best in context. Different factors to those that influence the CiC could apply to other services, and their design and delivery must reflect these too.

In addition, the agile approach can provide gradual, but clear, demonstrations of the benefits of changing a service. This can be valuable in getting senior officials onboard. They may find it difficult to focus on the subtleties of a business case whilst having to deal with the ‘big picture’ pressures on an authority, but those clear examples of the benefits can help to win their support for a larger change programme.

Overall, the project has provided an important step in a longer-term service transformation, in which the combination of agile and commodity technology is likely to play an important part. The way we have done it, has given us the capability to do change better, to make sure we don’t see this as a programme for a specific service, but building on the ability to really understand user needs and use agile methods to get everything done quicker and at a lower risk.

Matthew Cain is head of digital at Hackney Council

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