Newcastle is a city with a vibrant history and a large and diverse population. Over the last six years, our council tax base has significantly increased, largely due to university extensions and a growing interest in people wanting to come to the North East.
The city currently has 280,000 residents with a 136,000 council tax base. Newcastle City Council has approximately 36,500 people in receipt of council tax support. That has increased by around 4,000 since the Universal Credit roll-out and has risen further in the last nine to 10 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted the circumstances of many residents, resulting in a rise in Universal Credit and furlough claims.
Over the next two years as a council we need to make savings of £40m. This is on top of the £305m we have had to save since 2010. This has seen huge cost pressures, including a reduction in the housing benefit admin grant and council tax reduction grant of about 30% in total. It was crucial that we found savings from wherever possible, in order to keep our services running.
In 2019, following the reduction in housing benefit caseloads due to Universal Credit and an 80% reduction in customers coming into council offices, we closed our face-to-face housing benefit service and phone lines for housing benefit landlords and business rates customers.
Accelerating and improving our digital offer
None of the above would have been possible without the ability to bring these services online, using a citizen engagement platform to support the new model. To create this new operating model, Newcastle City Council needed a reliable solution to efficiently interact with customers online.
Mobile access through this solution was also important as we had conducted research that indicated it was the primary choice for users of council services. As a result, we began our journey with IEG4, a provider of digital tools to local government, in summer 2020, with the implementation of its OneVu citizen engagement platform.
The platform allows customers to log on and view their council tax account online, their housing benefit status, the status of their business rates application, and much more.
The implementation took place over two months towards the end of summer, and it was done entirely remotely due to the ongoing pandemic. This meant that although the staff did not have a single day in the office, the local authority still managed to fully implement and go live with the platform, with support from the provider.
We were really impressed with the implementation process as we didn't require too much resource from our IT department because the solution was low code and implemented in majority by our systems team within revenues and benefits. This meant we had greater control in terms of getting it live.
We were keen not to lose any customer engagement by closing our face-to-face offering and we know that the portal is key to our digital acceleration and transformation. Due to COVID-19, most of our front-facing services have closed, but I think this should give other local authorities an opportunity to consider whether they even need to re-open them. There’s an expectation from our customers now that they can access services through online tools.
Improving the customer experience
The focus for Newcastle City Council with this implementation was on improving the user experience, ensuring that relevant services and support available are displayed to customers right at the top of the page, making it clearer and delivering a greater user experience. This provides an easier way for customers to self-serve and avoids the need for them to call or visit the council directly.
Now our online services can be accessed by customers 24/7 and we’ve noticed that customers registering for the service out of hours were more than half of the total, further evidencing that this is how customers prefer to interact with our services.
As a low code platform, it is easy for us to make adjustments to our homepage itself and we don’t need to contact our provider every time we need something changed. This time saving has had a huge impact on how we operate. There is also a focus on usability and on mobile-first with the platform, which was a critical requirement for us when we first set out to engage with a supplier.
The new platform has supported Newcastle City Council with its cost reduction by supporting its digital transformation and new operating model right through to cutting out the need for postage and printing, replacing them with accessible forms online.
We are now looking to increase automation and there are several forms that our platform provides that lend support in this area. For example, refund forms that citizens can use to easily request refunds without speaking directly to staff provide transactional services that save staff time and importantly free up much-needed resources.
We are also exploring how best we can take further advantage of the portal going forwards, and by securely storing and sharing information, we will be able to improve areas such as Blue Badge application.
Andrew Culpin is service improvement lead at Newcastle City Council