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How councils are using online tools to serve citizens throughout and beyond Covid-19

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / Khakimullin Aleksandr)

The peak of the Coronavirus pandemic meant that councils had to completely change the way they operated. Digital transformation was instrumental in ensuring that citizens could access all services at a time when they needed them the most. Now, it is continuing to support as restrictions constantly change across the country, meaning that councils need to be responsive to changes in each region – altering services and communicating on new ones as required.

I run the digital team at 3C ICT, the shared service that provides Information Technology for South Cambridge District Council, Huntingdonshire District Council and Cambridge City Council. Formed about five years ago, we provide development work for each of the councils in order to integrate systems and to connect some of their back-office systems through to products, such as IEG4’s online customer engagement portal, OneVu, and eForms Designer.

All three councils within 3C ICT use these products, alongside the OpenProcess case management tool. But usage of, and demand for, these platforms from our services has ramped up significantly since April as we responded to the urgent issues that Covid-19 caused.

Delivering vital business grants - an initial challenge for Huntingdonshire

A prime example of the flexibility that digital has offered both local government and residents this year was the way the councils were able to rapidly deliver discretionary business grants, providing the forms that were needed to give out financial assistance to local businesses during the peak of the pandemic.

Of the councils we work with, Huntingdonshire completed the most in-depth integration of the platform, and as a requirement in applying for a grant, businesses had to sign-up to Huntingdonshire’s online portal. This was to ensure everyone had the correct details in the portal before they applied.

As the application forms were put together quickly in response to the urgent need, they initially were a little complicated to complete. For example, they had in excess of 30 questions with lots of rules around them. It soon became apparent that these applications would take a long time to process and would involve significant rekeying which was inefficient. Businesses were calling and emailing the team for updates on their application too which was a further draw in an already stretched resource.

As the initial peak of Covid eased, we had the capability to begin working on the next version of the application form. For this we had more notice from central Government and all councils were given information in advance of what the new grant application forms needed to do. This gave us more time to think about how we would deal with those forms.

This enabled us to put more of a focus on the creation of a more detailed set of forms with varying stages through OpenProcess, meaning that as the request was completed, the customer would be kept completely updated on the status of each transaction throughout that process via the portal. 24/7 access to the portal allows the customer to check-in at a time to suit them. This means that the need to call in to check the status on their application is avoided which means, in turn, that the council saves time and unnecessary workload.

As a result of the creation of these forms and mandating of portal accounts, we saw a significant uptake in signups from residents in each region meaning that applicants can track their applications and access further services in the future.

Digital patterns during lockdown

There were many other interesting patterns we spotted with the use of online tools across all three councils. Since lockdown started, the most significant was the uptake in portal accounts which led to a reduction in call center calls by around 10-15 percent.

We estimated a 20-25 percent increase in the use of digital across all councils, including eForms, the websites and the customer portal accounts. Our call center was still available throughout the pandemic, and even though staff were working remotely, they were able to take the calls. 

We do know that some of our more traditional council services have become requested less by residents. For example, planning and licensing are service areas where we’ve seen a reduction in demand. Unfortunately, we have seen a marked increase in calls around housing and homelessness.

Another thing we’ve noticed through our analysis is that there’s been a shift in the time of day that people are signing up for an online account. Previously most people called on a Monday morning at 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock to open accounts, that peak has now shifted back through to later in the day on a Wednesday during lockdown.

From the reaction stage to recovery

Councils have seen how important it is to respond quickly to residents and how doing this through digital channels is now a requirement. It’s also how people want to interact with their council. We are seeing a sustained increase in the demand for integrated solutions by our services and for these to be linked with the customer portal so that customers can track progress online.

We want to keep investing in our digital platform, which is OneVu by IEG4. The pandemic situation we find ourselves in has shown all three councils how important it is to have a truly flexible system. One where you can create and release a form rapidly, build in an integration, pull data from back-office applications and then be able to track that instantly for the customer.

For councils, it’s like the lightbulbs have finally gone on and they’ve really seen how important online tools are, and now my team are flooded with requests for integrations and more services to pull into the portal.

We do not know what is around the corner with Covid-19, but by continuing to strengthen the online provision of the councils, they will be better prepared for whatever is next. In the meantime, we are better prepared to help local businesses and citizens get quickly back on their feet.

Joe Bedingfield, Digital Manager, 3C ICT