One-Stop Service for Citizens

By Dominic Cain  |  Posted 2009-09-29

Every year, the London Borough of Southwark receives more than two million service requests from its 256,000 residents and offers more than 230 services to citizens. The former paper-based system was slow and time-consuming, and the borough wanted to give its staff a more automated, reliable approach with which to evaluate resident needs and fulfill requests.

Dominic Cain, head of client services, worked with a systems integrator to devise an intranet-based system called One Touch, an application that links information and processes while meeting the borough’s need for flexibility. The system now provides Southwark citizens with fast access to the critical services they need.

As head of client services for the London Borough of Southwark, I regularly face the challenge of providing more people with access to more services, often with limited resources. Managers at governmental organizations around the world recognize this dilemma—and, in today’s economic climate, so do corporate executives.

With more than 256,000 residents in our borough, my actual day-to-day responsibilities are broad. The U.K. central government is driving an efficiency agenda and recently introduced a national indicator, NI14, for “avoidable contact.”

This doesn’t suggest that we avoid serving customers, but it does urge local authorities to reduce “failure demand”: customers contacting us more than once about the same issue. The indicator encourages agencies to find ways to offer multiple services at the initial point of contact, either by developing technological solutions that empower front-office staff or through further development of online and self-service solutions.

Each year, our borough receives more than two million service requests from the area’s residents, some as simple as requests for library cards, voter registration and parking permits. But we also help to satisfy more complicated requests for social, housing and employment assistance. In total, we provide citizens with more than 230 services. In some cases, it makes sense to put materials online and ask citizens to serve themselves. However, this approach doesn’t address the need to deliver our borough’s more complex services.

Southwark manages one of the U.K.’s largest housing assistance programs and also supports extensive employment and social services. Each year, more than 40,000 residents move in or out of Southwark, creating high demand for new or changed services. In addition, longer-term residents continue to seek out new services. Applying for benefits-related services can be complicated, since a standard public assistance application is 45 pages long.

When we relied on manual, paper-based processes to capture customer information and complete forms, errors on forms delayed processing, or clients might have provided inconsistent information when applying for multiple services. We wanted to give our staff a more automated, reliable approach with which to evaluate resident needs and fulfill requests.

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Linking Information and Processes

Working with service provider and systems integrator Vangent Limited, we set out to examine solutions for automating client-service workflows. Beyond handling a variety of service requests, several other challenges became immediately apparent.

As is the case in most government organizations, our systems have evolved over time. That meant that any front-end system put in place would have to integrate seamlessly with multiple legacy systems, including our SAP ERP system and Oracle databases. Equally challenging, any system we deployed would have to be flexible enough to support future activities.

With Vangent, we devised an intranet-based system called One Touch, an application that links information and processes while meeting the borough’s need for flexibility. Integral to the success of One Touch was building a rich-client interface that ran in Adobe Flash Player, which was already installed on the desktop computers of customer service representatives. Taking advantage of Flash Player ensured that CSRs could review and capture information reliably on screen while talking with residents.

We outsourced some delivery of our services to Vangent, which staffs the Customer Service Call Centre and three One Stop Shops for face-to-face citizen meetings. The service model enables CSRs to quickly identify the types of services an applicant needs and complete the application process without requiring our IT managers to spend time and limited resources updating client software on employee desktops. Once entered, an applicant’s details are saved automatically to back-end systems and are combined with existing data to expedite processing.

In December 2007, the Vangent CSRs started using One Touch to handle citizen requests. Now, when calls come into the service center, CSRs determine the type and extent of services a citizen requires. If he or she needs multiple services or help with a complex application, a CSR routes the call to the One Touch team or uses our online scheduling system to arrange a follow-up meeting with a One Touch representative. The representative uses interactive PDF forms to enter a resident’s background information in order to initiate services.

The One Touch system helps my office identify “avoidable contact” as outlined in government initiative NI14, while enabling us to serve customers better and faster. Service requests that used to take a resident five calls to initiate can now be handled in one. In the case of housing benefit applications, forms that can take other local authorities up to 36 days to process can be completed by the One Touch staff in a day.

In just over a year, more than 20,000 service requests were handled through One Touch, with CSRs using the system for as many as 1,000 calls per month. What’s more, 74 percent of the citizens whose services were handled by the system received at least three services, instead of only the single service they thought they were entitled to receive. We’ve taken the government indicator of “avoid(ing) unnecessary contact” and converted it into better services for our customers.

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A Model of Efficiency

One Touch has become a model of efficiency for government organizations across the United Kingdom. We have deployed interactive processes that address how people want to work and how our customers want to be served. And we’ve saved money in the process: We estimate that the borough has saved approximately 1.2 million pounds through better use of technology.

Citizens also notice a difference in the quality and timeliness of the services they receive. They are surprised when they can sign up for all services with just one call.

We measure the impact of One Touch not only by what CSRs can achieve more efficiently, but also by what we can avoid. Built-in validation in the rich Internet application (RIA) dashboard and PDF forms help ensure that the proper type of information is captured and entered for every request. CSRs achieve a 99 percent accuracy rate on forms entered through the system.

The integration of systems has also reduced training requirements. Before, representatives might have needed two years to be fully trained on the intricacies of completing and submitting all the forms for our benefits applications. Now, training on complicated processes can be completed in days.

One Touch also greatly reduces opportunities for fraud by limiting citizens’ ability to provide conflicting information to different government entities. CSRs are able to cross-reference data provided by customers at the point of transaction, ensuring quality and minimizing errors. This reduces levels of overpayment and helps secure the benefits system.

With a more centralized approach, data captured once can be automatically populated in multiple PDF forms, eliminating the need for citizens to retell their stories to multiple CSRs. And the One Touch system includes built-in prompts that remind CSRs to get required supporting documentation.

For those of us who developed the application, there is satisfaction in seeing One Touch deliver on its promise. We’re boosting the quality of services and saving money, and we’ve also built a foundation for rolling out new services and addressing changing citizen needs and government requirements.

Dominic Cain is the head of client services for the London Borough of Southwark.