Is a Local Authority 'too big to fail'?

Topic: Local Government

I recently had the pleasure of hearing a talk on ‘The Future of Local Government’ at the IRRV Conference, featuring three speakers: Wallace Sampson, Chief Executive, Harrogate BC; Duncan Whitfield, Strategic Director of Finance and Governance, Southwark LBC; and Chris West, Executive Director – Resources, Coventry CC.
When I say ‘had the pleasure’… Sadly the overwhelming impression I got from the session is that the future for local government is bleak.
Funding remains the central issue, and one which spans across all the services that local government provide. After a period of unprecedented budget cuts started in 2010 by the then coalition government, the panel remarked that funding remains worryingly unclear, and what impact Brexit will have on budgets is yet to be understood.
Duncan Whitfield  even suggested that there is a real possibility that within the next five years, a local authority could fail financially, and Chris West described Coventry City Council as “at breaking point”.
We’re used to this phrase being used for banks, but having worked with local authorities for more than 10 years, to hear it being used for local councils was sobering.

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel, any hope?

The short answer is yes. At the IRRV Conference, collections was seen as a super critical function within any authority. If (when!) we do enter a period of economic strife, getting debt collection right will be essential to keep local government services running. Shared services (where council neighbours share the burden of delivering services to their communities) could be vital to realise economies of scale.
Finally, the way that local government interacts with service users via “better systems and processes” was seen as a crucial strategy to achieve the “do more for less” objective. Central government have called this Digital Transformation or Digital by Default for many years now.

The definition of Digital Transformation is evolving

10 years ago the e-gov agenda meant local government started to communicate by email and customers had the ability to request a service online (although that typically just generated a paper form!).
Now, technology delivers so much more. Customers can interact with council staff through a variety of digital platforms, including live chat and SMS, but this is just the start. It’s possible to dramatically reduce the number of people who need to speak to a live agent, and encourage self service.
For example, these questions could be answered without any manual intervention through automated SMS, voice, email and even chat bots:

  • What’s my council tax reference number?
  • What are the opening hours for the local recycling centre?
  • When are the school holiday dates for 2017?
  • On what day do my bins get emptied?
  • What’s the status of my application?

The key to success is careful selection of the services that can be automated without compromising the customer’s experience. The benefit of doing so is that it enables council staff to focus on areas such as benefit assessments which need the human touch.
Even traditionally labour intensive processes such as collecting council tax debt can be simplified by offering customers the ability to self-serve, while retaining the option to speak to an agent if required. This example shows an SMS trigger:
Council Tax Collection

What was clear from the conference is that inaction isn’t an option. The speakers felt that digital communication presented the greatest opportunity to both improve outcomes and reduce costs, and our experience of working with local government suggests the same.

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