The government has made it clear that it intends to migrate access to certain services online. It is hoped that in the future, applying for a driving licence or obtaining benefits will be more efficient for the citizen and will ultimately save money for the taxpayer.
On the face of it this makes complete sense. Research by SOCITM, which represents IT managers in local government, has identified that traditional customer service channels (face-to-face, phone and post) are generally more costly than their online equivalents. But this approach cannot be applied universally.
The government must decide which services can be migrated online and then it must identify which citizens it can 'compel' to use this new channel – and how far it takes the concept of compulsion. In doing this, the government cannot erode the service's accessibility or quality. As any retailer will tell you, this is not an easy task.
Of course there will be some citizens who will delight at never having to stand in line or fill in paper forms to apply for a passport. These represent a quick win for the government and the task here is to simply signpost them to the new services. By the same token there are some citizens who will never use online channels. This audience segment should continue to receive appropriate support.
The big task is to migrate the third segment – those people who are potentially able but nervous to carry out transactions online – to this new channel. There are a number of strategies including making the voice channel comparatively less desirable. This can mean removing free telephone numbers, deliberately increasing call response time and, of course, promoting the web as a channel in recorded announcements.
In addition, there are a number of smart intervention techniques and technologies that can be 'borrowed' from the private sector to encourage and help citizens to use these channels.
Take 'dropped basket' for example, which enables a contact centre agent to intervene to help a citizen if they fail to successfully complete an online application. This supports the individual as they complete the transaction and can be delivered over the phone or online, providing a safety net for those people who fall between the technology-savvy and technology-phobic segments.
Increased use of e-channels doesn't necessarily mean the end of face-to-face contact. Personal assistance at post offices has been suggested, with staff helping those who need help to complete their applications either by assisting people to complete on-line forms via dedicated in-store terminals, or checking paperwork has been completed correctly (in line with the passport checking service already provided).
Clearly there is a cost to this service but as with facilitated self-service checkouts at major supermarkets or even airline check in terminals, this can alleviate the pressure on other channels better suited to complex interactions.
Voluntary and third sector community groups also have a significant role to play in the migration to new channels. The current plan will see these groups build on the outreach services that they provide to help the elderly and vulnerable who need a supportive environment – whether that means help completing forms at home via a support laptop or by helping citizens at community drop-in centres.
As yet though there's no cohesive plan for the delivery of the 'big society'. This is a vacuum that must be filled if we're to see a combination of national initiatives such as support at post offices, combined with local schemes delivered by the third sector.
I'd argue that we need a strategic service integrator – not only able to oversee the deployment of services efficiently – but with a clear view of the power they can exert over supplier and citizens to migrate them to lower-cost channels. Achieving this will require ownership at the highest level of the government and must be endorsed by senior leaders within appropriate departments and among local government.
The requirement for cost savings are borne of necessity. And while the opportunity to introduce and transform engagement channels can't be overlooked, capitalising on it won't be easy. If the private sector gets its strategy wrong it loses a customer. If the public sector fails, a citizen loses their entitlement.
The government must mandate smart customer management that can embrace the technically literate while providing a "citizen service safety net" to support those least equipped to cope.
Robin Kinniburgh is consulting director at Vertex