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Increasing online services only hope for cash strapped councils

Councils aim for dramatic switch to web to provide services to citizens, but lack of integration remains cause for serious concern
With figures released this summer showing councils face up to a 16% reduction in funding from central Government in 2015/16* and an on-going freeze in council tax, research carried out by specialist software house NDL has revealed that three quarters of councils now view increasing the amount of transactions done online as the ‘main focus’ for maintaining or improving service delivery.
The research, which is published in NDL’s ninth annual Integration and Efficiency Report, is compiled from interviews with 270 senior IT staff, which between them represent two thirds of UK local authorities.
Currently the majority (54%) of councils view automated phone systems as the main channel of interaction between councils and citizens while just over a quarter (27%) view the council’s website as fulfilling this role. However, by 2016 respondents predicted a radical shift with almost 70% saying the majority of interactions with the public will be via the council’s website, with just 21% still expecting automated phone systems to be in poll position.
NDL’s managing director, Declan Grogan, commented: “From a cost savings perspective it makes perfect sense for councils to route more interactions with the public via their websites This very much follows the trend set by central government’s Digital by Default initiative, where services which are deemed appropriate are designed to be accessed online first, as is the case with the flagship Universal Credit reform.
“In this sense, this prediction of a radical shift isn’t surprising, but for it to become a reality, and for service delivery to be improved it is vital that councils’ websites are properly integrated with wider IT systems. The signs are that IT experts, whose opinions feature in our report, know this but there is still an enormous way to go in implementing full scale integration.”
Almost 90% of senior IT personnel surveyed recognise that lack of integration is a barrier to delivering services via online channels.  A substantial majority (70%) of those questioned believe that the link between the front end of a council’s website and back-office systems will be provided by Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, but generally speaking CRM systems are themselves poorly integrated.
The report reveals that a third of councils still integrate less than 10% of CRM services with back-office systems and 81% of councils integrate less than half of services, so it’s hardly surprising that over 70% of councils say re-keying data gathered by CRM systems is ‘common practice’. Almost 40% of authorities re-key more than half of the data gathered.
Declan continued: “This is a depressing picture and shows there is still an enormous amount of work to be done if websites are to be the councils’ main service channel in little more than three years’ time.  Retyping data is of course massively inefficient and resource intensive, while also making errors endemic, all at the very time when many jobs and frontline services are under threat.
“Of course there’s nothing to say that services have to be routed via CRM systems to reach the back-office.  In fact the report is showing signs that e-forms, which are increasingly being seen by councils as providing a ‘light touch’ route to service delivery, could be a nimbler, cost efficient  alternative to costly CRM systems, provided of course they are properly integrated.”
Despite this optimism, council’s current experience with e-forms are less encouraging, with NDL’s research showing e-forms are even less integrated than CRM systems. 83% of councils using e forms regard re-keying information as ‘common practice’, 13% more than those using CRM, and 55% of respondents re key more than three quarters of data captured via e forms. The equivalent figure for CRM systems is 33%. 
“The frustration here isn’t hard to imagine”, commented Declan. “It’s clear that, faced with yet another round of spending cuts, respondents have identified offering services to citizens via online channels is the main way they will manage to maintain or improve service standards. This follows the lead taken by central government and echoes the increasing popularity of digital services in everything from online shopping to banking to staying in touch with friends and family.
“However, for councils – and by extension communities – to benefit from the potential of this online shift, there simply has to be robust and comprehensive integration between council websites and back-office systems. How this is done, whether via CRM or e-forms, is less important than the fact that it is done.
“Getting it done however is far from simple. Our experience of working with around a third of local authorities is that systems integration rarely reaches the top of the agenda, partly because the cost of ‘working around’ poorly integrated systems is rarely documented or understood. Instead the time employees spend re-typing information is often buried under an ‘administration’ overhead of the end user department, even though it may be significant. This issue is then compounded by the fact that when the IT department attempts to implement a solution, it is also expected to shoulder the cost even though it’s the end user department which ultimately benefits. This impasse can scupper many otherwise viable integration projects
To tackle this, it is time councils took a holistic view of integration which means tackling the issue at the very top of the local authority management pyramid.  Put simply retyping information from one system to another should be seen as unacceptable - the practice will certainly kill off the channel shift savings authorities are clearly hoping for - and at the very time when financial pressure on councils is only set to grow.”