Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Don't focus on Facebook, deliver via digital

Local Governments have come a long way in the past couple of years in terms of communicating and listening to people via social media. The recent snow that affected much of the country showed that many councils now understand the power of delivering and distributing information this way.

This is great but I suggest it's time to move the focus on to the more difficult task of delivering services via digital. We've had the debate about social media, it's a good thing, lets start working on delivering the services that people want.

I know there are already councils that are doing some of this very well (and if you are, please get in touch, I'd like to promote it as good practice through LocalGov Digital) , but they're few and far between. There are also some that think they are, but aren't.

Let's take a hot topic at the moment for all councils that look after the roads, potholes, and put a checklist together:

  • Is there a page on your website to report potholes? I mean a page where users can add details of the pothole, not just an email address or worse still, a phone number. 
  • Is there a map and an address search on the page so the customer can easily pinpont the location?
  • What happens when the customer hits send? Is the page linked into your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, so the record gets saved in it and an officer doesn't have to type and cut/paste in the details? 
  • Did the customer get an email receipt of the case if they requested it?
  • Is the case automatically assigned to the correct back office team?
  • Can the back office email the customer using the CRM with updates on their case?
  • Does the customer get a summary of what the council did in an email, or can they check on screen what actions the council carried out to resolve the problem?
If you've answered yes to the above you're probably delivering a digital service to the same standard of someone like DHL or eBay. Now apply this to all your top tasks and you'll be starting to do what customers want and already expect of the private sector.

If you've just got a website form that sends an email to Customer Services, you're not really delivering a digital service.

Obviously there's a cut off point. I'm not suggesting at this stage, unless you can do it easily, councils should be developing the above for some of the more obscure tasks that only get a handful of uses each year. Perhaps one day, but I'm realistic about the resources councils have.

I'm also not advocating giving up on social media, far from it, but I think it's time to start focusing on doing what really boosts the reputation of councils; keeping people informed when they request a service or report a problem, and of course increasing capacity in traditional channels by doing stuff digitally.

If you'd like to discuss this then you can find me at

Friday, 25 January 2013

Hyperlocal and the 3 Councils

I recently joined and took part in a Google+ hangout on hyperlocals. When I say took part, I typed some text in the chat window and listened to everyone else speak. They knew far more than me, given they ran hyperlocal sites themselves and sometimes it's best just to shut up and listen.

I did it as a fact finding exercise to see how councils can help and support hyperlocals and hope to join in again. Some the conversation was actually about councils' attitudes towards hyperlocal.

What this and all my other research has taught me so far is that there seem to be three approaches to hyperlocals from councils. So here's the tale of "Hyperlocal and the 3 Councils". Of course the councils in the story are a work of fiction and in no way represent one single local authority.

The "we don't do it like that"s:
This type of council won't and don't engage with hyperlocals. Social media might be banned in their public meetings and they don't see hyperlocals as a legitimate news source, more a site or page set up by some crackpot to waste their time.

They might have had a bad experience in the past with a site that promoted just the negative aspects of the organisation. Whilst doing this is a perfectly legitimate way of scrutinising a council (provided it stays factual) it doesn't make for good relationship or overall view of hyperlocals. Of course one shouldn't judge everyone on the experience of one relationship, but sometimes people do.

Another more common reason might be simply lack of understanding. Why would someone devote their free time to running a local news site, there must be an ulterior motive. Very often there isn't.

The toe in the waters:
This type of council might be a bit wary of hyperlocals, but they don't see them as something negative.

They understand in part where things are going, but still struggle a bit to get their head round social media and view hyperlocals a personal sites, not a community resource.

Newspapers, radio and (possibly) their own website are seen as the only channels to get news and information out to people. They might however post the odd thing on a hyperlocals or a community Facebook page.

It might take a big event, like a riot or severe flooding before they realise they can work with hyperlocals, or it might just be a gradual process of change.

The forward thinkers:
This council understand the way the media landscape is changing. They realise that many people get their news from social media and hyperlocals rather, or as well as traditional media.

They see hyperlocals as a way to get information out to communities, and just as important to listen to what communities are saying.They realise that hyperlocals might say things they don't agree with, but then so does the traditional media and all are entitled to do so anyway.

They realise that if someone asking to come in and live stream or record their public meetings is actually a good thing, because not only does it allow more people to see democracy in action, it doesn't cost anything.

Of course I'm generalising hugely above, and many councils are a bit of all three, but let's hope in the future we see more forward thinkers and less "we don't do it like that"s.

If you'd like to discuss this then you can find me at

Monday, 21 January 2013

Could standard hashtags work?

Back in May 2012 I wrote about public sector organisations using common hashtags on Twitter for the London 2012 Torch Relay. Since then I've been talking with a few people about how Local Government could use common hashtags to represent its most used services.

I'm thinking for example, #bin to represent anything to do with Waste Services, #road for anything to do with Highways and so on. Tweets might look like

@AnyCouncil my #bin hasn't been collected

@AnyCouncil when do the roadworks on Station Road finish? #road

Before I go any further I should say I'm not proposing that these tags should be mandatory before customers get a reply. We're trying to make things easier for them, not add red tape.

So what could be achieved if customers used tags like this in their tweets? One application is an auto-response which also forwarded the enquiry to the people who are most likely to have the answer.

When I tweeted about this Marc Schmid quite rightly pointed out that "Personal response makes a big difference" and he's quite right. I'm not talking about replacing a human reply, I'm talking about complimenting it.

To see how this might work tweet anything with #bin at this test account. You'll get a response with a link to more information. What happens in the background is that the tweet has been forwarded to Waste Services for a response, or would have been if it wasn't a test. You can also try this using #road.

This means that the customer gets a rely quicker, because it's removed the need for Comms, Cutomer Services or whoever manages the account to do this.

At present the back office need to send the reply to those who manage the Twitter account, but it would be quite easy to build the functionality for the back office to reply to the tweet. This opens up the potential for hundreds of people to be able to reply to tweets on one account without an expensive social media command centre or management software.

Of course this wouldn't stop Services having their own accounts too, but just as the majority of people phone the main Customer Services number, a majority of users follow and tweet at a main council account.

There are many other things you could achieve with standard hashtags and if you'd like to discuss this then you can find me at

Friday, 11 January 2013

Should everyone use Open311?

Last week I posted about how at the moment digital is the preferred channel for reporting broken streetlights, flooding, potholes, fly tipping and so on to us, referred to as Fault Reporting.

Then I read what Tom Steinberg wrote explaining what Open311 is better than I ever could, which got me thinking.

In 2011 I created an Open311 service which is plugged into our Fault Reporting functionality and therefore our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. I then did some work with the very knowledgeable people at Fix My Street (FMS) so that their site used the service. This means, that like our own Fault Reporting, stuff submitted via FMS gets automatically logged and assigned to the correct team.

You might ask why don't we just use FMS, but that's a debate for another day.

What got me thinking about Tom's post is that third party sites that don't use Open311 generally send requests for service through as an email which is far less efficient than creating the case and customer records automatically.

There are various studies on channel cost however in 2012 SocITM estimated a phone call cost £2.83 and a website visit 15p, so an email must be around the same cost as the former, given the customer services representative still has to create the record, type the information and so on into the CRM.

So whilst sites that spring up offering online reporting might seem more efficient, they're no better than sending an email and far less than using our own Fault Reporting or an Open311 enabled site.

Is a natural progression of this, not to accept email responses from digital 3rd party websites, just via Open311, given that the former costs councils and therefore the taxpayer a lot more than the latter?

This is just an idea for discussion. As far as I'm aware no one is seriously considering it and I should add that I'm in no way questioning a resident's right to email, phone or send a letter to report something. For lots of reasons, not least the digital divide these channels need to be maintained.

If you'd like to discuss this then you can find me at

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Why was December the month of "Digital by Choice"?

In December 2012 more people chose digital to report problems to us about broken streetlights, flooding, potholes, fly tipping, litter, trees and shrubs and so on, than any other medium. The figures were:
  • Web 44%
  • Phone 40%
  • Email 15%
  • Other 1%
I feel proud for everyone who's worked on what we refer to as Fault Reporting, as looking at feedback, customers have chosen to use the service because they prefer it to any other medium we offer. It's a real example of "Digital by Choice", rather than "Digital by Default"; building a service so good that people want to use it, not forcing them to use it by closing or running down others.

It's not something that's happened overnight; we've been improving what we offer online for years based on customer, member and officer feedback. So, you might be asking, what are the main things you can do to improve take-up of your own digital Fault Reporting?

Make it more convenient

This one's easy. Our phone lines are open during office hours which were of course were reduced by two days in December. Very often it's more convenient for customers to do stuff online, because they can do it at a time that suits them and we even received reports on Christmas Day.

Just by making sure your website is up, running and reliable 100% of the time you're providing a more convenient channel for many.

Email is also available all the time too, so why didn't more people use it? Perhaps the answer is below.

Make it easier to explain where the problem is

We show a lot of stuff we look after on GIS mapping, for example streetlights, salt bins, areas of grass that we cut and a lot more. If you want a quick map to show roughly where the location of something is then Google Maps is your friend. If you're after pinpoint accuracy and reliable locations (Google Maps used to show one of our libraries in the middle of a canal) then you probably need to use something else.

This makes it a lot easier than trying to describe the exact location of the problem, than either verbally on the phone or textually in an email and it's not only better for the customer, it's better for the people trying to fix the problem as it gives them an accurate location as possible.

Even when there isn't a layer on the map, you stand a much better chance of locating where a pothole is on a two mile stretch of country lane if you can put an X on a map instead of trying to explain where it is, on the phone or by typing it out.

Make it easier to describe the problem

We used to get descriptions that were thousands of character long. Now we prompt the customer for the things we really need, based on the type of problem. For example for a streetlight we ask "if the light has stopped working, if it is flickering or is on during the day". For a pothole we ask for "size, depth and where it is on the surface".

Of course the customer can submit whatever information they like, but we're found people are more likely to submit succinct, more accurate information if we tell them what we'd like from them. Of course, this also helps in getting the problem solved too

Keep people better updated

We built the ability for officers to be able to make updates to case notes public, into our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

This means that should they choose it, customers can receive updates of how the problem is being resolved by email and see a summary on screen if they log-in. In fact they can see all the problems reported about this sort of thing, on one screen.

You probably wouldn't expect a phone call from the council, telling you they'd ordered a new bulb for the broken streetlight you reported and councils simply don't have the resources to do this anyway. A quick email, generated by the CRM, containing the information that was being added to the case keeps the customer up to date and it's no more work for the officers involved.

It's assuring to the customer that their report is being acted on, whilst opening up what actually happens to resolve their problem, highlighting the work the back offices do.

So what's next? Keep improving based on feedback of course, but providing a better offering for mobile customers given the rise in mobile use is a priority for 2013.

If you'd like to discuss this then you can find me at
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.