Knowsley Council Responds to Budget Cuts While Improving Service
- Knowsley Council, a UK borough of 148,000 residents, was faced with over £100 million in central government cuts due to austerity, forcing the council to review the services it provides and how they are delivered
- The borough looked to Channel Shift; changing customer interaction channels from costly in-person and by-phone paradigms toward digital interactions to save costs, but found that with a 30% cut in IT staff, traditional development would be too resource-intensive
- By adopting low-code, and with strong product ownership from the Customer Services team, Knowsley Council was able to hit their 3-year channel shift target, reducing reliance on £9 in-person visits and £4 phone calls, in favor of £0.17 online interactions
Since the British central government instituted austerity in 2010, the local government of Knowsley has seen a significant reduction in central government funding with an associated impact on service delivery, especially within non-statutory services.
Knowsley has one of the hardest-hit local authorities in the U.K. in terms of central government funding cuts, compelling the Council to consider stopping or reducing services, as well as the way it delivers those services. The IT Service teamed up with Customer Services and used low-code technology and community engagement as ways to ensure that services residents valued and needed were made available.
A shift in thinking
Knowsley Council offers more than 160 services to its 148,000 residents and 3,900 businesses. The services range from looking after parks and highways, to offering public health and wellbeing programs, as well as adult and children’s social care services.
Austerity forced Knowsley Council to review every service in order to manage the significant funding cuts (£100 million cut from their budget since 2010), which have had, according to Phil Aspinall, Head of Customer Services for Knowsley Council, a significant impact on the services he and his team deliver and how they’re able to deliver them.
The Council devised a plan to bring together the local authority and residents. “We’ve developed a program within the borough called Knowsley Better Together. It’s about making sure the Council, our partners, businesses and the residents themselves work together to support each other. By pooling resources, skills, and expertise, more can be achieved,” says Aspinall. “It’s about helping residents to be more self-sufficient, and it enables us to focus our resources and money on vulnerable residents and the key services our residents need.”
The delivery of those services was an area of focus for Aspinall. At their peak, Aspinall’s team was handling roughly 4,500-5,000 face-to-face service requests per month. Phone enquiries were even higher, coming in at a rate of 18,000 per month. These types of requests accounted for 98 percent of transactions. The remaining two percent were online.
The costs of the service delivery methods were staggering to Aspinall: face-to-face which cost £9 per interaction; phone, £4 per; or online, which cost £0.17.
Aspinall decided that a way of saving essential resident services was what he dubbed channel shift, a move toward delivering services in more efficient and effective ways. With the aim of ensuring valued services could be maintained, Aspinall set a goal of saving £300,000 over three years, meaning that by 2020, 75 percent of transactions needed to be online.
He turned to Knowsley Council’s IT Service to help improve the online experience and meet this ambitious goal.
Channel shift, while great in theory, proved to be challenging in execution for Andy Garden, Head of IT for Knowsley Council, John Fairclough, IT Production Manager, and Mark Perry, IT Exploitation Manager. Any commercial off-the-shelf software would incur substantial licensing and customization costs, so the decision was made to keep development in-house.
“The thing that we bring, as an IT Service, is a very can-do attitude. We want to find solutions and we push the boundaries,” says Garden.
In the past, when IT commenced a development project, the road had been bumpy. Internally, the business side of Knowsley Council would put in a request for an IT project, and the two departments would get in a chicken-or-egg situation regarding requirements. Fairclough recounts: “What started out as two months of development might turn into four.”
On top of unclear requirements, the IT Service had reduced its Op-Ex staffing and started a program of using Cap-Ex funded fixed term graduation placements for developments, which led to legacy code that lacked ownership. On top of that, there were 120 IT systems in use which continued to require support which further hampered the development of new systems. To move most of the transactional services online, IT would need to integrate many of these systems and provide a single platform for users. This approach would prove costly using traditional development methodologies and tools with significant increases in the development team, and would carry an overhead in terms of development timeframes.
Garden needed something that could keep Knowsley Council serving its residents. “We had to make a decision of whether we upped resources in terms of more development and support teams, or do we look at alternative methods,” says Garden. “That’s why we turned to low-code.”
An accelerated rate of progress
In 2016, after surveying the field of low-code platform providers, Knowsley Council chose Mendix.
“We wanted something that would enable us to generate code very quickly, but also to standard levels so that we could ease the support process moving forward,” says Garden.
Fairclough and Perry were impressed with the speed at which they picked up on low-code development: “We found that the speed of transition, from being completely new to the platform, to being to the point where you could develop and publish an application, was really, really quick.”
With developers trained and eager to get started, Garden, Fairclough, Perry, and Aspinall set their sights on creating an application that would realize the mission of Knowsley Better Together.
The decision was made to tackle high volume transactions first to provide early value. Therefore, work started to bring complex revenue and benefits services online using Mendix. The previous review and scanning process made it cumbersome for Knowsley residents to apply for and amend their benefits. At the Council’s one-stop shops where this interaction would typically occur, the process could take up to 30 minutes to sit face-to-face with an advisor to scan the document.
To develop a new scanning system, the team integrated Mendix to legacy web services. Fairclough explains: “We’ve integrated into a number of our own .NET APIs, and they integrated straight away. In terms of the process of integration, it’s been seamless.”
The IT and Customer Service teams produced a customer services application, an online one-stop shop for a range of services that residents can consume 24/7. “It covers a really broad spectrum,” says Perry. “It can be from really complicated revenues and benefits queries, down to somebody simply requesting a pest control visit or a replacement bin.” To improve the process, the IT Service set up Android tablets in the one-stop shops where community members can self-serve. They introduced scan station tablets where residents can now do the scanning themselves, within minutes. Digital Champions, council employees trained to assist residents’ transition to the new process, are also on-hand for those requiring assistance.
“It’s a change in terms of re-educating people to no longer have to queue up and wait to be seen by another person, but introducing the concept of doing it yourself, and they can also do that from home as well,” says Fairclough. “The functionality is there now, to do it at home, as well as in the office.”
A key tool the team used was the Mendix Collaboration Portal. With it, Garden, Fairclough, and Perry were able to get Aspinall’s team more involved in the development process, speeding up and improving upon the feedback cycle. Acting as a bridge to the Customer Services team, IT was able to work closely with, and get direct feedback from, their customer in a controlled manner.
“Using the collaboration tool means that we’ve got regular contact with the business,” says Fairclough.
To Aspinall, the development process prior to adopting Mendix was unclear and inefficient. “The rate of progress wasn’t quick enough, but over the last couple of years — since we’ve purchased the Mendix product — IT has been enabled to develop the online solutions much, much quicker,” says Aspinall. “That has been a godsend, really.”
A reason to hope
When the journey began, at its lowest point, there were just 779 service transactions online in one month. In April 2019, the number of online transactions reached nearly an average of 11,000 per month. The portion of transactions completed online had jumped from 2 percent to 50 percent. In doing so, Knowsley Council had reduced the cost per interaction by more than half in less than three years.
Aspinall speaks with great assurance about his 2020 goals. “If you’d have asked me the same question three years ago, and I set those targets, I think I was probably a little naïve in terms of how challenging they were actually going to be. But having achieved what we have done over the last two years, with the speed of progress, of development, I’m quite confident that by 2020, we will have hit our 75% online target.”
Of course, all of this wouldn’t have been possible were it not for Garden and his team delivering the new services. “Moving over to Mendix meant that developing and ongoing support was easier, we could have more people developing,” says Garden. “We didn’t have to take on more people with a revenue cost.”
Garden has noticed numerous changes in the IT Service since they started using low-code development and the impact Knowsley Better Together has had on his team. “It’s very rewarding for the staff in IT because they see developments coming out very quickly, and they can actually see the fruits of their labor quickly.”
For Fairclough, the use of low-code allowed them to stay focused on the needs of Knowsley’s residents. “When you go down the low-code route,” he says, “it encourages you to tell your developers to say, ‘Look, I need you to understand the person you’re doing it for, and I need you to understand what the final goal is.’ That’s a big change.”
The realized internal benefits are reflected in the positive impact on the residents of Knowsley. Knowsley Council has reached its goal of saving £300,000 while protecting essential services. The customer services application has improved the level of engagement the local authority has had with the residents it serves.
In most political decision-making, such as instituting austerity, the very people that these policies are meant to serve are often overlooked. With Knowsley Better Together, the Council refuses to ignore its community.
For Garden, this notion was crucial to the program’s success: “I do keep going back to the fact that we want to enable the public to benefit from using digital skills. Not just in dealing with the council,” he says, “but in everything they do.”.
Cllr. Jayne Aston, Knowsley Council’s Cabinet member for Resources, said “I’ve been championing our channel shift agenda for the last year and I’m delighted with the benefits it has brought, not only to the council, but importantly to our residents. We’ve received feedback about how confident residents are online, which has also benefitted them personally by being able to apply for jobs and keep in touch with family and friends. This is just one example of Knowsley Better Together in action – everyone playing their part to deliver a shared goal. I look forward to seeing further services being available online over the coming months and years, ensuring our residents can access our services at a date, time, and location convenient to them.”