Features: February 27th, 2004

Switching to Electronic Data Handling – A Success Story from Scotland

Located in rural Scotland, Argyll and Bute Council operates across a widespread area, covering 2765 square miles with of six main towns and 26 inhabited islands. Council offices are typically small and often located in inaccessible areas, some requiring sea crossings to reach them. It can be difficult to provide cover for sickness absence and holidays in these offices as well as it being difficult for citizens to attend them.

Argyll and Bute Council’s Revenues and Benefits departments currently deal with 45,000 Council Tax accounts, 7,100 non-domestic rates (NDR) accounts and 10,000 live benefits cases. Continually affected by citizens’ frequent changes in personal circumstances, these departments receive thousands of written and telephone enquiries each week. On average, 1000 telephone calls are taken about Council Tax issues and NDR issues and 750 on benefits, rising to 3000 during the annual billing period. Furthermore, the department receives 800 items of correspondence each week in relation to Council Tax, 600 regarding new or amended Benefit claims and enquiries, 150 relating to NDR and 75 for Debt Recovery. The average processing time was around 12 days, two days longer than the Council’s required performance indicator.

The challenge

In addressing the challenges of the Modernising Government Agenda and the findings of recent Health and Safety Audits and Best Value reviews, Argyll and Bute was keen to adopt a new Information Communication Technology strategy. The annual Health and Safety Audit had highlighted that there was insufficient storage space within the Council’s Revenues and Benefits Offices. Files were stored in any available space, including walkways, which led to potential fire hazards and other health and safety issues. There were also related security issues, since files may have been stored in un-secure areas. In addition, the Best Value reviews for the departments identified the need to remove the constraints created by the management of remote and difficult to access area offices.

The solution

The key to addressing these issues was to improve both speed of access to and availability of files and documents. This involved creating a paperless office environment that would both eradicate the problem of storage and make all the documents concurrently accessible to staff from any location, whilst making it impossible for them to be lost, misfiled or updated simultaneously.

The Council felt that a corporate Document Management System would be an important precursor to a Records Management System. This would allow the Council to handle records in a more structured way, as well as enabling it to meet the requirements of Records Management, Data Protection, Freedom of Information and national initiatives, such as the Definitive National Addressing for Scotland Project.

The Council issued an Invitation to Tender for the contract and Comino, a leading supplier of E-Government solutions to Local Authorities, and its W2 Universal Revenues and Benefits application was chosen as the preferred solution for the Electronic Document and Workflow Management System (EDMWS.) The project was drawn up in three stages: phase one – Revenues, phase two – Benefits and phase three – Corporate Rollout. Phase one entailed implementing a solution for Revenues involving 40 seats in a centralised facility, as most customer interaction was by telephone. Phase two involved the rollout of the system for 40 Benefit seats, which unlike Revenues, provided a distributed service with Area Offices dealing with personal callers.

Comino then implemented three technologies into the Council: document imaging, document management and workflow. Document imaging replaces time-consuming photocopying with local scanning and provides electronic images of documents that can be easily stored, retrieved and routed to appropriate groups or individuals. The document management part of the process indexes all the incoming electronic correspondence, which is then synchronised nightly with changes made to the Council Tax/Benefits and Non-Domestic Rates (Anite) systems.

Comino’s W2 workflow system was also implemented. Using automated business rules and checklists, the workflow system routes documents, files and tasks to staff allocated to carry out specific actions. This includes managing processes or tasks, checking and approving records prior to acceptance and notifying users of the existence of records, as well as distributing existing records.

Mhairi Renton, revenues supervisor, Argyll and Bute Council, comments, “The need to deal with correspondence quickly and in order of importance meant that the system needed to sort outstanding workloads into priority order and provide a tool to manipulate the workload as necessary.” The W2 system also has an in-built check facility so that if a workflow or process is not completed within a pre-determined period, a reminder is sent to a designated person or to initiate another process.

Renton continues, “The workflow consists of a number of steps and can branch to one or several routes at a specified point, dependent on user input. The system will not allow a process to be completed unless all steps within that process have been completed, introducing a total consistency in approach.” Integrating with the Council’s email, the system is also set up with pending trays, for use when extra information is required. When a related document, such as evidence of a claim, is received the associated document is released from pending and sent automatically to the person handling that case. The system also has the capacity to chase customers for non-return of forms. This is particularly useful for appeal cases where there is a phased sequence of events recorded on the system.

An additional part of the process ensures that Council-generated correspondence is generated on-line, pulling in names and addresses and other relevant information directly from the Revenues and Benefits system and thus improving the accuracy of data. A bar code that identifies the Council Tax or Non-domestic Rate account reference and the form type is printed on all forms.

When the form is completed by the customer and returned to the Council, the bar code is scanned and the document automatically indexed to the correct group tray within each section for processing. It also kicks off the relevant set of processes for that form, routing it automatically to the appropriate staff. The provision of a high level, high-speed reporting function provides automatic collection of management information, a task that had previously formed around 10% of the total workload in each office. This includes the number of cases received each week by type, number of items attended, number carried forward and the date of oldest outstanding items.

With regards to the take-up of the new system, Argyll and Bute did not underestimate the importance of end-user training. A “train the trainer” approach was adopted and a high percentage of staff were involved in implementing or training on the new system. The staff then drew up manuals and taught the other staff the intricate details of the system.

Renton comments, “The system change was so significant that it was important that all staff were convinced that the improvements would be beneficial to everyday working. Our training programme was a major contributing factor to the quick acceptance of the system. Through this process, the trainers took pride in the system and were keen to transfer their knowledge to their colleagues.”

Benefits from the project

EDMWS has allowed the Council to eliminate the geographical constraints so that the back office functions can now take place in any location. This ensures full support for front line processes, regardless of where the interaction takes place. The storage issues highlighted by the Health & Safety Audit have been reduced considerably and the speed of file and document availability within the Revenues and Benefits departments has improved. Renton comments, “Data can be accessed on screen within seconds, saving valuable time and resource in retrieving and updating.”

This has not only created savings in telephone callbacks and reduced the numbers of complaints, but also improved response times to the citizen. Current Revenues’ statistics indicate that there are no backlogs of correspondence and that all correspondence is being dealt with within four to five working days, well within the Council’s target of ten.

Since the go live date of 1st April 2003, 10% efficiency gains equating to ?000 per annum have been achieved in the Revenues department. With similar efficiencies expected in the Benefits department, total savings should be ?000 per annum, resulting in a payback of the initial investment in just over two years.

Renton comments, “There has been a transformation from what was an overloaded workforce suffering from low morale, to a happy working environment. It is now much easier to respond to management priorities and improve citizen care.”

The way forward

Following the successful implementation in the Revenues and Benefits department, proposals are currently going forward to extend the system to the Creditors function, which will facilitate the integration of a new e-procurement system. In addition, new hands-free telephony is being purchased to facilitate the process of keying information direct from a phone call. Paperless Direct Debit, for example, is currently being introduced to Council Tax which demands the use of pre-prepared scripts, as does cold calling for debt recovery.

Argyll and Bute had initially considered several other services for phase three corporate rollout: Housing for faster scheduling of Housing Repairs, Environmental Services for Planning Applications or Refuse Collection, Social Work for case handling and Creditors for payment of invoices, although no progress has been made as yet.

Renton comments, “The Council’s core values of developing our people, improving services and containing costs have been fundamental to the objectives of this project. Exposure to culture change and business change management has been a good preparation for future changes in service delivery.”

Renton continues, “A major new objective for the Council is to provide services through a Contact Centre approach. Document management and workflow is a building block towards enabling services to be provided in an efficient manner and through a choice of contact methods – face to face, telephone, post, e-mail, fax, or website.”