Features: April 23rd, 2004

From Best Value Review to On-line Housing Service

A Best Value Review’ review of the housing management service showed a positive response from tenants to making services available via the Internet. Experience has shown that more work needs to be done to convert those opinions into reality. This is a sketch of the three years spent developing and implementing ‘Housing Direct’ which was launched in June 2003. It also describes the response to the challenge of take-up through creating better access facilities and marketing the service.

Doncaster Council looks after 290,000 citizens. It manages 25,000 Council houses through six management areas – approximately 4,000 properties per area. The growing need to more effectively and economically manage such high levels of citizen communication, coupled with a requirement to meet the demands of the E-Government Agenda, continue to put pressure on Doncaster to introduce systems that deliver more efficiency and greater cost savings.

Integrating services

Speaking of its developments to date, Vernon Martel, the Housing Business Support Manager, for Doncaster Borough Council explains, “Three years ago we began the process of change by entirely revamping our internal computer systems and implementing a fully integrated housing management software solution developed by Comino plc.”

Prior to working with Comino, Doncaster managed its individual services through standalone software systems, largely developed in-house. There was no integration between these programmes and therefore any query made would need to be tracked through different departments using different systems – a lengthy, frustrating and time-consuming process for both council and tenant. The introduction of Comino’s integrated housing management system has dramatically changed the Council’s outdated working processes and today, enables full integration and automatic updates across all services, saving time, money and aggravation.

“Comino’s system has proved a great success and, in considering how to further enhance and develop it, it seemed a natural progression for the integrated system to utilise the back-office data in a web environment,” explains Vernon.

The quest for improvement

“It’s a major aim for the Council to involve its citizens more in new technology and this includes accessing services via the Internet. Many of us already use the Internet to access other products and services and we know it saves time, money and effort as well as providing us with a more efficient and effective response. Internet usage is rising all the time and although we, as a Council, are just embarking on the use of Internet services, we know they too will become the norm for a lot of our customers in the future,” says Vernon.

In addition, the Council’s review highlighted the need to make significant revenue savings for the business over the coming years, which, coupled with the need to meet the E-Government Agenda, confirmed that the introduction of Internet services would enable Doncaster to achieve many of its objectives.

Continuing, Vernon explained, “One of the things we were very keen to do that would enable us to begin to fulfil our objectives, was develop an Internet service specifically for council tenants. The idea being that these tenants would benefit from 24/7/365 access to our services either via a PC at home, a community facility PC, or eventually, through televisions connected to the Internet.

Today, this Internet vision is a reality having now successfully implemented our web-enabled ‘Housing Direct’ solution. In all, it took four months to draw up the specification and for Comino to fulfil the necessary software development.

“Comino delivered its part of the contract very quickly and ably and we experienced few problems. We are extremely confident that this provision will radically improve the service we can deliver to these residents.”

In developing this system, it was important for Doncaster to ensure the web site chosen to run it was sufficiently capable of handling, not only the interactivity they anticipated, but also the levels of security required to view personal rent accounts. Comino worked with Doncaster to make sure this was achieved.

“Together, we have developed a unique service for our tenants. When they log on, they are in fact gaining access directly to our own, live housing system data. We are providing up-to-the-minute information relating to all of the services we offer – there is no longer the need to join a queue or be put on hold whilst your query is investigated.

“The system, once you have passed through a two level security check, will enable Council tenants to view their rent account, pay their rent, check how their rent is calculated, report any repairs they may require, check the progress of repairs that have been reported, register a comment, compliment or complaint, contact an officer within the housing department using a message board (and receive a message back) or request the issue of a new rent swipe card. They also have the ability to scroll back and check historic information from the previous year. To access any of this information before would have involved a lengthy process, one that was only available during office hours,” explains Vernon.

Working on take-up

Following the launch of ‘Housing Direct’ in June 2003, Vernon tells us that the Council is recording a 2% take-up, which, as the promotion of it continues, is growing all the time.

He explains, “Once tenants are aware of its existence and recognise just how easy it is for them to gain access to our services via the web, we are confident that this percentage will grow very quickly. Even with only a small percentage increase, we will already be diverting a significant number of users away from our offices and from the phones, thereby affording us cost savings. Once used, our residents will quickly recognise how much time not having to visit or telephone our offices or work around our restricted opening hours, can save.”

Providing choice for tenants

For Doncaster, providing choice for its residents is paramount. Giving its citizens freer access to services is key to its future development. Until now, 80% of people have made contact with the Council via the telephone, approximately 15% via visits to its offices and 5% in other ways. The ability to access information via the Internet will, in time, significantly alter the balance of these figures and as a result show cost savings through reduced levels of telephone operators and general office staff. In time, the overall benefit from greater efficiency will bring the Council closer to its citizens.

For those tenants who do not have access to a PC within their home, and prior to the introduction of television set-top boxes, PC’s are available for general use at local libraries, community centres and other freely accessible points. Additionally the Council has introduced four ‘onTap’ touch screen kiosks at strategically positioned sites around the city and its outskirts. And now, with over one million hits at the ‘onTap’ kiosks since August, the Council anticipate that it won’t be long before Council tenants are using this facility too, to access their on-line housing information.

As part of its commitment to the continued improvement of services for its citizens, Doncaster is currently implementing a new release of Comino’s housing management system to provide a more efficient customer facing front end. The new release will provide increased levels of integration and security between the housing management modules, especially Stock Control and Planned Maintenance.

The release has adopted a Windows look and feel providing a user friendly, customer focused solution. Extracting information has been simplified ensuring that people in a one stop shop environment can see all details on the one screen instead of having to open and view information on different screens. The solution utilises a people and property database, storing information against both the property and the tenants ensuring that complete records are kept on both and not just the property.

Vernon says, “The updated system will enable all relevant information from across the database to be accessed and made available on one screen. This will enable us to handle all of our enquiries far more effectively. Many of our customers come in to deal with one particular issue but whilst here may decide to deal with more. So much of what used to happen in the back office can now be handled at the point of enquiry with the new system because of the ability to access other relevant information.”

At Doncaster, the view is that the internal systems are constantly evolving and changing and will always require further development.

As Vernon accepts, “The Internet will be an established service for the future and I think it is key for us to develop it in such a way that we are capturing more services through this route. There are so many areas within the Council services where form filling is a necessity, yet this always involves so much duplication of effort. This is definitely an area that can be improved through the introduction of on-line application forms whilst at the same time enabling us to make cost savings. There are plenty of things we want to do, a mutual exchange register, homeless applications, housing benefit applications etc.

“Choice based lettings are also another example where we could make changes and address the way in which we manage our Council accommodation. Groups which do not currently consider choosing Council accommodation might be attracted through this method – for instance students or people involved in career changes.”

Doncaster and Comino have worked together over the past three years and Doncaster is very happy to continue with this relationship.

Vernon, comments, “We have partnered with Comino for some time and are continually working together to improve and evolve all of our systems to enable greater efficiency savings and to meet the Government’s Modernising Agenda. Together we are developing a service that is dramatically improving customer access to our services and also improving the responsiveness of our housing services for our customers.”