Features: October 12th, 2012

The development of technology in the public sector to perform specific tasks has brought better services at a lower cost. It is now recognised that piecemeal development has drawbacks and that for greater efficiencies, systems must be brought together. This feature describes what happens when systems talk to systems.

In the last decade local councils have made extensive use of technology to cut costs. Customer relationship management systems are a typical example. The use of the new systems has raised expectation relating to what technology can achieve, but it has also brought frustrations as it was recognised that each systems could not talk to each other. The challenge is to integrate back office systems.

Research carried out by specialist software house NDL has revealed that application integration could be the key to unlocking the efficiency and cost savings long promised by channel shift technology, such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and transactional websites.

The research involved 260 interviews with senior IT staff who, between them, represent two thirds of UK local authorities. The report has also been recognised by public services improvement partnership iNetworks and Public Sector Networks, the online community dedicated to boosting the use of technology in improving public sector delivery.

The report reveals both the high expectations and the on-going frustrations associated with channel shift technology which was widely introduced in the mid-noughties in order to cut the ‘cost-per-contact’ with citizens.

NDL’s managing director, Declan Grogan, explained: “Channel shift was much trumpeted by the Labour administration and the central concept is very simple: dealing with a customer via a centralised contact centre is vastly more cost effective and delivers a more seamless customer experience, than dealing with them face-to-face or across several different departments. Furthermore, customers who self-serve, for example by using the internet to complete their business, are even less expensive and often feel better served.

“Figures released by public sector IT managers’ association Socitm, underline this theory perfectly: a face-to-face meeting typically costs £8.62, while phone calls cost £2.83 and website visits cost just 15p. Understandably, this led to a massive increase in CRM systems and a drive towards using websites. What our research shows is that while in many cases channel shift has improved the customer experience, it has yet to deliver the promised cost savings in full.”

According to the report, while 89% of respondents said that the reception CRM enjoyed was either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ and 95% reported improved customer service, there was less certainty when it came to value for money. Only 59% of respondents were confident that the benefits of running a CRM system outweigh the costs, let alone deliver savings.

When asked what would improve the effectiveness of CRM, the most popular answer, cited by 92% of respondents, was application integration which reflects the current lack of integration also revealed by the report. The findings reveal that almost a quarter of authorities reported that less than 10% of processes which go through CRM are integrated with back-office systems, while 68% of councils have less than 50% of CRM services integrated. When it came to other forms of channel shift technology the pattern was equally stark, with almost 50% of councils rekeying at least 75% of the data received via web site e-forms.

Declan continued: “It’s not hard to recognise the inefficiencies here – in addition to making errors endemic which in turn hampers customer service, retyping information is incredibly resource intensive, and at the very time when many jobs and frontline services are under threat.”

There are signs that councils recognise the role integration has to play, with 75% of authorities planning on increasing integration, up from 67% last year. 80% of councils also claim they are ‘likely’ to spend money on integration. “These figures look promising, but given that channel shift technology was widely introduced over half a decade ago and the fact that integration is still very limited in many councils, it’s important to be cautious”, comments Declan.

Other examples of integration include a fly tipping collection service. Drivers are equipped with PDAs: when called to fly tipping incidents, they enter full details into the handset via a touch screen and take up to three photographs before they clear up the waste. These details and photos are then immediately transmitted back to the Council’s offices, where they are queued, verified and entered seamlessly into the back office system via awi.

A Care Direct system has also been installed for Bristol Health & Social Care. Previously anyone applying for support, either for themselves or a family member, would phone the department for an assessment; they would then speak or receive a phone call back from a Care Direct Advisor who would carry out an initial contact assessment. Much of the information gathered at this point was very basic, and the Care Direct Advisor would then have to come back to the office and waste valuable time entering this simple data into the central Paris case management system. This process has been streamlined and all the information is gathered on an e-form and entered directly into the Paris system via awi. Social workers then view the information and follow up as necessary.

NDL provides integration technology in real time, bi-directional data flow to most back-office applications.