Features: November 9th, 2012

By making everyday transactions digital, public services are offering easier ways for people to do things more simply and more quickly, as well as cutting costs. This article describes how the digital approach has been applied to parking fines.

Harrow Council has completely automated its handling of parking fines by introducing an online appeals and payment process for penalty charges via its website (www.harrow.gov.uk). Since August 2012, the Council has been able to discontinue face-to-face and telephone enquiries for Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) in favour of the online service, which uses Firmstep’s AchieveForms intelligent online forms solution, saving an estimated £90,000 per year.

The move is part of the Council’s wider channel shift strategy, implemented to encourage citizens to use online channels for communications and transactions with the Council, dramatically reducing administration costs whilst improving accessibility for the public.

Motorists who receive a PCN now simply visit the ‘Parking’ pages of Harrow Council’s website and click through to an online form, built using AchieveForms, where they enter the reference number of the PCN and their vehicle registration.

The details captured by AchieveForms are checked in real time against the Council’s back office systems, using the solution’s in-built workflow functionality, to retrieve details of the offence together with related photographic evidence from the appropriate parking or traffic cameras. The motorist is then offered the opportunity to either appeal the PCN by completing and submitting the online form, or to pay the penalty charge online.

Achieving channel shift

This complete channel shift in handling Penalty Charge Notices in Harrow builds on the Council’s initial move towards an online parking fine appeals and payment service in 2010. In an effort to enhance interaction and reduce delays in the handling process, the Council had previously offered a downloadable static Acrobat PDF form for motorists to print and complete before posting. However, this approach had limited take-up by the public, with under 400 submissions of the form logged in the year after the form was introduced. The Council felt there was still scope for improvement in terms of efficiency, performance and savings.

Harrow Council was already successfully using Firmstep’s AchieveForms in sections of its MyHarrow information portal – a web-based scheme designed to give citizens, businesses, landlords and tenants access to information on approximately 80 local services including council tax and business rates, housing rents, benefits payments, waste collection, and map based reporting online.

Following positive results in the use of AchieveForms in existing areas of MyHarrow (recent figures show that over 25,000 citizens now have a MyHarrow Account), and as part of a wider initiative to automate its services and make them more accessible while reducing administration costs, the Council saw the potential to extend AchieveForms’ use to drive efficiency in handling PCNs. The business case for the solution was developed in 2010 by Harrow Council together with Capita, its IT outsourcing partner.

The software proved to be highly successful in prompting a huge increase in the number of motorists actively making payments of parking and traffic enforcement PCNs. Harrow Council’s Web/GIS Team Leader, David Miller said: “In the first month after launching the solution based on AchieveForms, we had a 130% increase in form submissions compared with the same period the previous year. Usage simply took off from that point.”

In the first year of deployment of the AchieveForms-based solution, the council had 15,000 form submissions, compared with 396 submissions of the static PDF form in the previous year. Submissions nearly doubled to 29,000 in 2011; the council now receives over 4,000 submissions per month, or some 50,000 per year.

With the estimated cost of telephone transactions for Councils put at £2.90, compared with an online transaction at 32 pence, this represents a significant cost reduction for the authority.

Efficiency gains and cost savings

As well as enabling a more cost-effective method of processing appeals and payments, the online solution provides residents with a more accessible, straightforward way of transacting with the council. Harrow Council’s Web/GIS Team Leader, David Miller, says: “The Firmstep solution has enabled Harrow Council to implement a service that is easy for people to access and use, and to realise ongoing efficiency gains and cost savings by scaling back our administration costs. It’s a key part of our commitment to being an open, accessible and efficient organisation that serves the needs of local residents by using the best technology available.”

Following the complete automation of the PCN appeals and payments service, Harrow Council is continuing to develop it to deliver additional information to service users, including streaming of video content showing violations from traffic cameras. This will help to further streamline the service and speed up resolutions of appeals and penalties.