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You’ve endured party-gate. Now I bring you ‘bin-gate’. The sorry saga of trying to order a bin from my council.

1 June 2022

You’d think given how many new homes that are being built in the UK, getting a new bin would be easy. Wrong. You can’t order a bin while you wait for your teenager’s football training to finish.

I genuinely thought I could order a bin using my mobile to kill dead time, in the same way I can update the weekly shop. I admit, it started with promise. I visited the local authority website, and when I couldn’t find a page on ordering new bins, I decided to use the “chat now” feature.

But my question was greeted with “Sorry, no agents available, please send an email”. Fair enough, it wasn’t strictly working hours, but there was no information about whom to send an email. And so ensued days of trying the chatbot in working hours, sending emails and making calls. Long story short, I still don’t have a bin.

There is no denying the squeeze on spending that all of the Public Sector has had since the start of the last decade. However, technology and their costs have dramatically changed during that time too, meaning there is technology available that creates great customer experiences and is cost effective. There is real need to change too, the UK Customer Satisfaction Index 2021 to 2022, shows that local authorities are the only industry to see their ratings fall.

Bin-gate obsession

I started to grow an (unhealthy) obsession with how easy it should be to order a bin and looked at what other cities and counties are doing. I won’t bore you with the details of ‘bin-gate’, but as an example, Newcastle City Council has introduced a “Waste Bot” as a way to order or apply for a permit via SMS. It’s simple to use with some suggested replies built in to make the process even easier.

I found it really surprising how extreme the differences in self-service models were. Especially at a time when cutting costs is so crucial.

The end for the town hall?

It’s become even more apparent during the pandemic that councils need to rethink their overwhelming dedication to face to face interaction at the townhall. If you wanted help up to March 2020, the town hall or council offices was where you went, at fixed hours that were inconvenient for people who work shifts for example. When things closed, things ground to a halt.

I acknowledge that some local authorities have already started to make a move away from this model, Newcastle a good example. Partly this is in recognition of new ways of working, partly in a bid to create efficiency and move self-service online.

But from my brief research, there’s a real risk of delivering a bad experience that does lasting damage. From people never attempting to use self-service again, through to alienating members of the community who don’t have internet access or need disability friendly options.

My slim review shows, that you rarely see the two models of in person and internet service run alongside one another, or certainly not to any degree of seamlessness.

Local authority approach and the NHS

In my experience of working with local authorities and public sector bodies over the years, it’s clear that they still haven’t truly moved to a mindset of fully embracing digital solutions and digital channels – it’s still tentative in some cases and often done in half measures.

What’s more, few appear to be really thinking about the citizen’s experience from start to finish, or considering the value of tapping into consumer trends, like the use of texts or instant messaging platforms.

There is an opportunity for this to change and strides are being made in other parts of the public sector. Take for example the SBS communication framework for the NHS. It’s an example of bringing together experts who can help make secure patient communications a reality by using popular messaging platforms. The aim is to cut wasted time and money and bring about reduction in energy and drive environmental gains.

Reminding people they have an appointment by SMS & messaging, providing details of what to bring and where to go, and providing a way to rearrange appointments online are hugely effective in cutting overheads, helping to reduce wait lists and save on postage, paper and energy.

The framework is an endorsement of the fact that messaging tools are versatile. And thanks to the framework, the NHS is now in a position to use messaging tools with confidence to support self-service, including those with artificial intelligence and Natural Language Processing.

But as my bin-gate foray shows, you need operational processes sitting behind the adoption, such as ways to pass complex queries to a human where it’s needed. Otherwise, they fall short of a good experience.

Where to start?

There are thousands of companies doing self-service brilliantly. The technology and expertise exist. If it were down to me (which I suppose it is as a taxpayer) I’d be recommending that in the case of providing self-service for repetitive tasks, a strategy of starting small is worthwhile, taking best practice from how the technology is being deployed elsewhere.

If you can tackle one element, like ordering a bin, and do it brilliantly, you will make big inroads in public confidence; getting the full citizen experience right is worthwhile because it saves time, money and delivers value.

Starting small is also a very good way to check how people respond to using self-service tools that are familiar, like text or WhatsApp, and assess which processes should be automated next.

We have a golden opportunity to make self-service happen – people really want it, people are ready to use it and the public purse demands it. But it must be thought through, otherwise it simply remains a token gesture as in the case of my local authority.

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