When the impact of the 2008 financial crisis extended into long-term public sector cuts, Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC) Council turned to technology to help it navigate the age of austerity.
"Five years ago we decided that the world had turned," AVDC CEO Andrew Grant remembers. "Austerity was in its infancy, but we realised that we were going to need to change our business completely because we were a traditional council in receipt of government funds and they looked like they were going to dry out by 2020."
They answered the challenge by embarking on a sweeping digital transformation strategy dubbed "Right Here Right Now". It began with a website redesign and developed into a complete overhaul of services as the council moved towards a commercially orientated business model.
At the centre of the transformation is a Salesforce platform known as "My Account" based on the Salesforce Community Cloud Software. It supports a variety of interactions with the council such as automating processes like signing up to the garden waste service or making council tax payments.
Five years after embarking on the strategy in 2010, the council had saved £14 million, half of which it estimates was down to the digital overhaul.
The council chose to pursue a customer-focused business model that could generate income while reducing costs, drawing on private sector practices for inspiration. AVDC began to sell services provided by private sector entities and invest the profits that these generated in services such as homelessness inquiries and social care.
At the same time, the council was embarking on replacing their static legacy equipment with a cloud system to support a more tailored service for citizens. Grant wanted to create a market for new suppliers that could come in and provide software-as-a-service services.
The Buckinghamshire organisation became one of the first councils to move to the cloud. Today only one in-house server remains, as the DWP won’t license AVDC to move it offshore.
AVDC used the Salesforce platform to replace legacy systems with services that could swiftly be tailored to changing customer demands while also reducing infrastructure costs.
"We wanted something that was disruptive, we wanted something that was globally known as a leader in CRM and content management, that let's face it, the private sector used to handle their customer interaction," says Grant.
The core of the new website was a feature inspired by commercial retail practices called "My Account". It collects all activities with the council in one place and provides self-service functions for users.
The council ran workshops with local residents to understand their needs. They included applying for benefits checking and paying council tax, signing up for new services and updating personal information.
"We've got 33,000 households of the 75,000 households signed up to that in just over a year," says Grant.
"Clearly we've hit a sweet spot where people do want to look at the core things that they're doing with the council and not have to phone us up. We can increasingly give more value and products into My Account as we grow the functionality."
The council estimates that My Account saved more than 900 hours of employee time within six months of going live. It’s now been running for more than a year, incorporating extra elements along the way such as arranging licences for taxi drivers and ordering bins.
"The biggest saving was actually getting us to be free from our desks because we can use the web browser for our services anywhere," says Grant.
"We've had a sharp drop in the number of people visiting customer services because they don't need to, we've had a sharp drop in email and phone traffic – between 10 and 30 percent in each area – so there are fewer interactions because they're not needed.
"What we're trying to do is prepare ourselves to grow the business later when we can base that on sales and products and services based on this knowledge."
Citizens as customers
Grant wants to integrate citizens' data into the cloud so that staff, customers, and partners are all connected and each individual can automatically be offered the specific services they want before they've even thought of it.
The new objective is described in a new "Connected Knowledge" strategy as a "digital business service experience within a smarter, data-driven council."
"Any other person in the private sector would be saying we've got to acquire some customers first, which is your biggest cost," Grant explains. "We've got those customers."
He hopes to motivate those customers to use the council to find further products and services provided by private companies.
"Ninety-five percent if not more of our citizens probably wouldn't need us for more than the bins but they're spending money, they're earning money in our area, how do they spend it with us, that's really the business model," he says.
"Digital isn't really an end itself, it's a way of understanding your customer better so that we can be a better council and more resilient and financially secure."
AVDC is also experimenting with emerging consumer technology. It recently became the first council in the country to conduct trials with Amazon Alexa, to see how the voice-controlled personal assistant can improve customer support services.
Councils across the country are struggling to provide adequate services due to cuts to their funding that are only set to deepen. Grant believes that the current socioeconomic climate will force them to radically change their established practices, and further draw on practices from the private sector.
"Most councils are hoping the casual customers go back to the golden age when they would queue up outside and don't mind queuing in the rain, and then fill their name and address in 14 times on bits of Xeroxed paper," says Grant.
"You've got to try and predict where your customers have got to, and talk about them as customers, not as citizens or people that just have your service.
"You've got to stop thinking like you're used to thinking, and that's a bit easy to say and hard to do, but I think the results are a slicker and more effective organisation, and one that's sustainable."