When the coronavirus pandemic hit, councils were forced to bring their workforce and services online overnight. Is this an opportunity to reimagine the public sector?

Paul Abraham, Corporate Services Director at Capita, Charles Whitworth, Customer Experience Design and Delivery Director at Capita, and Andy Ralphs, Strategic Director of Customer and Corporate Services at Plymouth City Council, discussed this question at Solace’s recent “Reflect. Reset. Reimagine” immersive learning event for public sector professionals. 

Andy opened the discussion by sharing Plymouth City Council’s experience before and during Covid-19: “It’s fair to say we have been on a bit of a journey. Unlike some, we started with the transformation of the social care element of our business by joining together our health care operations, and creating a fully integrated ecosystem. Dealing with complex demand was the first point where we made some significant changes.” 

Covid-19’s impact has been instant. Councils and citizens across the UK were left with no option but to adapt their culture and behaviour to digital, fast. Programmes of work that may have taken years to implement were rolled out in a matter of weeks so that councils could keep meeting citizens’ needs: health services are being delivered remotely, schooling is being shifted online, and courts are going digital. 

Paul said: “Necessity is the mother of invention. I’ve seen radical change that I haven’t seen in my career beforehand.

“We’re all engaging remotely and virtually, and we’re all using technology to communicate with one another. Many council customers have adapted how they want to receive services from authorities overnight. The key will be how to sustain this.” 

Andy noted that it’s also critical to embed a functional and sustainable digital ecosystem. Creating a smooth experience at the front end for citizens must be supported by an integrated ecosystem at the back end. This is complex. Aging infrastructure needs to be revitalised and council employees reskilled to support citizens and receive support themselves on these new platforms. Councils also need to champion a culture of digitisation. 

He added: “People think that digital is a golden bullet, but it’s not if you don’t have the people, culture and behaviours in place to support that change.”

There’s also the question of how to support the digitally vulnerable. Charles said: “A lot of the sectors we worked in had to learn how to support those customers who weren’t used to  operating online.” He explained how Capita has implemented tools such as conversational AI chatbots to support clients’ high-volume contact centres, and made webchats available for reluctant customers who need help adjusting to new platforms. “We also carry out regular client surveys to test the waters and understand customer journeys. Making webchat available for longer times also gives people the opportunity to contact us if they’re struggling.”

From this process, the panel agreed that they’re gaining important insights into the people that they serve. The public and private sectors both need to consider vulnerable people and make sure that they’re included in the digital customer experience. How we can reach them in an accessible way, and should that approach even be digital? 

On this point, Andy said: “In terms of customers, we recognised very early on that, although we’re running our contact centre virtually, there was a digital divide where people became vulnerable very quickly. We set up a secondary part of our contact centre called ‘Caring for Plymouth’, a much wider advocacy service. We had over 3,000 individuals in the city use it, and this has helped us really think about what support they need and what we require from assisted digital in the future.” 

He added that the council has seen citizens engage with its digital offering more than ever before. The Covid-19 shift was revolutionary for libraries, with a 200% increase in e-book loans, for instance. 

As we continue to engage with those vulnerable groups, the reality is that digital might not be the best, or only, solution. On the other hand, younger tech-savvy generations need council experiences that match how they engage with other products and services. Paul highlighted WhatsApp as an effective tool for keeping in contact with younger people in the community. 

Ultimately, it’s about meeting customer needs. “When we consider digital inclusion, moving forward, the customer has to be absolutely key. Otherwise we will go round and round in circles and quickly sleepwalk back into pre-Covid behaviour,” said Andy. 

Charles noted a trend towards more personalised customer interactions: “We’re now looking at how to offer different services in different ways, and even in different languages. In the case of one of our clients, we’re piloting a persona-based approach to dealing with customers.” 

There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has transformed how the public sector engages with its customers. However, to keep up momentum, we’ll have to stay engaged with citizens, be agile in our roll-out of new technologies and processes and be committed to uplifting the vulnerable. While there is still a way to go, the rapid change that we’ve witnessed in 2020 has shown us that this is possible.

Thinking about your organisation?