The evolution of local authorities: Transforming to become more customer-centric

Propelled by new technologies and changing consumer attitudes, local government as with many other public sector services is looking at ways to become more customer-centric. Yet what does this mean in practice and how exactly can it be achieved?

Public sector industries from rail to local government often have the greatest need for customer-centricity yet struggle the most to evolve and deliver for modern consumers. Where multiple service providers are encompassed within local government and other public bodies, it makes it especially difficult to drive unified change, particularly when combined with a lack of supporting technology.

A recent LGA poll on resident satisfaction with councils found an average annual decline in satisfaction between 2013 and 2018, with residents ‘feeling well-informed’ dropping from 67% to 57%, and ‘satisfied with the local council’ falling from 71% to 62% in this period. Consistently dwindling satisfaction indicates poor customer experience and sparks concern for the future of the industry. Improving customer-centricity is non-negotiable if local government hopes to evolve and future-proof itself for customers.

Who is the local government customer?

This question might seem an obvious one, however with consumer behaviour and expectations constantly shifting, it is increasingly difficult for local government to keep up with their customer’s demands. A resident is a customer not only of the council but of other service providers, of retailers and delivery companies and insurance firms, who are each re-defining and elevating customer experience in their own way.

A customer who routinely receives excellent service from a DPD driver, for instance, will see no reason why their council cannot deliver the same reliable, high-quality service. If councils do not recognise that their residents are influenced by a wider sphere of consumer experience, the gap will widen between the quality of service they provide and the quality of service which residents expect.

Digital communication has also transformed the ways in which residents now interact with providers, forcing councils to review their approach. Councils must now think about their whole resident experience including digital interactions such as their online facilities for making payments and supporting instant customer service conversations through social media. This level of focus on customer experience is relatively new and has made a definition of customer centricity more elusive in local government.

When we consider the responsibilities of councils, ranging from education services to managing homes, each is vital to the well-being of the individual. The reliance upon these services is vast, and potentially one of the most impactful service experiences an individual will come into contact with. Customers of these services cannot choose another provider; they must simply trust and rely upon the service they are provided. Taking these factors into consideration, it is vital that local authorities see the consumers of their services as customers.

Fostering a customer-led approach

Customers want to have a personal connection with councils and for their voice to be heard when it comes to the quality and performance of a service. Indeed, the City of Athens recently launched an app for residents to quickly and easily communicate and report issues with local authorities, improving engagement whilst easing the strain on administration staff. Innovations such as this enable councils to evolve and deliver services which truly include and value the customer.

Local authorities should be laying the foundations now to encourage the change of mindsets and working practices towards adopting a customer-centric approach. This requires a collective understanding of great customer experience, informed by best practices from other businesses and industries, and instilled within each local government employee. Such a change, of course, will be a long journey for the industry, however making this initial step is the most pressing part of the process.

Overcoming industry challenges

Changing the perception of local government customers is one aspect, but other factors from the broad nature of their responsibilities to deep-rooted legacy paper systems and the challenges of public sector IT procurement, make it harder to optimise processes. It is also important that the impact political turbulence has on local government customers is not overlooked. At best a council may have four years of stability before a change in control, however, in reality, many councils elect members within the four-year cycle. As a result, different councillors may have different concepts of customer-centricity, what priority they place on it and how much budget they are willing to spend to achieve it.

The constant change makes it almost impossible to have a long-term strategy around customer centricity, making it difficult to achieve change and to maintain high levels of customer experience. The expectations of consumers might drive a change here. Taking responsibility out of the hands of those that might only be in place for four years and into those that represent a constant presence, like the civil service at a central government level, would allow a long-term strategy to be implemented consistently and effectively.

Local authorities also need digital tools to streamline their processes for staff so they can focus on delivering exceptional customer service. When operational staff are juggling multiple tasks and drawing data from across different systems, it becomes harder to maintain efficiency and accuracy. As a result, it is the customer who suffers and becomes lost in the process.

For instance, a property services company tasked with maintaining local government homes might have back-office staff, surveyors and engineers all working on one task. Seamless communication between the various personnel is essential for timely, cost-efficient completion of the maintenance project so that they can begin the next one.

It is vital that councils are equipped with intelligent tools to manage their data and communications as well as gathering performance insight, allowing for better collaboration across teams and an overall more cost-effective and productive process. Above all, this means customers enjoy a smooth and efficient experience with their local authority.

Customer-centricity at every level

Adopting new working practices will certainly support a more customer-led approach in councils. Still, culturally the organisation must first understand and agree with the vision of customer-centricity. Without a fundamental change in attitude towards the customer, there is no belief or incentive for staff to ensure that the customer needs are at the heart of each process and decision.

What is clear is that the drive for achieving customer-centricity must be led from the top of the organisation both on a political and civil level. It must become a long-term commitment whereby everyone sees the long-term value and benefit, not only within their organisation but also spreading out to the contractors that they employ. Some will use arms-length Management Organisations (ALMOs) or Direct Labour Organisations (DLOs) or a combination of both. Factors such as these add another level of complexity to an already complicated backdrop when striving to achieve customer-centricity.

Evolving for the customer-led future

Despite the unique challenges facing local government, the future is a bright and customer-centric one for councils. It is within the power of local government to evolve its practices in line with modern consumer demands, starting by viewing the resident as a customer of their service, analysing their customer journey and customer expectations. Local governments who are beginning to see success with their customer experience are those who have combined a cultural change with the technology which empowers staff to deliver fast, supportive services.  Driving change from both directions will enable local authorities to make a sustainable and customer-led transformation.

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