The gap between cutting costs and improving public services

by Jens Sorensen on February 18, 2011

I recently read an interesting post on Public Sector Customer Forums about a mother’s dreadful experience when trying to apply for the school admissions service on her local council’s website. The post highlighted several flaws in the system named as ‘A faster more efficient way to apply’. Firstly, I whole heartedly agree that making the service available online is likely to be a faster and more efficient process: A faster way for the user and cheaper for the council because an operative will not have to key in the application form when it arrives at a council.

I have summarised the steps the mother experienced during the application process:

  1. Applies online and specifies a username and password
  2. Submits an application and receives email to say ‘application submitted’
  3. A few weeks pass and she decides to check application
  4. Logs back in using the username and password (which was written down) – not recognised
  5. Uses the forgotten password link – nothing happens
  6. Calls the council stating that the forgotten password link does nothing – explained it was put there simply because users would expect it and the username and password would not let you log back in anyway
  7. Tries to explain she has an application number – apparently randomly generated and has no use for tracking or any other benefit.

Cost saving

It’s pretty hard to argue that this limited functionality and integration isn’t going to be considerably cheaper to implement. A service that asks for a username and password but which then doesn’t do anything when submitted, is merely a form with no tracking. Similarly, taking such an approach might suggest that its back-end database integration is also limited, meaning contact details are processed inefficiently and therefore probably a lot cheaper than doing it properly. And I’m sure when you estimate how many of those potential citizens actually try to log back in and then call the council because they can’t, has a negligible cost.

On some element it makes sense. The public sector has been subjected to cuts of up to 40% and so cost savings have to be made somewhere. However, I’m very much a believer in offering services online to enable cost savings. It is well documented how much councils can save using the web compared to the face-to-face or telephone. But, by doing so, you should be offering your citizens the same level of service as these other channels, including the extra benefits the web brings, such as a service that is faster and available at a time that suits the end user (see this post about 24x7x365 that the web offers).

So what is the cost in the long-term? If the web channel is merely used as a cost cutting exercise instead of one to reduce costs and improve service, I can’t see how it will be sustainable in the long-term. Admissions are now closed, so this council got away with it this time. But what about next year? Do we continue to slash costs and at the same time likely reduce the quality of service? If so, I think it’s going to be ever harder for councils or the public sector to justify their budgets and in the long-term we will see the privatisation of these services similar to what is currently happening to the NHS.

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