Mersey beats drum for local e-government

24 Jan 2003

1999 was a bad year for Liverpool City Council. It had the highest council tax in the UK and a poor reputation for service delivery. Four years later it is seen as one of the most forward thinking councils in the UK with the customer at the heart of its service.

The transformation saw the council join forces with British Telecom (BT) to form Liverpool Direct. The aim of the partnership was to deliver an information and communications technology plan over 10 years at a cost of £57m sterling that placed the customer at the centre of the organisation.

The plan included improving the quality of service and ease of access of services across a variety of channels including telephone, website, interactive kiosks and Wap.

Dr David McElhinney, executive director of Liverpool City Council (LCC) and CEO of Liverpool Direct, says the investment has seen 30pc of all the council’s services moved online to date with a subsequent 40pc reduction in its costs.

But the web is just one channel. A 24-hour call centre is the most popular channel of communication, handling over 40,000 calls a week with an ambition to grow in infrastructure to handle double this number within the next 12 months.

A drop-in shop enables face-to-face contact and, by using the same technology as the call centre and web presence, staff members are able to see the same information on a client. McElhinney sees this as key: “We are using the same business case for the web as we do for telephony service. It is a different medium but we can still see the same profile.”

Whilst low internet penetration in some areas of Liverpool means low usage of the web services it is still the most cost-efficient channel and even in areas of low internet penetration kiosks can provide the same functionality as the website.

Irish web consultancy Labyrinth was chosen to design and develop the web-based e-government initiative. It has designed the functionality that will appear on the website over the next 12 months to specifically meet the needs of the people who have web access.

These services include applying for education award grants and free bus passes for children. The council is also launching a commercial campaign this month to encourage people to receive, pay or challenge their council tax bill online. The council tax is a good example of the type of high volume transaction that provides cost saving when put on the web. McElhinney says that if just 80,000 of the 200,000 bills are paid online this will represent a significant cost saving to the council and will provide money that can be spent to refine other services.

The ultimate aim of Liverpool Direct is to create a customer profile that will build a record of customers’ contact with the council. The key to this, McElhinney says, is to standardise the process. “The business case is built around the core product and it becomes simple to add services on,” he explains.

Liverpool’s e-government initiative is continually developing with unexpected results. For example, one bonus Liverpool Direct found in expediting the removal of abandoned vehicles from the streets was to help the police fight crime. With some 500 cars abandoned over an eight-week period McElhinney says that by removing the cars the council not only removed the opportunity for antisocial behaviour but also managed to help the police solve approximately 10 serious crimes.

Significant savings have also been made in streamlining the workflow within the call centre enabling the staff to get to the root of callers’ problems. “We didn’t just fix the problem,” says McElhinney, “we looked at why the problems were happening.”
Missed bin collection is an example of a caller complaint and with 0.1pc of missed bins costing 5pc of the contract, identifying which rounds were missed and what the reasons were enabled LCC to cut costs by getting it right first time.

McElhinney describes this as “intelligence local government” using information gleaned from the public. Problem solving like this has reduced calls to the call centre from 12 to 10 million and has enabled LCC to pass on the cost saving to the consumer by reducing council tax by 3pc.
The joint venture between BT and LCC is one of its kind in European local government. McElhinney says that the approach to the initiative is also unique. “What differentiates us from other local government is that we have a clear vision, but it’s an incremental journey to get there which allows us to take risks,” he explains.

McElhinney also talks about the power that partnering with BT has allowed Liverpool Direct to harness. “We have been able to unlock the supplier relationships and work with a broader group of people who might not have been interested in us by ourselves,” he adds.
One such relationship is with Tridion. The firm’s content management product enables Liverpool Direct to manage the huge volume of content on the site by empowering the authors of content to become the publishers. This is achieved by separating the content from the structure of the website by storing the content – sound, text, video – as XML (extensible markup language) objects in a data repository. The structure and navigation of the site is treated as a separate layer from the content.

The two layers then come together to form the website. By separating out the content from the structure and treating it as an object it’s possible to make a single change that can be implemented throughout the site saving time and cost. Tridion’s content management system is used for both the intranet and internet sites.

Gary Cosgrove, business development manager for Labyrinth, explains how the functionality already on the intranet site is helping users. “City council employees can book conference rooms and call centre staff can refer to an FAQ section,” he says. “Part of the functionality of the telephone/email directory also on the intranet is that by sending an expense form from a mailbox it replaces the need for a signature.”

Cosgrove also cites some of the future functionality planned for the public facing website that went live in November. “An online poll will help us decide which applications to develop but the functionality of paying bills online will go live in March and we’re putting the planning application process online in May. The purchase of birth certificates will be phased in,” he explains.
The cultural needs of Liverpool’s diverse population are also being taken care of. Labyrinth has developed a bilingual – Yemini and Somalian – site, aimed at being an education resource and helping the children keep in touch with their cultural heritage.

LCC’s website is clearly a site designed around the consumers’ needs and makes the best use of the latest technology to manage the huge demands of both content and request for services. The partnership between the council and BT has been intelligently managed to turn around a flailing council to become a customer centric organisation.

Liverpool Direct is set to deliver on its ambitious target of delivering all government services electronically by 2004, a year ahead of the 2005 target set by central government in the UK.

By Gillian Cope