Opinion: How councils can provide the ‘John Lewis’ digital experience

Nataša Patterson, Director of Resident Experience and Digital at the London Borough of Lambeth, explains how the council has made digital services more efficient and easier for customers to use.  

In this age of digital, customers quite rightly want a tailored user experience, but this can be a challenge when, like Lambeth Council, you have over 150 lines of business, and rely largely on legacy systems.

But working towards creating a better service drives us, which is why in 2021 we developed a new customer experience strategy. We embarked on delivering a council wide digital customer platform, with a focus on residence experience, to put the framework into action.

Customer expectations continue to grow in line with the digital age, and the streamlined digital customer journey is the holy grail for any council. People who transact online are now seeking the ‘John Lewis experience’ across all the services they use, both in the private and public sector.

Understandably, they don’t want to know how many legacy systems a council has, nor do they need to consider the complexities of delivering that experience when you’re working with multiple systems. But they do expect a consistent, reliable and user-friendly experience regardless, to match their consumer expectations.

Forging our own ‘digital strategy’

In honesty I find the general notion of ‘digital first’ a bit dated, so when we formed our new approach, we set out from the beginning that this wasn’t our main driver.

aerial view of London England Big Ben

The decision behind this was to focus on investing in our infrastructure, making sure that experience worked for the customer, with a view that digital first will happen naturally as a result. I’d like to call us pragmatically ambitious, and I am under no illusion that this task is a mammoth one to deliver.

Our first step has been to implement a new digital customer platform, which can enable single sign on in the first instance and from here we will begin a step change of integrating the business line of systems into that. We chose IEG4’s OneVu, a citizen engagement platform, which converges several systems to give a complete single view of each customer, both internally and for them as well.

Integration – drilling down to specific issues

If I told you we had a specific strategy around integration I’d probably be lying, I still have scars from API battles of the past.

But I’m now inclined to explore new data processes due to changing attitudes around data lakes and data warehouses, because of the benefits they have in speeding up the process of integration. We now have a central data repository and a single interface.

Data is a challenge in local government. It’s become a hot topic of conversation because local government naturally has masses of it, but we fall down when it comes to utilising it to solve issues.

This is why we have chosen to use it to focus on a proof of concept around specific problems we’re trying to resolve, at present, the focus is on cost-of-living crisis and how we can leverage data to agree targeted interventions.

By starting small in that space, we have created the foundations for our localities model, which allows us to take preventative measures. We not only invest in the frontline for reactive services like the call centre, but we also work to join up all the agencies and voluntary sector working in the borough with our own council assets and build relationships with our communities.

Data is crucial to that. It’s a massive undertaking, but the way the axis works in the future is probably in prevention, rather than this reactive legacy.

The technology we use

The way that technology has advanced in recent years has been very welcome in local government, but equally I think the culture still needs to catch up.

person using MacBook Pro

Bearing this in mind we decided to focus on the elements that are going to be most useful in in transforming infrastructure for the team.

Looking from a technical point of view and which technology aligns most with that approach, I don’t think I could just pick one. Cloud has enabled a much easier workflow, and data strategy and data methodology have given us the integration capability.

Internal digital capability has been key, however. We’ve all been victims in local government of big transformation programmes delivered to us by massive consultancies that haven’t quite delivered. In my experience smaller and more agile solutions and the companies that provide them are worth investing in.

The solution does need to be bespoke. For example, with our OneVu digital customer platform, we didn’t go and buy an off the shelf product. We worked with our provider who understood our challenges and then tailored the delivery to that.

Are we there yet? 

Investing digital capability and resource is key, but it’s worth remembering that these solutions will never be delivered, done and dusted. They will always just move from the programme space then develop iteratively as our strategy evolves.

Yes, it can be a risk, especially for authorities that haven’t cracked the ‘Holy Grail’ yet but at Lambeth we continue to work towards ours and by working with the right tech partners has simplified this and made that journey much easier. 

Photos by Sapan Patel and Glenn Carstens-Peters


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