Local Digital
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Local Digital

Council Spotlight: Rushmoor Borough Council

In this guest blog post from Rushmoor Borough Council, the team share how they transformed their recycling and rubbish services.

The Council brings together the two towns of Aldershot and Farnborough in North East Hampshire with a proud history of aviation and as the home of the British Army. They have a relatively young population of 95,000 people and a vibrant Nepali community.

We’ve always had the desire to offer better digital services at Rushmoor but struggled to get enough funding and lacked quality technology.

The online services we did have clearly showed that our residents wanted to access our services outside of office hours at their own convenience. However, by requiring residents to email us, rather than being integrated with our back-office software, the services weren’t as efficient as they could be.

These services are ‘out of the box’ solutions from the vendors of our back-office software. Although they are well used, they don’t give us enough customisation to deliver a good user experience.

Like many other district councils, one of our highest demand services is recycling and rubbish — not just to report a missed bin collection, but also to receive garden waste or bulky waste collections. All these services were painfully manual, which had a negative impact on user experience and cost.

In the case of missed bins, for example, we needed to wait until around 3pm for a paper-based ‘tick sheet’ to land in the Customer Services in-tray before we were able to start helping customers with their reports. Even after this, if a report was made, we had to pass it through to our contractor by phone or email.

Though we did hold some information in a back-office system, the use of paper records by our contractor meant it was hard to carry out performance reviews, which in turn made it difficult to make informed decisions.

None of this was how we imagined the future of our digital and customer service.

Procuring a new waste and grounds contract

In 2015, we embarked on the procurement of a new waste and grounds contract that would spell the end of the old 14-year contract. This gave us the opportunity to put modern technologies at the forefront of procurement to ensure that we would be able to deliver the services we had long wished to provide.

For this, we took a competitive dialogue procurement approach. At each of the three stages, we specifically “dialogued” the technology requirements — discussing with vendors in detail how their proposal could meet our requirements — which helped to ensure we had received very high-quality proposals by the final stage of the process. The technology requirements were also scored relatively highly to ensure they were given the appropriate attention by bidders.

Through a collective desire from Directors through Heads of Service down to Line Managers, Customer Service Advisors and Systems Administrators to bring about this revolutionary change, this was the first time the Council had dedicated technology requirements to make sure that the contractor would enable us to transform the service.

Building the right team

When awarding the contract in 2017, we were able to select a contractor that could provide a robust back-office system, mobile working through in-cab devices for ‘real-time’ data, and a fully Open API for us to create digital services.

However, we had only a couple of network administrators, a system administrator and a software developer — as well as just six months — to set up a new back-office system and new digital services.

For our digital services, we were clear that we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We looked into existing services around the country to gain inspiration, though struggled to find an example to copy. The relatively new GOV.UK Design System gave us the template to build something quick, easy, and familiar to use. We brought together a team that included members of our Web and Communications Team as well as those from Customer Services, Contracts, and IT. This was the first time we brought together multiple departments for the entire length of a project at Rushmoor and paved the way for how projects of this nature would be run from now on.

This wasn’t without challenges, as we worked in very different ways. Those in IT roles naturally worked in a more ‘agile’ way, cracking on and worrying about problems as and when they came along, while other members of the team used ‘waterfall’ methods, where all eventualities are planned before starting.

We overcame these hurdles through open and frank discussions, making sure that everyone felt comfortable and that their opinion mattered. Customer Services told us it felt like the first time that they had been listened to and we were developing what they and the customers wanted. This was a big shift in perception and helped to provide digital services that were designed for the user, with robust and modern technology.

The outcome

Through this new collaborative working we were able to go live with multiple online services on day one of the new contract. This included:

  • Report a missed bin collection
  • Order a replacement bin
  • Subscribe/renew garden waste collection
  • Book a bulky waste collection

These services followed the familiar GOV.UK templates providing the customer with a journey they understand and feel comfortable with. Using the new back-office systems and open APIs we were able to make these services ‘real-time’ and provide the customer with the best service possible, while also relieving our Customer Service Advisors of monotonous tasks.

Missed bins is now a highly automated service with the minimum of manual intervention. With it running in ‘real-time’ we are sometimes able to pick up missed bins the same day, with the report automatically going to our waste contractor and their in-cab devices.

Throughout all the services we provide, automation and real-time interrogation of data are crucial to providing the efficiency savings we need, as well as providing the customer with the level of service and flexibility they were asking for.

Benefits and impact

Our residents now enjoy quick, straightforward, and easy to use recycling and rubbish digital services. Over 90% of the feedback we have received through our feedback form is positive, with comments including “What a smooth and fast process” and “IT was very straightforward and quick to do — well done Rushmoor for making this easy to do”.

Around 70% of transactions require no human intervention between the customer and the waste crew. Our customer services team can use the same technology to provide a mediated service for those residents who can’t or won’t use the digital service. This means they don’t have to remember how to do the transaction or how to use the contractor’s software.

Total recycling and rubbish demand, particularly for our income generating garden waste and bulky waste services, has increased significantly over time without us needing to employ more people to handle that contact. Without our digital services, it would have cost us around £60,000 more last year to handle the same demand.

A graph from August 2017 until June 2022 showing self-service demand increasing faster than customer service demand is decreasing. Self-service demand overtakes customer service demand around March 2019.

We’ve been able to easily change the digital service without spending lots of money on consultancy fees. This has been particularly useful when we introduced a new food waste collection — saving us tens of thousands of pounds. We’ve made iterative improvements over time in response to user research and suggestions from customer services.

This all contributes to us being a more efficient council that can dedicate more people and money towards delivering vital public services, while becoming more financially sustainable.

These services act as our exemplar for further transformation work, helping people to imagine how something similar might work for them. This has inspired more digital transformation projects with elections, environmental health, and licensing.

We continue to work with customer services and do our own user research to identify continuous improvements for our recycling and rubbish services.

What we’ve learned, and our advice for other councils

It’s all about the people. We couldn’t have done this project without a service team and leaders who had a vision of what could be different and the determination to see it through.

We’ve learnt that a dedicated change and transformation team is much more effective than borrowing people from operational work. Directly employing people, rather than contracting them in, helps to develop the organisation’s capability and confidence, as well as being more cost effective.

We create multi-disciplinary project teams alongside our dedicated transformation people to sidestep organisation silos. We empower them with outcomes and benefits to achieve, rather than prescribing outputs and deliverables. We try to evade stifling governance and hierarchy.

We’ve avoided using trendy or cutting-edge technology, focussing instead on things that are mature, straightforward, and well understood. Our in-house software developers use open-source software and Government Digital Service products wherever possible. We just try to keep the technology simple and easy to change and maintain.

Good procurement of contractors and software is key, involving digital and technology professionals in the scoring and selection process. Making sure your requirements include data access and APIs makes building digital services much easier and cheaper later.

Much of our back-office software uses Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRN) to describe locations. This has been critical for integrating digital services, customer services, and back-office software together. Getting this in place first is vital for any services delivered at place.

We discovered that offering digital services, with their superior usability and availability, increased total recycling and rubbish demand, while gradually reducing phone and email contact. We weren’t expecting this! It was great for income generating services like bulky waste collections, but an unintended consequence for missed bin reports. We now factor this into our work with other services.

In February 2022, we met with the Low Code Waste Service project team, led by Rugby Borough Council, to share our insights about our experience developing an online Digital Waste Service.

Follow our progress

We’re active on LocalGov Digital, sharing our experiences, ideas and work. You can find out more about what we’re working on and our previous projects on our website.

We would be happy to talk to other councils about what we’ve done in more detail. Email digital@rushmoor.gov.uk for more information.

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