Councils looking to outsource local services like leisure centres, libraries or bulky waste collections should require that providers match best practice when it comes to providing the digital part of the service.
This should hold regardless of whether the outsourced service provider is a private sector company, a community interest company or an organisation formed by former council staff.
The issue is raised in the latest report from the Better Connected programme, which provides feedback on an assessment of the task of ordering a bulky waste collection from the council, carried out in December and January.
The survey found that a number of councils no longer collect large unwanted items like beds or sofas themselves, but have outsourced the activity to recycling charities or businesses. In many cases providers will collect things free of charge if they can be recycled, charging only to take away items if they can’t be recycled.
Although Better Connected describes this development as ‘an excellent move’, it also points out that some of the outsourced services are lacking when in comes to providing information online, let alone online booking and fulfilment. Services could be made much more efficient and user-friendly by following some of the best practice from councils highlighted in the survey report. Where local authority waste teams enter an outsourcing arrangement they should, it says, make the provision of the digital service part of the discussion from the outset.
On other issues, the survey report finds that 40% of councils provide a good or very good service for the ‘order a bulky waste collection’ task. The fact that the survey was carried out on a mobile device depressed results, not least because 16% of councils in the 356-strong sample (English, Welsh and Scottish unitaries, shire districts, Northern Ireland districts, and metropolitan districts) have websites that are still not purposed for mobiles and which, as a result, were not fully assessed.
Many sites failed to provide all the information that is needed in order to be able to order this service online. Lists of items that could or could not be collected were unclear or incomplete; the number of items to be collected for one payment was not specified; or pages did not indicate how far in advance the booking needed to be made.
In some cases charging arrangements were overcomplicated or impractical, including those from the council that charges by ‘half or full lorry load’ and another by 15 minute slots, both criteria that the resident cannot gauge themselves. The report comments that it is hard to imagine these sort of instructions surviving even the most basic user testing.
Just one piece of missing or ambiguous information will lead to the enquirer having to call the council, creating an avoidable contact for the council and an inconvenience to the resident. Some councils may be taking the view that residents will have to phone up anyway, since only 38% of councils enable online booking (only 24.4% of them, we discovered, with mobile optimised forms).
Some councils with online ordering require people to open a customer account they can place their order. Better Connected understands that councils are trying to get residents registered as part of their channel shift strategies, but does not believe that forcing people to register is the right strategy. Service users are just as likely to respond by abandoning the online option and phoning the council. Persuading people to register because other benefits can be delivered is a more sophisticated and effective approach. Registration could also be offered at the end of the transaction, as is common practice with e-commerce sites, rather than at the beginning, when the applicant just wants to get on with the job.
Results of the bulky waste (rubbish & recycling) survey are now available. Individual councils can find their results from the council index page at https://betterconnected.socitm.net/councils. The ‘all council’ reports can be found by following links from https://betterconnected.socitm.net/services.
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