Quick wins in challenging times. How November’s CSR has focused efficiency on outdated practices.
The headlines surrounding last November’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) left little doubt about the challenges ahead for local councils. The Guardian, for example, led with ‘Critical funding crisis’ and ‘Town hall budgets 4.1bn short a year’ – tough reading for those at the front-line of service provision.
The CSR has placed huge pressure on already stretched services. Commentators point to something of a north/south bias, with councils furthest from the Whitehall decision-makers understood to be facing particularly difficult budgetary decisions. But the reality is that authorities across the UK are buckling.
Given such pressure, one might expect that councils have taken every conceivable measure to eradicate inefficiencies and develop processes that are as lean as possible. In fact, this is far from the truth. Time-pressured public-sector professionals are making short-term cuts that have no defined strategic purpose and which run the risk of impacting citizen services.
There is a real need for councils to focus funds on core services. To do so, they must look for inefficiencies elsewhere and eradicate them in a way that is unnoticeable to citizens – or which even improves performance.
The digital future and the reality of now
Much is heard about the digitisation of services and the Government’s drive to ensure a connected local and central government that offers choice and convenience. And whilst this is an essential aim, it is a step removed from today’s reality – particularly where citizen communications are concerned. Far more pressing for the majority of local authorities is the challenge of improving existing – predominantly paper-based – communications. It is here that the quick win for local authorities lies.
The print and post of paper-based transactional documents continues to be a drain on budgets. Since postal deregulation in [date], selecting the most cost-efficient postage system has become more complex. Similarly, as print technology develops apace, so expertise is required to drive efficiency and stay ahead of citizen demands. Understandably, such expertise – on either the print or post side – rarely exists in-house at local government level.
So why do local authorities insist on running their own print facilities on site? Not only do such facilities require capital expenditure to ensure technology is up-to-date and maintained, they also typically reside in vast buildings that are expensive to run. As councils reign-in spending, space and square footage becomes an important issue. Already, there is a trend for home-working and more flexible work-patterns as councils look to re-organise space and sell-off land and property. Large, inefficient print-rooms begin to stick out like a sore thumb.
Re-engineering the communication process
The alternative is to re-engineer the process with expert help. Councils are realising the benefit of outsourcing the communication challenge in order to focus skilled staff on frontline tasks.
Denbighshire Council is one such authority. Serving approximately 94,000 people in north-east Wales, Denbighshire recognised a need to innovate and refresh its document output. The council’s experienced team understood the importance of a communication process that not only delivered on efficiency and cost-saving but also looked to continually innovate in order to drive citizen engagement.
Paul Barnes, Contract Manager, Denbighshire County Council, comments: “The Council regularly sends out over 50 types of document relating to revenues and benefits. We also have the added requirement of ensuring that documents are bilingual, sent in both Welsh and English language versions. We wanted to improve understanding and response to communications and stop the protracted cycle of follow-up letters and explanations that can impact budgets.”
Working with Critiqom, the council looked at ways of re-engineering communications using best-practice techniques from the financial services arena. “We changed the appearance of letters and envelopes to encourage open-rates and speed responses,” states Paul. “One innovation was to change the envelopes that are used for council tax reminders. These are now sent as pressure-sealed documents, more typically used in banking or accounting. Citizens are intrigued by the design and more likely to open the communication.
“We also looked at how content was positioned on the page, and how any call-to-actions could be accentuated and made more prominent. If documents are easier to understand then our team has fewer query calls to handle.”
Choosing the correct postal service is also critical to overall efficiency. The key to savings is to manage citizen data and to organise outgoing mail in such a way that it dovetails with Royal mail’s automated processes.
Denbighshire Council has streamlined its postal operation using Critiqom’s Primepost solution. This effectively pre-sorts mail to fit designated Royal Mail delivery routes so that the council qualifies for postal discounts. “Through Primepost we save around 25% per month on previous postal costs,” states Paul. “We also had challenges relating to non-compliant mail – which doesn’t match Royal Mail’s discount specifications. Again, Critiqom was able to advise us on how to cleanse our data in order to improve efficiency and maximise discounts.”
Uncover the hidden costs
Clearly, some forward-thinking councils are already addressing the efficiency challenges around regular bulk regulatory and transactional mailings. This type of mailing is highly visible within the organisation and is governed by the strictest compliance regulations, both factors which have driven investment in technology and outsourced automation. However, when it comes to ad-hoc, everyday office mail the picture is very different.
The vast majority of this type of correspondence is still printed on desktop printers and posted via the organisation’s standard postal system. The cost of communicating in this way is staggering. Our own research into the costs of internally produced correspondence shows that much of the hidden cost of internal document production is generated by the reliance on staff time.
Crucially, solutions exist to eradicate this wasted spend. A hybrid mail solution enables users to generate communications using their preferred desktop applications and existing business systems. However, rather than sending these documents to print on office printers, document data is transferred via an intuitive web portal to a print and mail production facility. The council benefits from the economies of scale that such facilities introduce. Not only this – such solutions also ensure that ad-hoc mail is governed by the strictest compliance measures as opposed to relying on the best-efforts of time-pressured staff. And hybrid mail also delivers full audit trails to stakeholders, producing reports that detail when, what and where mail was sent.
Lot3 of the Postal Goods and Services Framework Agreement (RM1063) relates directly to the provision of off-site hybrid mail solutions, making it easier for councils to select services from suppliers that have been pre-assessed for their ability to deliver quality and value. Critiqom was recently appointed as a supplier under this framework agreement and, as a result, we are talking to many more decision-makers across the UK about the hard benefits of a hybrid mail approach.
It is conservatively estimated that councils using a hybrid mail solution to process regular, ad-hoc mail are saving in the region of £1 per letter sent. Multiply this by the volume of such mail and the saving quickly becomes significant.
Partnering to efficiency
The headlines around the most recent CSR will not have been news to cash-strapped council leaders. Authorities across the land are constantly challenged with slashing budgets whilst maintaining the level of service to citizens. Despite this focus, easy wins – in the form of re-engineered print and mail processing – are slipping through the net.
There is no need for councils to tackle this challenge alone. Expertise will not always reside in-house, which is why outsourced solutions can relieve the burden and generate instant payback.
Article first published in IRRV Insight magazine.