Viewpoint: Customer insight the digital way


There has been an explosion of interest in ‘digital’ recently as a response to financial challenges and customer expectations. The work of the Government Digital Services team at a national level has demonstrated what is possible, writes William Benson, Chief Executive of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.

A recent report from CIPFA on customer contact entitled Embrace Disruptive Change or Get Out of the Game, sets out a case for radical reform outlining seven ‘heresies’. One heresy is that your senior leadership team may be your biggest strength – or your greatest weakness.

I have always prided myself on keeping up-to-date with technology and ensuring that Tunbridge Wells Borough Council embraces change, but a conversation with Tom Steinberg (founder and then director of My Society) some years back made me think afresh about my leadership of the digital agenda.

I took this challenge to fellow chief executives across Kent in a presentation that set out residents’ experiences of using their councils’ website. The presentation started with a series of webcam clips of residents trying to undertake a simple transaction – finding out the day on which their bin is picked up. We all sat back fairly confidently as we prepared to watch – after all most of us had spent time and money over the preceding years on our websites so what could possibly go wrong? It turned out that the answer was ‘everything’ as 40 per cent failed to complete this simple task. The feedback afterwards was terrible and some residents were taking so long to complete the task that we had to speed the video up (to the ‘Benny Hill’ theme tune).

This prompted a fundamental re-think on the part of chief executives in Kent. We were all voraciously gathering and monitoring data on phonecalls, complaints and face-to-face visits but how many of us had metrics to help us understand the web (other than basic volumes)? How many of us were making use of Google Analytics and encouraging staff to access the web as their customers would? How many councils had their websites ‘owned’ by comms teams, neglected as a transactional tool or seen as a ‘bolt-on’ to systems and processes that were designed many years ago?

Rather than tackle this challenge in isolation, Kent chiefs agreed to fund a jointly-owned team to help lead and support their work on customer insight and digital. The team works on three areas: understanding how customers want to access information and transact with local authorities (customer insight); redesigning websites (and the processes that sit behind them) to make them more transactional; and using behavioural insight to change how people contact us to save costs.

The last area has proved particularly fruitful as we have discovered that nearly all local authorities are sending out thousands of letters at the click of a mouse where even small changes to the text or tone can deliver significant changes to customer contact or residents’ behaviour.

The team have been working for a couple of years now and are going from strength to strength. Examples have included:

  • driving up cashless parking by emphasising the benefits and introducing differential charging (it now accounts for a quarter of all revenue)
  • improving bin collections web pages with nearly 15,000 views over the Christmas period
  • using behaviour change techniques to increase uptake of electronic council tax bills
  • removing jargon from council tax bills which reduced reactive contact by 67 per cent, increased online registrations by 133 per cent and increased use of direct debit
  • redesigned letters for speed awareness courses reduced calls from 60 per week to seven per week.

In Tunbridge Wells, the digital agenda is firmly owned and driven by both the political and managerial leadership – it is embedded in the council’s five year plan and every member of staff has a digital objective in their appraisal. More importantly, we are inspiring and encouraging staff to develop their own ideas based on the work of the Behavioural Insights Team and the Government Digital Service and giving them permission to try new things. This has led to a huge range of small changes that, cumulatively, are making a significant difference – digital and behaviour change have become a (positive) disease within the council.

We are now working with councils beyond Kent. One of my favourite things about the initiative is the space that it has created for like-minded people to share initiatives, experiences and successes. If you are interested in finding out more about what we are up to, please get in touch. Further information (and case studies) can be found on our website:

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    1. I do not know whether such a website would take to much of my time up and leave too little time to do my case work

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