Vicky is programme co-director for Connected Local Government Live and the Boilerhouse series of Digital Innovations Showcases. She is programme director for Socitm - Better Connected and a board director of Boilerhouse Communications Limited@vickysargent
Evidence from a new survey commissioned by Yotta suggests that the appetite for using digital channels to access rubbish and recycling services is less developed than it might be.
Rubbish looms large for council residents. Every household has a bin (or maybe five, these days) and car commutes and the school run are held up by bin lorries on a weekly basis. Visiting the council tip is as much a part of the suburban weekend as washing the car or mowing the lawn, while untidy streets have a major impact on satisfaction with the local authority – as every councillor knows.
Residents need to interact with the council around waste in a number of ways. Many are informational, like what day does which bin go out? Or is the tip open this bank holiday? Once upon a time such information could only be made available by councils distributing paper charts, answering phone calls, or adding items to council publications. Now the information can be published and easily updated on websites or apps, with updates pushed through social media, direct emails and SMS.
When it comes to interactions, the most popular are things like reporting a missed bin, ordering a new bin, arranging garden waste collections and requesting a large item collection (eg a old sofa or fridge). These interactions can now also be fully enabled online, with ordering, payment and fulfilment information being provided without any need for human contact.
It is well known that using these electronic channels for both information and transactional purposes is much less expensive than using traditional channels, with the marginal cost of new web enquiries being zero, while the cost of a single phone enquiry to the council may be as much as £3 or more per call. And that is before any savings on the back office costs of processing and fulfilling missed bin reports and waste-related customer orders are taken into account.
So it is surprising to find from the Yotta research conducted this April that, when asked, 51% of their resident sample said that a phone call is their preferred method of reporting missed bins. Only 41% said they would visit the council website and just 1% that they would use an app. There are regional and age variations, with fixed line calls (ie excluding mobile) favoured by 53% of over 55s.
Asked about the preferred method of checking when their next general waste collection is due to take place, 41% (50% in the South East and 53% of over 55s) of the sample said their preference was for reviewing a calendar delivered in paper form by the council, with only 23% of respondents opting to check collection details online. 7% favoured SMS text message alerts.
Despite these figures, waste and recycling enquiries are the already the biggest single reason for people to visit council websites, well ahead of libraries, leisure, council tax and planning. It follows that there is huge unmet potential for councils to increase take up of online services and reap significant savings from doing so.
Savings from making individual services like reporting and processing missed bin enquiries fully digital are even greater. The Local Waste Standards project run by the Department for Communities in 2015-16 estimated that councils could save £136m a year just from making this one service fully digital.
Part of converting customers to digital channels is, of course, making services easy to use, and evidence from Socitm’s Better Connected surveys suggests there is work to do here.
This year’s survey focused on ordering a bulky waste collection. Only 40% councils were assessed as providing a good or very good service. Some problems identified were as fundamental as the service not being easily found in a Google search, others were with the service being hard to use on a mobile device. Others lacked any transactional capability, so that customers have no option but to use the phone to order the service – a huge inconvenience for those needing to take care of these sort of chores out of office hours.
In last year’s Better Connected survey, which was on reporting a missed bin, 41% were assessed as providing a good or very good service, with around half of shire districts scoring one star only out of a possible four stars. The research indicated a failure to think through the ‘customer journey’ of someone attempting to report a missed bin online.
If waste teams want their services to work well in an online environment, they need to accept that this will most likely mean reconsidering design of the whole service, rather than just taking the analogue processes ‘as is’ and publishing it online.