To explore the feasibility of creating a true customer focused, configurable, cost effective IT system for processing Revenue and Benefits data
Every Council in the country is required to process Revenue and Benefits data, either in-house or using an outsourced model. In order to achieve this, each Council requires an IT platform to enable customer’s data to be processed in a timely, accurate and efficient manner. Currently the market for these IT platforms is dominated by a few very large suppliers (approximately 3) and these suppliers are resistant to interoperability. The supplier systems were all architected some years ago (1990s) and are therefore designed on outdated technologies. None of the existing providers have expressed any plans to develop new core systems to take advantage of modern technology.
The current Revenues & Benefits software has not been developed by putting the customer at the ‘heart’ of the process. The cost of these platforms is significant to local authorities, with new modules costings tens of thousands of pounds to procure and implement plus additional ongoing maintenance costs, adding to the financial burden for local authorities. Any ongoing development is limited to what the suppliers see as having market value. Hence, the introduction of new features to address the individual needs of local authorities, is fraught with challenges. Often when Councils wish to “tweak” part of the system to meet business, operational or customer needs, they are required to purchase a new module with functionality they do not require or wish to use.
This approach by suppliers actively works to hinder the authority’s ability to be innovative, to reuse logic across different systems, to reuse and analyse data in other parts of the organisation, to develop APIs to create platform based systems and encourage automation and deliver cost savings associated with this. It also limits the Councils abilities to adapt and remodel their processes from a user centred design perspective as many authorities are doing through their transformation programme and delivery of customer digital platforms. The IT platforms drive the process which means that where changes are identified which would benefit customers and the organisation, they are rarely implemented as the supplier will not accommodate it and if they do, it is often at significant cost.
The current systems do not always meet the Local Digital standards and work to prevent authorities being able to transform all their services to more digital, automated, customer centric solutions:
- Existing platforms fail to meet the users need with business processes dictated by the system
- There is a high cost and inflexibility for change to the systems, with any requested changes taking significant time to implement
- Poor integration capabilities lead to challenges in joining up the system with other systems commonly in use across the Council
- Poor reuse of data and ability to share and analyse data using modern Business Intelligence tools.
The primary cause of the problem is due to the limited supplier marketplace for such Revenues and Benefits systems, lack of competition and lack of capacity/expertise to develop in-house solutions.
Revenue and Benefits systems have to be able to adapt to legislative changes and updates in benefit entitlements from the DWP, which are released nationally and require implementation to meet legislative requirements. Other stakeholders include customers and their advocates; system suppliers, local authority departments such as housing, housing associations, private landlords, businesses and the valuation office.
We will utilise the skills and experience we have from our partner authorities and seek to commission support to deliver user research and technical discovery. We would expect any consultant to adopt a sprint methodology for the project. We will build on the existing experience of Sedgemoor DC who 25 years ago developed their own in-house Revenue and Benefits system and have maintained a high level of performance, whilst supporting this system in-house. We would seek to understand how feasible it is to create an in-house option in the current market place and the ability to create an open source solution and have a community around the software to refine it, but maintain the overall integrity of the system.
All 6 local authorities (Exeter, Teignbridge, East Devon, Basildon, Brentwood and Sedgemoor) are actively seeking to redevelop and transform their frontline services to improve user experience, and digitise processes through the development of customer platforms. These projects include user research and testing, process mapping and iterative development. Unfortunately, we are significantly limited in the way we use these techniques with regards to improving the Revenue and Benefits processes due to the structure and suppliers of the IT systems for this service.
We believe this is one of the flaws in IT systems provided by suppliers, in that they fail to understand user needs when they develop new components for their systems. In the term “user” we are including local authority staff as users and also customers. We would also seek to use a range of human centred design techniques to map claimant’s journeys and experience of using current systems such as experience diagramming, heuristic review and affinity clustering.
The current approach, in which councils buy separate systems for each local government function, gives an inconsistent and fragmented experience for our customers, inflexibility for our staff, and an inability to drive out efficiencies and insight. As part of the ‘discovery phase’ the project team would work to understand the ‘Art of the Possible’ to improve our own knowledge of the solutions available that have been designed to integrate with other systems using GDS principles. This would enable a holistic understanding of ‘best practice’ to be developed, to enable any in-house solution to be scoped and defined based on real world examples.
Hypothesis to test
- That an in house system can be developed and successfully supported by local authorities which is open source
- That the current offer from suppliers is not meeting users’ needs
- That there are cross authority benefits from having an in house system that cannot be realised through the supplier market
- A modern approach to supporting a function like Revenues and Benefits should be a set of components, made interoperable by standards and APIs, so that Councils can jointly build solutions onto a digital platform. Local Authorities can then choose to plug in other local and national components, for example those from GDS like Pay, Notify, Verify, to offer joined up services to customers. New opportunities may then open up for data sharing, 3rd party apps, self-service, automation, and artificial intelligence. We will test the feasibility of this approach.
The annual cost of providing the Revenue and Benefits systems for 3 authorities (East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council and Teignbridge District Council) is approximately £350k per annum. For the Basildon BC and Brentwood BC Shared Service the Revenues & Benefits system costs for 2019/20 are £175k per annum plus 2% yearly up rating. For every new module purchased from Civica there is the initial cost plus 20% maintenance per annum.
When the GDPR regulations came into force there was a need to remove historic data from Councils Revenues & Benefits systems. For Teignbridge the cost was £30k with ongoing annual maintenance costs of £3,600. This was merely to make the system legally compliant. A separate recent request to tweak a suppliers system to accommodate a change in the authority’s Council tax support scheme was quoted at £45k, with £9k ongoing annual maintenance costs.
These types of costs will apply to any Council across the country which does not have their own in-house system. There are only 2 Councils, Sedgemoor and Calderdale, who have an in house system, so essentially all Councils will face the same financial costs.
Most Councils employ a team of staff to manage these external Revenues & Benefits software systems, this is at a cost. The Basildon and Brentwood Shared Service employ three FTE’s to manage the Civica Software, upgrades, patch releases, testing and maintenance, at a cost of £115k per annum.
The impact is that Councils are unable to change, improve or amend their current systems on the basis that it is cost prohibitive to do so.
The social costs are the inability for Councils to improve their systems and processes for residents. This directly impacts on the speed by which the customer’s data is actioned, which can impact the speed and accuracy in which a customer has their rent, council tax and business rates are paid.
4 of the 6 Councils are within a distance where face to face meetings /workshops could be arranged. We will also utilise a range of digital collaboration tools available such as Skype for Business for conference calls , Slack for communicating together and Trello or Kanban to monitor progress.
With regards to governance structure, with agreement of the Councils involved, we would appoint a role of Project Manager to oversee delivery of the project. In addition to the consultant commissioned to deliver the project it is proposed the wider project group would comprise of :
- Digital/IT Lead from each authority
- Project Lead
- Revenues and Benefits Lead from each authority
- Service design /service improvement representative
- Other identified stakeholders from the authorities
- Communications Lead
We would adopt an Agile Development methodology working in Sprints to enable planning and management of iterations of the product. Utilising work collaboration tools such as Trello will allow for transparency and joint working across the councils and successful monitoring of project activity.
We would welcome any support and guidance from the Local Digital team and we would seek to access any of the relevant GDS training courses that would be useful for members of the group.
It would be helpful to explore how the DWP Universal Credit system was designed as it was built to interact with other government systems (HMRC) and also with the customer as a user. Any assistance in relation to this area would be of benefit to the project.
We may need some assistance to recruit a consultant to support us with the project.