Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council: Using customer insight to empower citizens

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1 Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council: Using customer insight to empower citizens Tameside Council has been in the vanguard of some of the most innovative approaches to customer-focused services in the public sector Over the past 12 years, it has regularly updated and refreshed its approach to transforming customer services using both new internet-based technology and traditional forms of telephone and face-to-face contact. Behind its recent Customer Contact and Care Strategy lie the key principles of personalising services to customers and empowering council staff. Customer insight is at the heart of the strategy and the use of techniques such as segmentation and customer journey mapping, discussed in this case study, play an important role in helping Tameside to better understand and meet customers needs. Tameside s transformation of the application process for free school meals in the borough is a prime example of how to develop customer insight - a key criteria for meeting the Customer Service Excellence standard to which Tameside is committed. School meals have long represented a challenge to local authorities. The stigma that can be attached to being a free meals child can lead to fewer children getting their own only hot meal of the day. Over a million children nationwide receive free school meals and in Tameside alone there are now 5,500 provided each day. This represents a considerable improvement in take-up within the borough of this valuable way of improving the health and well-being of some of the country s most disadvantaged children. The council has transformed its free school meal application process by switching to an electronic system that not only allows the applicant to complete the application form online, over the phone via an advisor or face-toface at a customer service centre, but also validates the information, checks entitlement and gives an instant decision. Successful applications made before 11am will result in a free school meal that day. The council also wanted to ensure that applicants other needs would be considered in the process of applying for a free school meal: Tameside customers are offered the chance to apply for a school uniform, clothing grant and school bus pass using the same electronic form. Transforming access to free school meals Tim Rainey, Tameside s Assistant Chief Executive, is responsible for the council s wide-ranging transformation programme and the development of the customer service strategy. He explains the background to the free school meals project:

2 Tameside have been working closely with the Cabinet Office on service transformation for some years. In 2007, the Delivery Council asked the council to develop an exemplar project that would typify many of the challenges that organisations going through similar transformations would face. The free school meals service in Tameside was chosen as it is a simple benefit-related system that could be transformed fairly quickly and the results would be clearly measurable. Through the use of internet-based technology we believed we could increase the take up of free school meals and, in so doing, help to improve the financial well-being of some of the most disadvantaged people in the borough. Until 2007, Tameside had an entirely paper-based free school meals application system which had to be manually processed. We wanted to show that by putting the appropriate technology in place, we could provide a better service for the customer, deliver cost efficiencies for the taxpayer and improve the working lives of our staff by giving them more meaningful high-value tasks. Mapping the journey Initial Business Process Mapping of the manual application system revealed that the paper-based process was very time-consuming, requiring the applicant to visit several offices and resulted in high transaction costs, Tim Rainey continues. Working closely with the Cabinet Office, we then carried out a Customer Journey Mapping exercise to enable us to not only understand what happened to the application form when we received it within our system, but also the physical and emotional journey that customers went through in getting the application to us. It highlighted the fact that for someone to find themselves in a position where they are entitled to free school meals is often the result of a life-changing event such as bereavement, job loss or separation. Identifying the needs of customers Having recognised this, we next carried out a Circles of Need exercise to identify needs that are linked to free school meals, partly based on the excellent work that Chorley Council has done in this field. (see Chorley transformational practice study). This pioneering customer insight initiative, which has its roots in the commercial world, aims to help local councils and other organisations develop an understanding of the complex relationships between each customer need. The greater awareness gained by using the model should result in more services being offered to the customer at the first point of contact with their local authority, where their additional needs can be anticipated before they arise. Knowing that these applicants were potentially entitled to other benefits or support, such as the school clothing allowance, meant we could signpost them to those other services which would help them at a particularly difficult stage of their lives.

3 Phase one was to put a new fully electronic application system in place. All the IT work was done in-house and we wanted it to be accessible by our mainstream customer service centres. Having completely discarded the paper application forms last year, to apply for a free school meal or to renew an existing claim, you could now ring the call centre, visit one of our customer service centres or submit your claim online. In other words, we mainstreamed applications into the regular customer service delivery channels, as opposed to it being a paper-based process run by the back office. Once we had moved the process to the front of our operation, we began to build up some hard data on how the new system was being used. We wanted to find out who was using which channel to apply for a free school meal. We were able to break it down into geographical areas, and by plotting the information on to local maps, we could see who was applying online, who was phoning the call centre and who was coming into our offices. Our Customer Relations Management (CRM) system allowed us to track every customer enquiry and to log which method they had used. Targeting customers through segmentation Having compiled that basic information, we worked with the Department of Communities and Local Government s National e-government Take-up Campaign using Experian Mosiac segmentation data on Tameside residents to run a targeted marketing campaign. Our chief aim was to shift people s habitual method of contacting the council from a face-to-face meeting to using the telephone, and from the telephone to self service via the internet. Our experience told us that this is the progression by which most people tend to migrate through the different service channels. The campaign was designed to promote self service via the internet as the channel of choice for applications, but the literature also contained contact details for other channels for those without internet access. The Mosaic data gave us detailed socio-demographic information on a household-by-household basis. This allowed us to reach our target group to find out which application method they were most likely to favour. It also told us where in the borough are those most likely to have access to the internet and the skills to use it. We also looked at our Housing Benefit records which contain information about people who are also entitled to free school meals. We matched everyone who was on our Housing Benefit system and had school-age children against the free school meals database of existing claimants. We then targeted the hundreds of people who were not yet claiming, specifically to let them know that, according to our records, they were likely to be entitled to free school meals. We also told them they could be eligible for a clothing grant and a free school bus pass. The overall message was that if you apply online, there is a strong possibility that you would qualify for these grants which add up to a significant amount of money. As the criteria for each grant are similar, it only means ticking a box for each during the single application process. The exception is the bus pass which

4 requires our people to measure the walking distance to and from a pupil s home to their school. This targeted marketing exercise resulted in 400 more people applying for free school meals. Mosaic data showed that those 400 were coming from some of our poorest areas and the children in those houses were probably the most at risk of not having a proper cooked meal that day. Evaluating our success We carried out a customer survey to find out what people thought of the new application process. This was followed up with a secondary marketing campaign and a final customer survey. We particularly targeted people who had still not applied for the benefit, despite being reminded that they were eligible. We wanted to find out why they had not applied. That exercise dispelled a few myths. We had initially thought that the stigma attached to receiving a free school meal would be a major barrier to take-up. In fact, much of the evidence collected (later backed up by a qualitative study carried out by Manchester University) showed that many children rejected school meals as they were keen to play outside in the lunch break, and eating a packed lunch took less time. We keep weekly information on which method people are using to apply for free school meals. Total applications to date using the new system are 3,307. Around 22% of people are now applying via the internet on a self-service basis. Eighteen months ago that figure was nil. We will be promoting the self service method further when we launch our take-up campaign later in 2009 and will chart its impact. I should stress that although applications are made via different routes, they all use the online automated process, ensuring that an eligible child receives a free school meal from that day. Better outcomes for council staff The impact of the new electronic form on internal working has been very significant. We used to have 5,000 application forms coming in every year which had to be typed into the system. That is no longer necessary now that we have an automatic system which covers 98% of applications. This very high success rate means we have been able to free up back office staff to carry out other more rewarding functions. Very little staff training was required before the new system came into operation. The same online form is used regardless of the access route - selfserve internet, applying by telephone to the call centre or in person at a customer service centre. Our staff are already very experienced at dealing with free school meals enquiries and in the use of electronic forms. This form is very simple to populate and the automated verification process takes the responsibility away from the individual advisor. All our staff share a will to ensure that those customers who are eligible receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

5 Added value, reduced costs Costs have been affected in two ways: through our marketing efforts, we have increased the take-up of both free school meals and the clothing grant. Whereas the free meals are funded by government, clothing grants are paid for by the council. By making it easy to tick the clothing grant box, we have seen applications rise and this has cost the council more than in previous years. However, we felt this was the right thing to do in order to help a section of the community in particular need of support. This increase in expenditure on benefits is partially offset by the fact that, regardless of which channel customers use; the new system is delivering significant savings to the back office. A paper application used to cost 58 to authenticate whereas an online self-service transaction costs 6 pence, a telephone application 1.12 and a face-to-face meeting about 11. When you look at the fact that there are 5,500 applications in Tameside alone each year, we can make significant efficiency savings, some of which are cashable and some opportunity costs. With more than one million children in England receiving a free school meal every day, the potential for savings on a national scale is vast. Successful outcomes for customers For parents, the ability to apply for free school meals online not only gives them a speedier decision on their eligibility, but can also help remove the anxiety that their children may stand out from the crowd: I do not want him to be treated differently to anyone else for having free school meals. The new application process means that his peers do not know, as I can apply online at home, rather than speaking to the school office, and he gets a meal like everyone else. Parent. St James Primary School This is equally true for those parents who may not have access to the internet at home and are reliant on applying by telephone: It was quick and easy to arrange my son s free school meals. The call centre took some details from me over the phone, did some checking, and then told me that the application was successful it took all of five minutes. My son began getting his free school meals straight from that day. They said they would inform the school so I didn t need to do anything. Parent applying by telephone to council s call centre. Schools in the borough, who are keen to promote the nutritional value of school meals for all their pupils regardless of their ability to pay, are seeing tangible improvements in take-up under the new online application system for free school meals: What we are finding is that children who bring sandwiches often fancy a school meal, particularly since we introduced the fruit and salad bar, in addition to the midday meal. Since marketing the new online process and offering taster sessions for parents and children, we have seen a definite rise

6 in those children taking a school meal, some of which are entitled to free meals. Local head teacher. Working with partners The free school meals project has highlighted some of the problems councils face when attempting to share data with government departments, Tim Rainey explains. To overcome this, at the start of the process, we ask applicants if they are happy for us to use the information we already have about their Income Support to validate their free school meals claim. Ninety eight per cent of people receiving free school meals in Tameside receive Income Support and the DWP provides us with updated information every week which we use for processing Housing Benefit. As customers will have already been through the application checking process and been approved for Housing Benefit and Income Support, we do not need them to provide an electronic signature a hurdle which many new online benefit application systems have found hard to overcome. Applicants for free school meals in Tameside now enjoy a simpler, more streamlined process that is much more cost-effective for the council. We still have some further work to do however in reducing the risk of benefit fraud. As we have linked the system to Housing Benefits and Income Support data, we do know when people are no longer entitled to a free school meal. Our aim is to make it easier to suspend and reinstate benefits quickly, according to a customer s current job situation. The next steps The project has shown that using customer insight techniques such as segmentation and customer journey mapping, can be very effective in identifying groups and individuals who are not receiving their full benefit entitlement, Tim Rainey concludes. As a result of improved accessibility and the speed and accuracy of online processing, the customer journey has been greatly improved, both in terms of the physical contacts and the emotional experience. This success in improving our ability to meet customer needs has in turn had a positive effect on staff throughout the council. Now that we have shown that this single online process has improved the take-up of free school meals and other related benefits, we are streamlining the provision of other benefit-related services within the borough. When it comes to improving customer insight, the lesson we have learnt from this exercise is the importance of looking beyond the obvious and making use of other sources of intelligence that will help meet us meet our customers needs. Tameside s project was the forerunner to a programme that the DCSF, working with the Free School Meals Hub, is now looking to roll out nationally. They are working towards the creation of a national data base where local authorities can check free school meals applications centrally. When this is up and running, it will provide the means for every local authority to offer the type of service we have developed in Tameside.

7 Tameside Council has achieved Beacon status in for its success in Transforming Services: Citizen Engagement and Empowerment. The Tameside free school meals project has: improved customer experience and choice reduced avoidable contact increased benefit take-up and self-service via the council website improved efficiency in the back office.

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