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Paperless service – a local authority success story

by on January 9, 2014

Eastbourne Borough Council has made radical changes to the way it works. The result is the implementation of a paperless, multi-channel, customer contact case management system for use across council departments – including development control and planning policy functions.

In this first blog post we look at the background to the changes. A second part will look at the practicalities of paperless working.

In 2008 Eastbourne Borough Council’s received a poor comprehensive area assessment (CAA) report. The council’s response was to begin planning what it called the DRIVE programme – Delivering Real Innovation and Value for Eastbourne.

Changing roles

Then, in 2011 as a response to pending Government fiscal restraints, the authority embarked on a dual initiative of redefining officer roles and commissioning the public sector IT services specialist Civica to help with the implementation of an integrated document management system.

With the priority on customer service, Eastbourne embarked on a programme of restructuring the organisation, redefining process, workflow, information and technology architecture to optimise electronic working and eliminate the reliance on paper records.

Eastbourne’s planning team had been operating out of a satellite building not far from the main council offices in Grove Road. As the building lease was about to expire, it was decided that the planning team would move back into the main office building.

However, Eastbourne’s restructuring programme prompted a review of the Planning Team’s working practices to integrate into the new case management framework and fit into a reduced number of flexible hot-desk facilities in the main office.

End of the ‘department’

Instead of departments, Eastbourne now serves its citizens through its ‘Customer First’ contact centre, a multi-disciplinary pool of advisers, known as case workers and customer advisers.

They are trained to advise on a number of service areas from planning and environmental heath to licensing and fine payment. A team of ‘Neighbourhood First’ advisors support the service out in the community

The case worker is the primary contact for the customer throughout the life of a case. The system, though, is set up so that any case worker can step in and pick up the case, if the workload dictates. Generic pools of senior experts are available to assist with the case as required, returning the case back to the case worker to take to resolution

Incoming customer calls are taken by the advisers who use scripts to direct them through predefined milestones to resolution. Multiple cases involving the same customer are related and can be seen in the same screen view, providing a complete picture of the individual customer’s service issues.

Rise of the ‘agile’ council officer

Office-based case workers find available hot desks, log in and pick up their work trays. There are no personal work spaces or set departmental areas.

A review of staff and processes identified planning staff who could become mobile, or ‘Agile Workers’, who could work from home and/or hot-desk in the main office. The review delivered a reduction of staff requiring full-time office space by approximately 30 per cent.

Mobile staff are equipped with a laptop and Blackberry phone and have remote access to Eastbourne’s internal case management system to access and work on case files on site and from home.

A key element of this shift in roles and ways of working was the development of the remote server access and the ‘locked-down’ post room, where the rule that no paper leaves is strictly enforced.

More on document handling and systems in the next blog post.

8 Comments
  1. John Newton permalink

    Just wait until they have a power cut or system collapse/ computer says no ( past experience of this) and then what happens. Events awaited with interest

  2. Perry S permalink

    A very laudable aspiration but ….

    Whilst I find it easier to research and deliver via electronic means, the chaps on site and the under-privileged and those who are not tech-savvy will have to be communicated via a piece of paper.

    These range from the groundman in the parks through the chippie on site and those who just can’t afford computers.

    Sorry, but at the risk of being a bit soft – there has to be some paper based interaction to cover communication with all.

    • Paper. That’s how it’s worked since….well, the Egyptians I guess?…….the model of submitting e-applications via the portal is great, but that shifts the once wavy burden of printing costs onto the LPA’s……and guess what?….. they don’t like it!. Laudable spiration indeed………. A1 size tablets perhaps?…that’ll do it!!

  3. The organisation I work for introduced a 100% hot-desk office some time ago, and it works very well. All staff have laptops, and log into a phone, so their tel number can be used at any desk. Teams are allocated broad areas. It means you can sit beside people you need to when you need to to, or you can find a quiet spot to get your head down and concentrate on a long report, say. Completely clear desk policy, but we have yet to go completely paperless.

  4. Peter Latham permalink

    It raises more questions than answers. Is the hardware and software truly up to the job? Good document retrieval is essential if electronic systems are to be dependable. Wrongly described documents on a planning appliocation may be more or less lost, a problem already apparent. Are those designing the automated systems truly aware of the needs of planning officers if they are to do their job properly? If the planners think a system will not work properly, does it go ahead any and never mind the consequences?

    I do hope the complexity of some development management work has not been underestimated. At present reading large plans on a screen is not really possible. Comparing several large plans on screen would be difficult. Writing several reports on one site, because the applicant submitted 5 applications at once (which has happened to me recently) needs having up to a dozen documents in use at once to ensure consistency of wording and recommendation. Even with two screens this was beyond me, and some recourse to printed paper was reqeuired to get the job done.

    Some people like myself are unable to use a smart phone as they find them too small to read. Do they have to find employment elsewhere? Would a tablet be provided instead?

    The inference that planning officers were not previously “agile” is dubious. Planners true field of “agility” is in getting the best possible development out of each planning proposal. If more of their effort is spent operating computer systems that they have not been properly trained in then the quality of development on the ground could easily suffer. Has the quality of development been considered in moving to a paperless office?

    It sounds as though the supportive role of administration has become dominant.

    Has anyone investigated what an up-to-date electronic system would look like if set up to promote good development on site?

  5. Three comments:
    What happens when a Planning Officer lives in an area, like me, where mobile contact is virtually impossible?
    Every time I have contacted a LA contact centre, the staff have been unable to answer my queries and the conversation has been elongated by the need for him/her to refer up to someone who can. In all instances I was not able to speak with someone who could actually answer the initial query or supplementary questions.
    In one case, an LPA who promotes electronic communication in many of their documents has sent paper responses even though they had my email address.

  6. Paperless – all by computers? What about the elderly residents who do not know how to use computers or who do not even own one?

    For those who do, A4 printed Plans are near illegible (reduced from A0 size) and many do not even contain a “bar-scale”. Very few people have A3 printers at home and with the “Print to fit” setting, all declared scales are destroyed, with only a “bar scale” saving the situation. These are not compulsory to my knowledge.

    Many scanned documents on Council’s Websites are only in black & white whereas they are submitted in colour on A0 Plans making a nonsense of colour-coded shadings, tree colours, etc.

    Some Council’s carry out ridiculous over-redaction of documents rendering the planning document meaningless. One London Council is the worst offender and this facilitates misrepresentations escaping third party scrutiny.

    I was attending a Planning Inspector’s Site Visit earlier today in (address deleted by moderator) and we were all going through the A0 Plans because the Inspector said he could not even read the Plan numbers from the A4 downloads he had been supplied with electronically! How do you attend site visits “paperlessly” to study the Plans onsite?

    Computers are not always sufficient – documents should be made available as hard copies to those who need them to properly understand what is being proposed, etc. – especially the elderly and people who are not computer-minded. One lady in (location deleted) who vehemently opposed unneighbourly developments still used a 1940s typewriter and had never owned a video either! Her mother disliked having modern things in the house!

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