Following the publication today of a story on the BBC News website technology section that includes a quote from yours truly, I was asked a question via Twitter which I said I would clarify here on my blog for interested parties to learn a little more about my line of thinking.
There's much more to potholes than a hole in the road!
The questioner (Mash the State) sought clarification over a subsequent Tweet I made that councils should make their own equivalent e-service applications to FixMyStreet or the (sadly now defunct) planningalerts.com, etc., as good as the independent sites.
Another (Kev Campbell-Wright) asked me: “Why does every council need their own fault reporting when FixMyStreet works from everywhere?”
So, to clarify where I was coming from with the original comment and an attempt at clarification in the limited 140 character space available to me on Twitter, here’s my take on the whole thing, starting with the original quote from the BBC News story:
“It’s a short-sighted council that is a bit sniffy about these services,” said John Fox, who helps to monitor the use of websites and social media for Socitm – the professional body for local government IT managers.
“They can see these services as a bit of a pain in the neck rather than embracing them,” he said.
He added that those behind some of the follow-on services should consider the impact of what they were doing on local councils.
“One of the big issues for putting the services on the website is what happens to that information after it has been entered by you, me or a citizen,” said Mr Fox.
For instance, he said, when it came to street repairs some councils had created a streamlined system that, once a pothole is reported, routes information electronically so that the only human intervention is a man pouring tar into the offending chasm.
By contrast, he said, in some councils a report filed via FixMyStreet may have to be forwarded via e-mail several times before it reaches the right department.
Despite this, he said, more and more councils were opening up. Kent County Council has set up the “Pic and Mix” website that allows anyone to take some of its data and play around with it.
Some maintained a presence on social sites, such as Facebook, to reach their citizens.
Salford, he said, regularly ran an online element to its annual debate about budgets to ensure people are involved with how their council tax is spent.
What I said to Mark Ward (BBC correspondent) was that those councils that are a bit sniffy about sites like FixMyStreet are missing a bit of a trick. Many may not have sufficient resources to develop their own integrated online services inhouse, so FixMyStreet provides a zero-cost way of providing online services via an intermediary service and can help to make the council’s own website appear (to the citizen) to offer more transactional capabilities. Good news all round basically.
But, where a council has already developed e-services in house, either bespoke or using a proprietary application with a web plug-in (as I write this I can’t for the life of me recall the name of the highways reporting system that is used at Salford), then a considerable investment has already been made by that council in providing online services and it would not be politic to simply ditch that application and switch to the FixMyStreet model. Instead, effort should be put into making sure that the internal e-service is simple and straightforward for both citizen and council to use as possible, to drive take-up whilst reducing overall transactional costs for the authority.
So there’s two models. But there’s a third. So let’s assume the council has its own e-service for citizens to report a highway problem, eg a pothole. Just how well used is that e-service? Is take-up e-service good, poor, or non-existent? Maybe the usability is questionable? Maybe it simply takes too long to complete the task? Or maybe the council isn’t marketing its availability effectively enough and citizens are finding FixMyStreet instead?
It is highly probable that using FixMyStreet: a) takes less time, b) works every time, and c) has additional customer-oriented functionality for the end user to check out.
So if FixMyStreet works better for the citizen than the council’s own e-service equivalent, which isn’t being well used, the council should perhaps be putting effort into getting the internal investment recouped, shouldn’t it?
One could argue that in the final analysis, its all about the citizen – provided the citizen ultimately gets the service they’ve requested (ie to have a pothole repaired) it doesn’t really matter, does it, whether the enabler was the council’s internal system or FixMyStreet?
Well, actually (sticking my neck out), yes I think it does matter!
The council’s internal system will hopefully have been set up to automate as far as possible the internal process, from initial citizen report, to entering the problem report into the highways system and a log number being generated. Then a work order is generated at the highways depot and a man goes out in his little van and fills the pothole in. Meanwhile the citizen gets an automatically generated email thanking him for reporting the pothole, providing a log number and further information on who to contact if he wishes to follow up at a later date.
If the system works really well additional customer facilities will be enabled, like informing the customer that the hole has been filled in, or providing details on the website of his problem statement and the subsequent fix. As an aside, in my capacity as a Better connected reviewer, I’d be especially delighted if I received an acknowledgement email that informed me about other online service offerings from that council that I might like to try out sometime.
Where FixMyStreet falls down (in comparison to the council’s own e-service) is that the pothole report is sent in an automatically generated email from the owners of FixMyStreet to a nominal contact in the council. For a council that gets a lot of FixMyStreet reports, that’s potentially an awful lot of reports being sent to a single individual. It’s usually one contact per council, they’ll receive not just potholes but also street lights, dead animals, etc., so they’ll have to farm out the reports to the relevant part of the council for action. I know of one council where the contact is the council’s single press officer, he’s a busy man and the potential for messages to get held up, unactioned, in his inbox is not inconsiderable.
These factors inevitably impact upon transactional costs because extended time and human interventions are involved in passing the FixMyStreet report to the right department, then it has to be keyed and the work request generated before the highway man pops out with his bucket of tarmac.
Essentially, then, the general thrust of my assertion is that the council’s own e-service is likely (if well designed) to reduce overall transaction costs, whereas the FixMyStreet method might work well for the citizen but it doesn’t work terribly well for the council because there’s no back office integration for the problem reporting, and therefore transaction costs will be higher.
And so yes there is, I believe, a real benefit in making sure that the council’s own e-services where available work effectively, and where they aren’t available, then promote the FixMyStreets of this world and get your internal processes attuned to handling the enquiries you’ll doubtless generate as a result of doing so!