Over the last year Revenues and Benefits have been working with the Digital by Design team to create new online processes that improve the service offered to residents whilst also improving our collection rates.

On average, 409 Council Tax payers moved in, out or around Stockport every week during 2018/19. A further 172 per week applied for a single person discount or other reduction.  These changes were predominately reported to the service by a phone call to the contact centre, email or letter.  This work invariably ended up in a bottomless electronic workflow queue along with other Council Tax related correspondence that was impossible to prioritise.  As the work was dealt with in date order, customers with routine requests often waited several weeks before getting a new or amended Council Tax bill.

Existing online forms

Online forms were available, but uptake was very low and they were not compatible on all devices. The ‘change of address’ form did not cater for all circumstances and could not be used by landlords to report tenants moving in and out of their properties, nor did it gather information about reductions that may be relevant or to set up a Direct Debit for payment.  This prompted further customer contact when the bill landed on the doormat.

Development of new online forms

We recently became a strategic development partner with our Open Revenues software supplier – Civica, which gave us access to OPENChannel, a digital service for customers to transact with us online.   Working with Civica and our Digital by Design, User Experience (UX) and Webcontent Teams, we developed our own inhouse Council Tax change of address, single person discount, reductions and direct debit forms.  Following user journey testing, web content was updated and the forms published.  You can read more about the development of the new forms in this earlier blog.

Automation

The next stage was to take the data provided on the forms and use Application Programming Interfaces (API’s) to automatically update the back-office processing system.  Parameters were set to hold back bills so that we can check they are correct prior to issue.  We chose to exclude automation on accounts where a live benefit claim is linked to the Council Tax Account, where recovery action has taken place due to non-payment and if the application has been submitted more than 28 days in advance.  These need to be manually worked on by the team.

We turned on the API’s to automate transactions in November 2018, starting with the change of address form which now also allows the customer to apply for a reduction and to pay by direct debit at the same time. 62% are now reported online, of which an average of 46% are automated.  Those that need manual intervention tend to be those that require a refund or have been excluded for the reasons above.

Benefits

Customers are now benefitting from an improved online journey. They can access the forms via My Account where they can also view their Council Tax Account and Benefit information securely. For those bills that automate, new or amended bills are being sent/available to view electronically either the following day or within 5 working days.  Because we are now able to award a reduction or set up a direct debit at the point the change of address is actioned, more accurate bills are sent and we have seen a decrease in the number of separate applications needing to be made.

By removing as many manual processes as we can, we have reduced demand at the Contact Centre and freed up back office capacity that has been directed to proactive Council Tax collection, enabling us to contact customers before they fall in to recovery.  This resulted in an increased collection rate for 2018/19 of 0.26% (£454k in monetary terms) compared to the previous year.  This has also led to a reduction in the number of summonses that we sent for non-payment and avoided additional costs for customers.  We also reduced print and mail costs by getting bills right from the outset.

What’s next?

Loads!   We plan to:

  • adjust our parameter settings on existing API’s and change working practices so that we can maximise our automated transactions
  • implement an exemption and refunds form with associated API’s
  • allow customers to track their interaction with the Council Tax Department and view correspondence from us via their My Account
  • implement an automated single person discount review process

and then…. replicate all this with Business Rates!