Three immediate steps for Australian councils to cut costs

More accessibility and less paperwork can make councils more efficient. Here's how.

Digital services cut council transaction costs, shifting more money to frontline services. A study of city councils in the UK has shown that an online transaction costs on average 1% of a face to face transaction. The cost of contact face to face was A$13.70, via telephone was A$4.32 and online was A$0.15. Alex Gelbak, CEO of Australia’s OpenCities, has been working with councils across Australia, New Zealand and the United States to overhaul their operations. Here are his three tips for increasing government efficiency. 1. Make sure you are mobile ready teenagers on smartphones Nearly half of councils in Australia are not geared to best serve citizens. A recent study by OpenCities of all Australian council websites found that 38% currently are not optimised for smartphones and tablets. Council websites must be mobile-ready as citizens continue to access government services on their smartphones, he advises. “What we are seeing in Australia is that 50% to 60% of total website traffic comes from mobile and tablet devices,” Gelbak says. “If it’s not a great experience on tablets and mobiles, it means residents can’t self service,” he adds. They will go back to transacting with councils over the telephone or face to face, “driving up customer service costs because they need a bigger customer service team”. For example, Mornington Peninsula Shire’s new website will help it save “millions of dollars” by cutting transaction costs, its CEO told GovInsider. Digital services will allow payment receipts and statements will be emailed to residents, rather than sent by post. 2. Is it accessible? elderly using smartphone 53% of council websites in Australia failed to meet international web accessibility standards, the OpenCities study showed. 40% failed readability tests, which meant that critical information could not be understood by residents with skills below high school levels. Digital services must be accessible and readable for people with different levels of cognitive and physical abilities. It could be an elderly person with fading eyesight, but equally residents with English as their second language. This is not a minor issue in Australia. About 44% of its adult population has basic literacy skills equivalent to a 7th or 8th grade student, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And 20% of people in the country have a disability that affects the way they use the web. “If we can ensure that those people can also successfully self-service digitally, it means less people calling, emailing or walking into the customer service centre,” Gelbak says, thus, cutting costs for Council. Website text should be clear and concise and avoid any corporate or technical jargon to make it as easy to understand as possible, he advises. 3. Paperwork matters! paperwork A third way to allow people to self-service and cut costs is through online forms for residents to submit requests, applications and file reports online. For instance, Horowhenua District Council worked with OpenCities to convert paper forms for elderly care to digital. “Since they launched the online version of the form, they’ve had more submissions than ever before,” Gelbak says, despite the target audience being senior citizens. “Because it was done digitally, all the right information was captured and all the right fields were completed”. Another partner council in Regional Victoria has seen 90% of all its kindergarten registrations made via online forums, he says. “The uptake they’d seen was beyond the council’s expectations.” Each of these steps helps councils enable its residents to serve themselves, and therefore, reduce service delivery costs. This frees up more budget for council to spend on its community and infrastructure. “This is an opportunity for Mayors to shift where money is spent: from internal resourcing of customer queries, forms and requests to budget for building things and making the community a better place,“ Gelbak says. OpenCities has used these best practices and built a digital platform for Councils that is already tried and tested, saving councils the time and cost of looking for the best online services. To find out more from OpenCities, complete the below form with your contact details and download their research report. [download_form list_id="a40ec9cedb"] Top image by John Benwell - CC BY-ND 2.0