Productivity Plan

Following the Local Government Finance Settlement, the Government has asked local government to produce productivity plans. It has been requested that we set out what has been done in recent years alongside current plans to transform the organisation and services. Also requested is how we monitor and assess plans to assure the Council and residents that they will be delivered.

Four questions have been asked by DLUHC, which are in bold, and Stratford-on-Avon District Council's (SDC) responses are below.

How you have transformed the way you design and deliver services to make better use of resources

Service delivery is planned with the service objectives and outcomes as the primary focus. Understanding what the service is expected to deliver is key to determine how the processes that deliver it are arrived at. The Council has adopted approaches such as ‘lean systems thinking', this focuses on creating value with fewer resources and less waste. By identifying and removing service failure, the Council does not have to resource error handling and the customer gets a better level of service. It also focuses on the direct input of information or data from source and having it handled no more than once.

The Council has developed automated processes to remove repetitive tasks. This has also included one off tasks of updating 1,000's of records that would have otherwise taken months to do manually and at significant cost with potential keying errors.

Where possible, internal systems are linked to avoid the need for double keying/entry and to improve data management overcoming the need for reconciliations to prove systems are in sync. The availability of capital is important as it allows spend to save opportunities. The Council runs five leisure centres and in the past we have benefited from a positive management fee. When the contract was retendered, two delivery options were tendered. One was retendering on the same basis as before, and another included the offer of a loan from the Council over the duration of the contract for capital improvements to improve the management fee. This second option proved financially beneficial to the Council and resulted in new and improved facilities in the centres. Similar investments in the Councils' services have included the purchasing of refuse vehicles for the contractor to use rather than having them finance the purchase, and the investment in a multi council owned Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) by way of a long term loan that secures processing capacity and rates into the future.

It was recognised that internal administration processes that could be automated would save time, money and be efficient. We have developed an inhouse time recording system that has extended to include leave, flexi, TOIL, sickness, mileage claims, expenses, overtime, purchasing card transactions, hot-desk seat booking, register of interest, gifts and hospitality, and appraisals. The key development point to this system is self service and automated chasing/checking. This removes the need for an employed member of staff to do this. When this was initially deployed it released four members of staff who were redeployed into the contact centre dealing with residents' issues. Prior to this, this type of administration activity involved significant cost but added little to the delivery of front-line services.

The council created a Ways of Working (WOW) group who were tasked with creating a workspace that recognised the diverse nature of our teams, supported a variety of new and improved working practices whilst appealing to potential workforce and councillor group.

The Council works with neighbouring authorities and partners to deliver services effectively. Locally led reforms in themselves would not ensure the delivery of high-quality public services that are sustainable and resilient, what is required is the input of interested parties who have the desire to achieve a common goal or outcome. Often local engagement with the third sector achieves greater returns than the initial investment and can direct resources to those most in need.

How you plan to take advantage of technology and make better use of data to improve decision making, service design and use of resources

Stratford-on-Avon has a small inhouse development team that can create bespoke solutions that take advantage of technology to be more productive, as a result the Council can do more without the need to engage more staff. Through this digital transformation, the Council has improved efficiency, streamlined processes, and created a better experience for users.

Examples of work completed in this area include:

  • The creation of automated downloads to transfer data from the bank, cash receipting system, and between internal systems. This reduces manual intervention, reduced errors and mis-keying.
  • The development of e-forms that capture the customers' details, populate the relevant systems, both internally and externally (contractors), and processes the payment.
  • Development of an internal administration system described in 1 above.
  • Automated email handling, moving, reading, extracting key data from emails.
  • In-house bank reconciliation system.
  • Virtual parking permits rather than issuing physical ones, saves printing, postage, and can be updated instantly.
  • Development of a complaints system with auto routing and reminders.
  • Development of beta version of AI-Chatbot.

We are looking to extend self-service through the adoption of technology that allows residents to directly engage with the Council's services 24/7 which then releases resource to be refocused towards more demanding areas rather than simply employing additional staff. It also offers residents the option of dealing with issues out of hours or at a time convenient to them.

The Council is extending the way it communicates with residents using technology. With so many media options available, the Council is focusing on primary channels that will connect residents directly to services and communicate service changes or updates. We have a refreshed digital strategy that looks to use an App as the primary point of contact. This will enable the resources employed to be focused on phone calls or emails. Efficiency is not about limiting choice to reduce cost but more to do with effectively dealing with the majority of queries.

In the future we will be looking to harmonise internal processes across service areas, greater use of digital mapping, further roll out of the AI-Chatbot, development of an SDC App, updated website, self-service, and moving systems to an appropriate environment that affords resilience and flexibility. A direct result of having automation and access to the databases that contain this information is the ability to draw down data for statistical analysis. Payment of green waste bins for Warwick and Stratford-on-Avon has been automated using e-forms and we know that 89% of purchases, nearly 64,000 payments, were made on-line. Without this solution it is estimated that an additional 20 staff would have been needed to deal with the volume of calls at this time. The alternative to resourcing this peak demand would have been to have let the phone ring out, this would obviously be poor customer service but would keep costs down.

There are barriers from having legacy systems, primarily they are the cost of change. Systems become embedded and are key to the daily running of the service. To change there needs to be a real benefit to justify the cost and disruption this will cause. Not just the direct cost but also the time employed setting up and user testing the new system whilst still completing the day-to-day work.

Your plans to reduce wasteful spend within your organisation and systems

Continue to monitor processes and carefully examine new ways of working to ensure the most efficient is employed in the first instance.

We have used invest to save and have described this in question 1.

The Council has a Leader and Cabinet structure and the Council's Constitution lays out the financial reporting requirements to The Cabinet and Council. These bi-monthly reports detail the net position of every service and give a narrative where there is either a surplus or deficit. The budget setting process requires The Cabinet to approve a budget that is then presented to Council for approval. Prior to presentation to The Cabinet the budget is examined in detail by a budget review panel and scrutinised by a cross party working group.

We have shared services with neighbouring authorities and some back office functions are shared. These include Business Rates, Legal Services, Refuse Collection, Car Park Excess Charge processing, and customer contact centre. This is an effective way of sharing fixed costs and allowing one organisation to focus and become experts by benefiting from economies of scale. In a similar way some training has been organised centrally and benefits the Council's when individual numbers do not justify running courses.

Careful monitoring and working closely with the upper-tier authority to deliver services is key to ensure duplication does not happen. Also, and probably more importantly, is to ensure there are no gaps in service where the vulnerable can become caught. An effective recording and reporting mechanism is key in identifying and eliminating both duplication and gaps in service. This would be the same if these services were run by one organisation as when the departments become larger, they need just as effective management.

The Council have identified £2.2m in the current budget to implement the new Council Plan and Change Programme. There is a spending programme that identifies how the majority of this will meet the new challenges identified in the revised Council Plan. Throughout the year there are regular reports that monitor the actions identified in the Council Plan and there are key performance indicators and dates set to achieve the desired goals and outcomes.

The barriers preventing progress that the Government can help to reduce or remove

Time. So much more is expected from Local Government without additional resources, whether it be extending or enhancing services, or the delivery of one-off schemes such as the energy rebate payments. Whilst we may be issued with additional burdens funding, the expected timescale for delivery prevents recruitment and, as a result, resources from existing staff are utilised. Often the ‘Red Tape' of having to over document every process rather than focusing on the delivery of the outcome consumes disproportional amounts of resource. An example of this was the Local Authority Decarbonisation scheme, this was overwhelmed by requirements before anyone saw the benefits. There have been a number of years of austerity and resources have been trimmed to a point where there is little to no spare capacity. In order to conduct a thorough review and implement a new project from initiation through to user acceptance testing and going live, considerable staff time is required that isn't available. This is a common issue across all services.

Invest to save ideas are stalled as single year settlements prevent commitment to schemes extending over multiple years. Without some assurance of funding or a guarantee that a business rates reset or spending review will not remove significant funding from local government, there will never be the confidence to invest knowing that it is affordable. Multi-year settlements will therefore enable more effective financial management.

Whilst Government Grants are welcome, quite often the process to bid for them is very lengthy and time consuming. This process itself is wasteful, especially if the bid is unsuccessful. It is not uncommon to hear of professional bid writers being employed, this should not be necessary and disadvantages councils unable to commit speculative funding.

Contact: The Democratic Services team

Last updated on 09/07/2024