Pick one – Shabby council office building, or clean, modern ‘airport’?


Wolverhampton Council’s ambitious digital transformation project has many faces – some of which are now ready to meet and greet you in its offices.

If you’re going to spend public money refurbishing your city’s main administrative space, chances are you’re going to want to not just make it as attractive as possible – you’re also going to want to future-proof it in terms of utility for decades to come.

And for the City of Wolverhampton’s recently completed refurb of its main council offices, such was indeed the remit, confirms the team.

Key to transforming the way the space was not just seen by the public, though, was the way they experience it; and special new front of house reception technology sits at the centre of the whole strategy, it turns out.

Our civic centre hadn’t been upgraded for something like half a century.

City of Wolverhampton Council team member Paul O’Rourke told diginomica government.

It also had something like 25 different reception desks in it, too, over four different floors – which meant visitors, customers of our services in other words, had to laboriously work their way round the building to access the help or information they needed.

Government Digital Service Standard

But after a serious bit of redecoration – accompanied by some equally serious re-thinking of what a public government space should look and feel like – since March, it’s a very different picture at ‘Wolvo’ Town Hall for citizens of this part of the West Midlands conurbation.

Those 25 desks are long gone – replaced by an airport style ‘meet and greet’ philosophy, with trained customer service staff armed with laptops ready to help visitors and route them quickly and efficiently to get the help, support or information they’ve come into ‘town’ to acquire, from a housing benefit query to an employment issue.

That’s happened by consolidating council services in as few areas as possible, removing physical barriers and creating a clear and easy to use environment that offered a bright, welcoming and personalised service to residents.

Philosophically seen as part of its overall moved to the Government Digital Service Standard, this work is all about helping all the ‘walk-ins’ council offices get from the city’s 250,000 residents quicker, cut congestion in public spaces in its estate, and see if things like self-service kiosks, tablets for front of house staff and digital display screens to keep customers informed about their place in the queue could all contribute to a more pleasant, and useful, visit.

O’Rourke, who leads a mixed business and IT team in Customer Services as a Performance Manager, is pleased with the result:

We’ve really worked hard to improve the ‘offer’ of our civic space, and make it much more user-friendly and professional.

Improving the customer experience from when they come through the door

The tech making the new front of house environment as responsive as it is from a supplier called Qmatic, which specialises in customer journey management.

Its contribution in the reception area part of Wolverhampton’s on-going digital transformation journey (which we last reported on in August) is software on staff laptops and on a set of kiosks which O’Rourke sees as a second line of support for any service user who can’t get what they want from the lobby staff.

(Qmatic has been working with Wolverhampton for a number of years, with this project an upgrade to existing technology, but a competitive bid process with three other suppliers to ensure full value for money was being delivered was still mounted, O’Rourke told us.)

With that supplier’s Orchestra system, O’Rourke and his team are also now able to better manage that inevitable bit about accessing public services – the waiting to see someone bit. So those tablets are there to let front of house staff help customers get straight for their pre-booked appointment or get straight away into a virtual queue for service. Visitors still get paper tickets with a unique reference so they know where they are, but all the information about their waiting time is clearly displayed on big screens, with automatic voice announcements that let them know when it is their turn.

The new software thus continuously manages the queuing process dynamically, gather data on how quickly visitors are being helped, delivering this data against council performance improvement metrics and so enabling Town Hall bosses see which of their services are being most often – and which should be moved online to both better help the public and save money and resources. It also helps identify training or resource gaps on the ‘shop floor’ in the same way as in the contact centre, so O’Rourke’s staff can spot where blockages have occurred and work with individuals to improve their customer support delivery.

There’s definitely a channel shift story here – O’Rourke is clear that if information can be delivered online it should be, and the council has a clear ‘digital by design’ programme in place. But it’s also clearly a story about just making what can be a stressful experience for council customers as hassle-free as he can make it:

The idea is to give that person the information they need as quickly as possible – if it’s to go round the corner to another office, or to come back with specific information.

But that has to be a lot more than about just issuing a ticket to let me know where I am in the queue – it has to be about helping that member of the public get pointed in the right direction to get what they need.

The last 5%

If you didn’t believe us about the transformed look and feel of the council offices, by the way – O’Rourke is proud to note that a credit union has already co-located into the building as it was so impressed with the upgraded environment, while other relevant organisations, like recruitment firms, are also in discussion with the city to do the same.

Next steps of the project are indeed all about that – as O’Rourke says the last “5%” of the Qmatic functionality he wants to turn on is on the customer mobile end, so that information can be piped directly to visitor phones to make their visits even more useful.

That will happen at around the same time the overall Wolverhampton digital transformation work itself is set to conclude in 2018, he points out, when a range of transactional services is set be added to the council website.

I think that will plug together very well with all of this.

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