I’m almost certain if you’re reading this here blog, you’re online. It’s where people seem to spend a lot of their time these days tweeting, shopping, gaming, Skyping and generally interacting in ways which would seem utterly bewildering to people used only to face-to-face contact, postal deliveries and telephone calls less than a generation ago.
Like it or not, we live in a world which is progressively more digital. All-encompassing cyberspace is helping to connect us in novel and far-reaching ways. It’s how I am able to speak to you now, and, as a council, it’s providing us with new methods to deliver some of our services much more flexibly and efficiently.
Take, for example, our new website colchester.gov.uk launched last year, which receives over 110,000 visits per month on average… It’s not just the place to go for user-friendly information about our day-to-day work and the services we offer; it’s increasingly the place where residents can engage with us for more straightforward interactions such as paying bills.
November saw the launch of our campaign to support residents accessing several services through their online account at www.colchester.gov.uk/online. This is a place where they can quickly and easily see how much Council Tax they owe, set up a Direct Debit, apply for a Single Person Discount and switch to e-billing. Housing Benefit recipients can also view their entitlement, check correspondence and the income on a claim. Making these and other services available online is just one way that we’re supporting residents to manage their household budget and find the information at a time convenient to them, rather than having to phone, email or visit in person.
We’ve also been developing existing partnerships with several social landlords and charities operating in the borough, to encourage their tenants to access online services too.
We’ve already seen a significant dividend, shifting to online services. For instance, between September 2014 and March 2015 customer engagements increased 89% across our website (not including payments), increased by 71% in the Revenues and Benefits area of the website, and by more than a 100% in visitor traffic to the Planning pages, with a noticeable drop in the number of inbound telephone calls. This has helped us make £300,000 savings last year and on-target savings of £400,000 this year – money that can be diverted to other front-line services.
You can connect with us elsewhere in cyberspace, too, including our Visit Colchester tourism website and app, and via a busy social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, with dedicated profiles for Leisure World, the Town Hall, Colchester Market, and Colchester Museums. Then there’s our YouTube Channel, showcasing life in Colchester to a truly global audience. And those interested in local history can download the Colchester Heritage App, an interactive guide which allows you to explore the borough’s historical treasures.
Our commitment to use the best that digital technology has to offer is also helping to transform the way we manage off-street parking. We recently launched MiPermit, a cashless way of paying for parking using a smartphone app, online portal, text or phone call, with no need to issue a paper ticket. Its convenience and flexibility means you can top-up a parking stay at any time, so a shopping trip, meal out or an over-running appointment needn’t be cut short. Very useful, I’d say, with the Christmas shopping season approaching fast.
I’m tremendously proud of the leaps we’ve taken to connect digitally with the people we serve and — knowing how amazingly fast technology continues to advance — am really excited about the changes still to come.
BB4N (bye-bye for now).