Don’t let e-forms be the culprit for reverse channel shift: Top tips for creating the optimum e-form for council services

By Matt Hayes, solution architect and digital delivery lead, Capita local public services

Applying for parking permits, signing up for online billing and reporting missed bin collections or a change in circumstances are all common transactions between a resident and their local authority. Electronic forms – or e-forms, as they are more commonly known are the conduit that allow these processes to happen online and integrate with the relevant Council department.

But to what extent are you realising the benefits from e-forms? Are they quick, easy to use and visible to customers? Are they fully automated and reducing effort in the back office? Are there any simple glitches that prevents customers fulfilling an e-form? Some simple fixes could transform the way e-forms are used by customers and the benefits they bring to your organisation. 

On the face of it, creating an e-form, which is available within a council’s website is relatively straight forward. But developing high-quality e-forms that are user friendly, truly integrated within the back office and provide the maximum return on investment can be more complex.

Balancing these requirements takes skill and effort. In times of stretched resources, it’s easy to see why many local authorities have devolved the creation and maintenance of e-forms to service lines and their practitioners, as opposed to digital or customer experience experts. Inevitably, when this happens, e-forms are generally created around the needs of the service – not the user – with unnecessarily long forms, complex information and missed opportunities for wider digitisation. It runs the risk of ‘reverse channel shift’, where more customers revert to non-online channels following a poor experience of the online experience.

Based on our experience we’ve compiled a few top tips to get the most from your e-forms:

  1. Use simple and accessible language – just like creating high-quality webpages
  2. Keep them as short possible - question unnecessary information fields
  3. Use a multi-step layout and progress bars for forms that do require a lot of questions
  4. Check the validation messages are simple and placed next to the relevant information field
  5. Test validation logic very carefully to ensure it functions correctly
  6. Use icons as well as text
  7. Think mobile - increasingly more customers are accessing local authority websites from mobiles rather than desktops
  8. Test with customers and iterate as needed

 

Our digital customer experience team use these principles for developing new and optimising existing e-forms. From experience, local authorities that move the responsibility of e-form development and maintenance to a digital and customer experience specialism that can work alongside council departments are experiencing wider benefits from e-forms. It brings a better balance of invaluable operational and legislative knowledge alongside specialists in the technical, customer experience and content elements required for a successful digital project. Some good examples include Southampton City Council’s approach to making online the number one choice for parking permit applications and West Sussex County Council’s use of e-forms improved the usability of their website.

 E-forms – like all digital projects – should continually improve. Councils should consider cyclical or iterative reviews of their e-forms with subject matter experts. Alternatively, a beta version can be released using customer feedback to make real-time iterative changes – to meet user and service needs into the future.

By Matt Hayes, solution architect and digital delivery lead, Capita local public services

Matt has over 15 years' experience in Development, IT Delivery and Business Intelligence, working in various sectors including utilities, finance and local government.  Matt is now part of Capita's local government Digital Customer Experience Team, focussing on designing and delivering digital solutions which improve customer experience while driving efficiencies for our clients.

How e-forms improved the usability of West Sussex County Council’s website

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Prior to the current e-form, an initial referral would take, on average, 2 hours to process. With the Umbraco form, an initial referral takes approximately 1 hour to process. This includes saving, printing and copying all attachments.

West Sussex Council Officer, Special Needs Assessment team

Capita helps Bexley achieve highest ever Council tax collection rates

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Giving people the chance to make online payments, set up their housing benefit claims and Direct Debit orders from the website, and to inform us of any changes in their circumstances has helped our tax collection rate rise significantly. We are looking forward to continuing to improve outcomes and help residents by working with Capita over the coming years.

Cllr Teresa O’Neill Council Leader, London Borough of Bexley

Capita and the London Borough of Southwark

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In any one day, demand can change, and that generates a huge amount of work for the service. Capita is able to combine its experience on a number of different contracts up and down the country.

Dominic Cain, Director of Exchequer London Borough of Southwark Council