Why this report is important
Before moving into the report’s detail, it is worth highlighting why the findings are significant and how the Digital Team for Local Government in Wales plans to act on them.
Since the inception of the Digital team for Local Government, we have managed to uncover most priorities and challenges that face local authority officers of all levels in Wales. This has been done through various methods like focus groups with Customer Focus Wales, engagement with officers in Meetups, and Chief Executive Meetings. We hadn’t yet engaged with citizens to understand their view of their local authorities’ services.
By engaging with the citizens who participated in this study, we have gained insight into how citizens feel about their local authorities’ services and what they need for them to improve. These insights have been included in our planning to shape our work over the next year. A central theme of our strategy is Human Centred Design; after speaking to these citizens, we have made sure our objectives are citizen centred.
Where improvements need to be made
The findings of this research will hopefully offer the reader a sense of where change and advancement can bring the most value. The findings have presented us with a baseline for the current service level in Welsh local authorities. This is important because it enables us to easily identify where improvements are being made. Uncovering these improvements early will help us understand how a local authority has managed such enhancements and share these practices and experiences across Wales. This will help us to upskill Wales as a whole.
It is important to read the views of the citizens that participated in this study with an open mind. Trying to find excuses or justification for why a citizen might have felt a certain way will not help us. The findings in the report need to be accepted so we can all work together to make improvements. As previously mentioned, the report’s findings have been added to the backlog of work for the Digital Team for Welsh Local Authorities, but should individual local authorities want help to plan the next steps based on this research, please feel free to contact us so we can work with you. No one is alone in trying to improve their service level in Wales.
The aim of this discovery research was to gather citizen insight to inform the design and development of shared principles and performance indicators to be adopted across Welsh Local Authorities. Also, the discovery research was used to assess how citizens feel about contacting their local authority. These tasks focused on the ‘Shared Principles and Performance Indicators’ and ‘Entry Points’ working groups running from 27/09/21 to 06/12/21, led by the Digital Team for Local Government in Wales.
The research questions are listed below alongside the working groups’ service-related questions that the teams wanted to be answered:
|Research Question||Related Service Development Question|
|Can you please rank what themes you think are most important in Council services? (List of themes provided to participants)||From the themes we have identified from previous primary and secondary research, which are perceived as most and least important?|
|What theme did you rank as highest and why?||Which theme could provide the greatest value?|
|What theme did you rank as lowest and why?||Which theme will provide the least value?|
|What is missing?||What themes would citizens like to see their local authority focus on which we have not yet identified?|
|Could you tell me about a recent experience you have had contacting your local authority?||Why does a citizen contact their local authority in a certain way and what is their experience of it?|
|I want you to imagine you have had some changes in circumstances and require some adjustments in the home and so would like to understand what adult social care services are available to you. How would you expect to access this service?||Does preference of contact change? If so, what drives the change?|
|You are eligible for a reduction in council tax. How would you expect to apply for this service?||Does preference of contact change? If so, what drives the change?|
|There is a pothole in your street. How would you expect to report this to your local authority?||Does preference of contact change? If so, what drives the change?|
|Thinking of these scenarios, have your preferences changed since the pandemic and how might your preferences change depending on council services?||Has citizens’ preference of contact changed because of the pandemic?Does preference of contact change depending on the service? If so, what drives the change?|
|Thinking of experiences of products or services you may access outside of government, what makes a quality service? This may be ordering a takeaway, booking train tickets, or signing up to a subscription service. Is there anything to you that stands out as good service delivery?||Are there universal expectations of good service design that are not limited to local authorities?|
|Would you have a preference to access a service in Welsh?||How do citizens find contacting their local authority in Welsh?|
|Is there anything you would like to add about expectations when accessing services from your council?||Is there anything that we have not considered?|
|Is there anything you would like to add about what was discussed today?||Is there anything that we have not considered?|
We ran 3 focus groups and 2 one on one interviews. We spoke to a total of 29 participants. The participants came from different backgrounds and local authorities. In total, the following local authorities were represented by the participants Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, Bridgend County Borough Council, Caerphilly County Borough Council, Carmarthenshire County Council, Flintshire County Council, Monmouthshire County Council, Pembrokeshire County Council, Powys County Council, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, The Vale of Glamorgan County Borough Council.
We took a random sample from the citizens who registered to take part; the only screening question we asked was if they had recently used a Council service. The participants varied in age and abilities.
We carried out 2 remote semi-structured interviews and 3 remote semi-structured focus groups. The sessions were recorded and noted, and a thematic analysis was performed to uncover the key themes. The themes included in the findings were identified by the Entry Points working group and iterated on by myself.
Citizens want to be communicated with more effectively
The main theme that participants identified as most important, and had the most issues with, was communication. Most participants offered examples of poor communication having a significant impact on their lives. We have broken communication down into sub-themes, such as the volume of the examples provided to us.
Proactive communication: Many participants felt frustrated with contacting their local authority for updates on requests they have made or finding a service that might help them. This has led to citizens feeling undervalued and a nuisance to their local authority. Also, some participants mentioned that it has made them feel like they need to pass on important information themselves because they do not believe their friends, family, or community will receive this information otherwise.
“It makes you feel invalidated when you are chasing reports up all the time. Even though it is to benefit other people and the Council” (Participant Quote 1)
Clear timeframes: Many participants were frustrated with their local authority not making them aware of how long a service would take. This led to participants making complaints, escalating issues to the authorities’ Chief Executive and Councillor, and contacting their local authority themselves to request updates. One of the reasons participants found this particularly frustrating was because they saw it as an easy thing for the authority to do. One participant mentioned that receiving a letter or email highlighting the expected timelines is all it would take to make them feel confident that progress was being made.
“If you send something to the Council, a simple acknowledgement of receipt and timeframe for follow up would help. It would prevent people having to chase up contacts and reduce workload for officers.” (Participant Quote 2)
Responses: Many participants felt irritated by their local authority not responding to them after contacting or submitting a request. The impact this had on participants varied. Some participants found this frustrating because they didn’t think their request had been submitted correctly, so they would contact their local authority via a different channel. For others, it was much more serious. Examples were given where participants had accessed vital services but had not received any kind of response. For instance, one participant described a particularly stressful situation when engaging with adult social care on behalf of their 90-year-old father, who had been discharged from the hospital. The participant described their attempt to communicate as going into a ‘black hole’ as they were not getting responses or updates whilst the hospital was chasing them. Another participant used the example of reporting evidence to their local authority daily of anti-social behaviour without any feedback. The anti-social behaviour resulted in the participant moving home.
“If you don’t know they’ve received your email or who’s dealing with your phone call, you can’t really follow it up… If they’d just communicated it, it would have saved me having to call them 62 times” (Participant Quote 3).
Citizens want to be able to access and understand all services
Accessibility was a theme that featured highly on the ranking exercise. However, only some participants had an experience of not being able to access services. Many participants felt that it was a duty of their local authority to provide inclusive services without it being something that directly impacts them. However, some participants who had impairments did share examples of them feeling offended by not being able to access some of their local authorities’ services and at their local authorities’ response to them raising an accessibility issue.
“I have had problems with Local Authority buildings with no hearing loop or it being broken. There was one incident where I told them that their hearing loop was not working, and then the lady came back to me and told me how to use my hearing aids. The cheek. How dare you.” (Participant Quote 4).
Content Design: The content of local authority services and communications was something that some participants found inaccessible. Some participants found it hard to find services because they were unaware of what their local authority called that service. In one example, one participant went to third sector organisations first before being directed back to their local authority with the correct wording to search for. Another example given was from a participant receiving their Council Tax Letter. The participant highlighted that it was of no use to them as they could not understand it.
“If you need help, it should be easy to find” (Participant Quote 5).
Digital Literacy: This was not a theme that directly impacted any of the participants; however, it was something that some participants were concerned with. The participants felt that they were benefiting from either accessing services or having access to information that others did not.
“Need ways to include people who are not computer literate. Lots of people are excluded either because they are not computer literate or because they are not aware of what is going on” (Participant Quote 6).
Citizens want to know what their local authority is doing
Transparency and Openness was a matter that was raised by many of the participants. Many participants felt that their local authority did not work in the open, which led to some feeling like their local authority was purposely trying to hide things. The two topics that participants experienced the most frustration with are as follows:
- What is the budget being spent on: The majority of participants that raised transparency as an issue spoke about what their local authority is spending money on. Some of these participants mentioned that it is their money that the local authority is spending, so they have a responsibility to make them aware of what it is they are investing that money in. For instance, one participant highlighted that they have not seen a service standard improvement after a council tax increase, so they questioned what the extra money their local authority is taking is being spent on.
“My local authority is like a black box. I don’t understand how money is being spent. I can’t vote to say how it should be spent. It is not very clear how money gets used.” (Participant Quote 7).
- Responsibilities: Some participants brought up the responsibilities of their local authority and how they are not sure what they are. They stated that they would like a clearer picture of their local authorities’ responsibilities.
“Councils should be transparent and open. It’s hard to understand what is the responsibility of each of the councils” (Participant Quote 8).
Citizens want services to be easier to find
Many of the participants spoke about not being aware of some services their local authority provides. This led to some participants suggesting that their local authority purposely hides services from them. Other participants felt like getting the right service relied on themselves being aware of what is available to them and knowing the right course of action to take. One participant highlighted that they would like their local authority to promote their services to them, so they are made aware without needing to contact the local authority. One example that highlighted this issue was given by a participant who is hard of hearing. The participant stated that it took 15 years for them to find out they could access help for their hearing. The participant found out through their housing provider.
“It took 15 years before I realised I could get help for my hearing. Because I’m physically fine, I didn’t realise that I could have a new doorbell, a hearing loop for the television, and a large doorbell put inside which I can take around.” (Participant Quote 9).
Citizens want to feel like their local authority listens to them
Many participants felt dissatisfied with how much their local authority acts on their feelings. This manifested itself in two topics; engagement and services designed around their needs.
Engagement: Many participants felt that their local authority needs to start asking for their opinions and then acting on them. These participants do not believe that their local authority will create services that meet their needs otherwise. A few of these participants mentioned that their local authorities deliver services that they think their citizens need, rather than asking them what they need.
“Ask us what we need, want, what services we think are needed in the area rather than telling us what they think we need” (Participant Quote 10).
Citizen Centred Services: The majority of participants that expressed dissatisfaction about their local authority not listening to them talked about how they want to input into the services their local authority provides them. Citizens are aware that their money is funding these services, so they see it as imperative that they are designed to meet their needs.
“Services should be designed around citizen need and not the Council’s need or what they think the citizen needs” (Participant Quote 11).
Citizens want the services they receive to be consistent
Many participants highlighted that they want the same level of service wherever they are and whatever service they require. These expressions of need can be split into two categories:
Consistency within a local authority: Participants do not want the standard of service they receive to depend on what department runs that service. Also, participants wish to receive the same level of service throughout the whole journey. They do not want it to change at different stages.
“The level of service in all departments needs to be the same across the board because there are so many departments, you can contact one department and get a poor service, to me, it should be across the board. To me, it is one Local Authority, and there should be one policy to deal with everybody” (Participant Quote 12).
Consistency across different local authorities: Participants do not want a worse service from their local authority because they have moved residence. Many of the participants that raised this offered examples of how the level of service they receive changes significantly from one local authority to another.
“There isn’t a clear joined-up approach, certainly not in the South Wales area. Local Authorities don’t work together. How can one authority perform so well, and a neighbouring authority have a very bad reputation for poor service delivery and literally work on each other’s borders. Doesn’t seem to be any joined-up planning or approach and certainly no communication between them in relation to some of the services they deliver, and you literally live two streets away from some people and two different authorities, and the processes you have to follow to get something done are completely different. I don’t understand that level of inconsistency” (Participant Quote 13).
Citizens want more attention to detail
Some participants expressed frustration at what they perceive to be small tasks not being completed to an expected standard. Some participants used untidiness as an example. For instance, one participant talked about overgrown greenery as they entered their town. Another shared recollections of ‘rubbish’ being left on the street after the bins had been collected. These participants linked these aesthetic problems with their local authority having a lack of ‘pride’ in the place they live.
Two participants also offered examples of interactions where they have not felt they have been spoken to appropriately. The examples described an occasion when the call handler would not give the participant their name and another time when a participant felt that call handlers had escalated situations by not being calm. The participants that raised this felt that they were not respected by their local authority.
“bags burst after collection, the contents are just left on the road. Why don’t refuse collection staff clean the street after collecting refuse? This comes down to pride in place again” (Participant Quote 14).
Citizens want to see more ownership over services and decision making
Many participants expressed frustration at being passed from person to person once they have made contact with their local authority. This was both from department to department and from colleague to colleague within the same team. These participants stated that they want to see more ownership from department members to make decisions.
One example given by a participant illustrated how much of an impact this had on their life. They talked about being passed between departments when applying for disabled adaptations. The participant explained how every new department they spoke to had been amazed at how many people they had engaged with to find a solution. The participant attributed this to a lack of leadership.
The participant finished by stating that “If this is happening to me, and I am someone who can stand up for myself and communicate, what is happening to disabled service users who can’t?” (Participant Quote 15).
Citizens are tired of hearing the Coronavirus pandemic being offered as an excuse for poor service delivery
Many participants were frustrated with ‘Covid’ still being offered as an excuse for what they felt was poor service delivery. Participants compared their local authority with how private sector organisations were coping with the Coronavirus pandemic. Most felt that private organisations were maintaining a high service standard during the pandemic, whilst their authority was using it as an excuse for poor service. If citizens were once empathetic with their local authority during the pandemic, this suggests that sentiment has changed.
“Current excuse for everything at the moment is Covid, and it’s only local authorities that seem to be struggling to deliver services during Covid. Everyone else has put systems in place or are dealing with it in a safe manner, and thankfully we can carry on with our lives because of that, but local authorities are absent, they just disappear” (Participant Quote 16).
Citizens are less concerned with safeguarding and planning for the future
“Safeguard the needs of future generations” was the theme that the majority of participants felt was least important. One participant who recently became a parent did rank it as the most important. Still, the majority thought that it was the least important to them. The most common reason for this was that participants wanted their local authority to concentrate on what is happening now before focusing on the future. Participants stated that their local authority needs to master the basics before discussing future problems. One participant stated that they did not believe a focus on the future was achievable for their local authority.
“Safeguarding the needs of future generations is the least important. If we get things right today, then tomorrow will be a lot better. Worrying about tomorrow is pointless if we can’t fix today” (Participant Quote 17).
Most participants were less concerned with how they contact their local authority and wanted to focus more on what happens after the point of first making contact. “Getting in is easy, but the message gets stalled once it’s in” (Participant Quote 18). However, the participants still expressed what drives their preference for contacting their local authority and the pain points they had.
Citizens choose whichever communication channel they feel works best
Most participants offered examples of various channels they have used to contact their local authority. The majority of these participants had stated that they choose whichever channel they think will work the best. Many participants mentioned that they have a trial and error approach to contacting their local authority. For instance, they start with their preferred channel; if that does not work, they try another channel. The participant keeps going until they are satisfied that their request is being acted upon. The final contact method for most of the participants using this strategy was escalating their request to their Councillor, the Chief Executive of the local authority, or via a social media post and tagging the previously mentioned individuals. Other participants used a multifaceted approach to contacting their local authority and use multiple channels at once for the same request.
“No time to sit and hope they answer my call. Website is always my first preference. I should be able to self-service. Email or phone next. Fastest way is to go on Facebook because someone will tag a councillor” (Participant Quote 19).
Citizens’ first preference for contact is driven by a variety of factors
The reason a participant selects a particular channel to contact their local authority is impacted by several factors:
Complexity of Service: The complexity of the service was the reason the majority of participants gave for deciding how they first contact their local authority. Participants would be happy to engage with services online for what was perceived as more straightforward services. Whereas if the participants felt they required help to fully understand the service, the participants wanted to speak to someone to reassure themselves that they fully understood the process.
“Depends on which service I want to talk to them about. If I don’t understand why council tax is calculated the way it is, I really need to speak to an actual person” (Participant Quote 20).
The speed of feedback: When contacting their local authority, many participants expect to be notified that their request has been acknowledged and progress is being made. If this had not happened, many participants would then call their local authority for that instant feedback on the phone.
“I’m happy contacting by email, which I have done recently, but then I didn’t get any response at all to the email, so I ended up phoning” (Participant Quote 21).
Impairment: Some participants who had an impairment stated that it drives their preference for communication. For instance, one participant who struggles with hearing prefers email over phone calls as they cannot hear very clearly on the phone.
“Why was email your preferred method?” (Interviewer)
“Generally, because of my hearing, I can’t hear them on the phone, so that is my preferred method at the moment” (Participant Quote 22).
Urgency: The urgency a participant needed a request to be resolved was also a contributing factor to contact choice. If they needed something quickly, many participants would call their local authority.
“I needed to speak to someone quickly really within a day or two because the hospital was asking me what was going on, so with it being a single point of access, advertised as such, I just felt a call to one number to one person naively would have been the most straightforward way of getting an answer or update” (Participant 23).
Citizens want expertise at the point of entry
Some participants expressed frustration at being passed to colleagues, other departments, or receiving incorrect information rather than getting the expertise they require at the first engagement. These participants offered examples of them being directed to colleagues who also did not have solutions or just gave incorrect information that led to them feeling like they had nowhere to go with their request.
“You end up going round the houses to get help. Speak to people who ‘don’t know anything about that, you’ll have to speak to x or look on the website’” (Participant Quote 24).
Citizens get frustrated when they cannot find their preferred contact channel
Some participants stated that they found it frustrating when they could not find how to contact their local authority through their desired channel. Many of these participants felt like their local authority was purposely putting up barriers for contact to not have to deal with a complaint or because the local authority does not want too many citizens calling.
“No telephone numbers to keep you at arm’s length. They are only doing it because you want to complain. If they were more accessible and spoke to you at the beginning, you wouldn’t be complaining all the time” (Participant Quote 25).
If we want citizens to use online channels, they need to work
Many participants stated that they used online channels offered to them by their local authority, but they did not work. These participants then contacted their local authority via a different medium to get a solution.
“Online form completed for nappy bags, there was no answer when I telephoned. The nappy bags were ordered in June, and I am still waiting. There has been no explanation for the delay. I joined ****** community Facebook group to ask for help and found 20 other parents experiencing the same problem. The residents rallied around to help. We shouldn’t have to do this when we pay for the service” (Participant Quote 26).
Whilst not all the experiences shared by participants were negative, most of the examples offered were of frustration and dissatisfaction.
With qualitative research, it is appropriate to continue until saturation of answers is achieved. This certainly happened with these focus groups and interviews. The responses offered repeatedly highlighted the same themes. With the participant group consisting of 29 citizens, it would be inaccurate to scale up what was said to conclude that all citizens feel this way. However, I believe that the insight gained, and the themes identified from this research gives us some robust insight into the experiences of local authority service users, which can be acted upon to benefit many.