Covering their costs: How can local governments ensure environmental services provision pays its way?

The UK public is getting on board with plastic recycling. In January 2019, supermarket Iceland claimed that over 300,000 plastic bottles had been recycled through reverse vending machines located at its stores since it launched a reverse vending trial in June 2018. Shoppers were rewarded with a voucher worth 10 pence for every deposit of a plastic bottle bought at the shop. It is evidence of a public willingness to engage with recycling and environmental services.

Yotta’s Woolven: Data analytics can help optimize waste collection.

There may be some way to go before levels of engagement and enthusiasm reach those in Japan, where recovery rates are high, there is a pro-recycling culture and consumers have to separate waste types into multiple different bins for collection. That said, people in the United Kingdom are also increasingly engaged in the issues around domestic waste collection and many are even willing to pay an additional fee to access council (municipal government) services not covered by the standard waste-collection service. 

Streamlining the process

Historically, many councils included garden or bulky waste collections within the service provision covered by the council tax. Today, this tax typically covers essential services only. Local authorities are increasingly charging people to have their garden or bulky waste collected, with some selling additional services to residents if they need their wheelie bins washing, or garden replanting, for example.

Public demand for these services remains high despite the charges—and so this represents a potentially significant source of income for councils. However, residents expect the service they receive to be high-quality and easy-to-order. In fact, these are often the factors that determine whether people want to order these services on a recurring basis. Moreover, residents will often tell friends and colleagues if a service is delivered poorly, but also if it is delivered well. 

That poses challenges for councils. They need to ensure their systems and processes are up to scratch both to generate a positive income contribution and keep residents happy. Unfortunately, many councils are falling short—and some are finding that offering these services, without simultaneously implementing efficient processes and systems, can actually end up a loss-maker.

So, given this, what are the main challenges councils face in making these services efficient, and how can they best overcome them? Many are focused on trying to make it easy for residents to register or order a service on their website. Unfortunately, they are typically less efficient in a number of areas, including payment processing. Sometimes there is no online provision. Sometimes, residents are required to make payments over the phone, or even to visit a council office or contracted service provider in person to make the payment.

The public today expects to be able to pay online easily. Councils need to offer residents a simple-to-use account enabling them to pay for services quickly and securely without having to enter payment details every time.

Broken processes

Back-end processes are typically also overly complex or fragmented. Work instructions and emails frequently have to be issued to operations teams whenever a resident signs up or orders a service. Manual lists are often generated, which councils then have to transpose further before they can be managed operationally.

These broken processes often result in service delays and reduce the speed at which information is made available to residents. Councils may, for example, find it difficult to provide accurate information to anyone signing up to a chargeable garden waste service about exactly when their new bin will be delivered, or existing one collected.

So, what solutions can councils put in place to deliver the service levels customers want? At the front end, they need to look at easy-to-use tools that allow residents to quickly sign up for new service offerings. Alongside that, they need to implement web portals that allow customers to manage their account, the services they have ordered, pay for these easily and securely and renew services accordingly.  

Equally, all this information needs to be linked in and integrated through to the back office administrative teams at the council and, through mobile devices, to the service teams. Route optimization has a part to play here. Making use of all relevant information at their disposal, councils can build a connected infrastructure that helps them develop optimized routes for vehicles. By logging into their in-cab mobile device, the service team will have all the information they need to guide them through their work. That makes the administration of the whole process more efficient than if councils were forced to rely on manual, paper-based processes.

Ensuring that their environmental services offering for residents is running at peak efficiency also provides councils with the technology platform they need to start providing similar income generating services to commercial customers within (and, in some cases, external to) their geographic boundaries.

Moving forward, councils can also use data analytics, allied to the right technology platform, to inform service provision. There are many options. They could, for example, use it to identify gaps in their service offering. If they have a large number of residents signing up for a particular service but a handful that have not, then the council could analyze the reasons why they have not done so, and even get a member of staff to visit. It is an example of how local authorities can use service data to support better decisions, and another illustration of the key role technology can play in delivering environmental service efficiency.

Tim Woolven is Product Consultant at waste specialist Yotta.

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