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Should you develop a single customer account?

Carrie Bishop’s rather well-known post on this subject was published in 2016. In the 7 years that have passed, have things changed?

Not really.

I dare say that if you were to stand in a town centre and ask passers-by whether they would find it useful to have everything they interact with their local council about in one online place, there’s a good chance most people would say yes. It kind of sounds sensible, a difficult thing to argue against.

However, in practice, would they use it? Would it make their lives any easier? Would it lead to better outcomes for them? I would argue probably not.

But there’s another problem with single online accounts, and that is the fact they are non-existent. I’ve never heard of one that actually has every service a council offers online operating inside it. Instead, all single accounts cover all the services, except for all the ones they don’t.

This is for perfectly understandable reasons, but the lack of openness about the fact is really problematic. If you market your account as being the single account, but then have to tell users that actually it isn’t, and they need to use something different to look at their planning application or complete the social care financial assessment, it makes a mockery of the whole thing and it confuses the hell out of everyone.

The sheer amount of time, effort and money that would have to be spent to create a genuine single account would make it the ROI calculation result so negative you’d have to make the cell in your business case spreadsheet really wide just to display it.

The other thing to consider is that the actual user need here doesn’t really exist. How many services are there where seeing them together is useful?

I’d argue that most people never interact with their council. When most do, it’s a case of a single objective, where the user wants to get in and out as quickly as possible. There are some people who have complex needs who regularly interact with multiple council services – but for these people, you’re never going to online transact your way through their issues. It will invariably need a much more human relationship than can be offered by a digital account.

It’s the same with single customer records, or golden records. Is it a good thing? I’m not convinced myself, but luckily I don’t have to be because it’s an impossible thing to actually achieve. The data gets messy, duplicates get created, data doesn’t pass between systems very well, some services just don’t use systems that touch anything else, others use systems you aren’t even aware of.

To summarise – I’m pretty sure that the user need for single accounts doesn’t exist and that implementing them will make most user journeys harder than they need to be. What I am definitely sure about is that they are practically impossible to implement, and leaving the inevitable halfway-house in place is just going to confuse and infuriate your users even more.

So what should you do?

  • Spend the time and money you would have spent on aggregating a bunch of services into a single digital space on designing really good digital services, using the right service patterns and technology capabilities for that service – rather than trying to jam everything into the same model of delivery

  • Put effort into creating consistent online experiences for your users – whether they are accessing a service you have built yourself, or interacting with something one of your line of business system suppliers has put together for you. Have a design system which articulates the look and feel of online user journeys and sets out common patterns in terms of what information is asked for when, and so on. If your supplier can’t meet these needs, consider building a front end for them – but that doesn’t mean integrating that service with a bunch of other, unrelated ones

  • Consider the actually helpful element of a single account and apply those to your digital services. It might well be that having one way to authenticate yourself is a good thing, so nobody needs multiple passwords. But even with this – don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap where because you can authenticate people, you always should. If you don’t need a username and a password to complete a service, don’t force people to use them

  • There are clear advantages to being able to bring data about people and households together in an ethical way to better understand their circumstances, predict potential future issues and to work out what the most impactful interventions might be. However, this is a council problem, not a user problem, and so the hard work should not be outsourced to the user by making them jump through hoops to get the help they need. Instead, get the data you need out of wherever it exists and use data tools to bring it together, transform it, and make decisions based on it

So that’s my view. Single accounts are almost impossible to achieve and are of dubious benefit. I shall return to this topic in 2030.

Author Dave Briggs, Chair, LocalGovDigital

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