Consultation software: The 5 Golden Rules
“Will we get value for money and still improve quality and efficiency?”
“Can we save money if we spend money?”
“Why should we invest in your dedicated system when we can make do with existing software and databases?”
“What makes your software better than their software?”
“Can we easily export data and documents out of your software whenever we want?”
These are some of the questions we encounter from officers within Local Planning Authorities (LPA) when we are discussing JDi Solutions’ e-Consultation system. The questions reflect their legitimate concerns about making an investment in new software and a new supplier against a backdrop of tightening budgets and changing priorities within the planning system brought about by new and emerging legislation. There are also greater demands for transparency and accountability and for Councils to engage more proactively and directly with local residents, particularly online. [more]
Typically there are other underlying issues that may inform perceptions about our software and services. A potential customer may have had a poor experience of software that didn’t perform or of a supplier who didn’t meet their support needs. They may be wary of investing in more software because much of their existing software is under-used; they view further investment as a financial risk because a proportion of their budget is already tied up in existing software and/or functions that are surplus to their requirments. There may be a feeling that new software will be difficult to use or that training and adaptation of the software to meet their requirements will have a detrimental impact on time and workloads. Change management precipitated by introducing new software can be stressful particularly if ongoing work and projects have to be maintained as new software is bedded in. The timing of its implementation can be counter-productive if the software supplier is not willing to accommodate and respond to issues as they emerge ‘on the ground’ within your workplace.
Sometimes it’s hard to see how software can help make these various issues coalesce into an affordable and sustainable solution.
So how do we at JDi Solutions respond to these concerns and potential barriers?
Unsurprisingly it varies from customer to customer but there are 5 Golden Rules that help us to help buyers and potential customers determine if our software and services will be a good fit within their set-up.
Rule 1: Manage and meet user expectations
What do you want the software to be able to do for you? What benchmarks do you use to determine if the cost of the software equates to a sound financial investment? What does ‘support and maintenance’ mean to you in practice?
Managing and meeting user expectations about what our software does and doesn’t do as well as what is and isn’t inclusive of our support and maintenance agreement is important. Unless we address issues and concerns on your terms at the outset you can’t properly determine whether or not we are providing your organisation and your personnel with a software and service that is both fit for purpose and offers demonstrable value for money.
It is very easy for potential customers to have misconceptions about new software and a new supplier particularly if experiences of other software have not been positive or have been counter-productive. Misconceptions or unresolved problems can easily become barriers so it’s important that we address any concerns you may have and nip them in the bud as early as possible.
So please talk to us and tell us what’s on your mind.
There are some basic truths about our consultation software that should alleviate some concerns. Our consultation software is already installed and fully operational and is probably being used by an existing customer even as we speak to you. This is because the software is hosted on our own servers so first and foremost we’re providing our software to you as a service even before you, as a potential new customer, will access and operate it. The onus therefore is firmly on us to ensure that the software remains accessible and fit for purpose 24/7 so that your user experience from Day 1 is consistent with our ‘sales pitch’.
In other words even before you licence and use our consultation software we are already servicing the needs of many other LPAs and managing and meeting their expectations as licensed users. No matter when and how frequently you access the software or how many users are logged into the software at any one time your experience must be consistent and of a high standard. Software like ours that is deployed from a hosted platform with an inclusive and ongoing support and maintenance agreement means we have to continually manage and meet user expectations because they are always changing and evolving within their consultation programme. What you expect from the software 2 years into using it may not be the same as what you expect on Day 1. For example, we have customers who went from being LPA licensees using the consultation software to support their Local Plan process to being corporate users undertaking a wide variety of consultations within the system.
Being able to meet the challenges of changing demand and use would be a more problematic issue if the consultation software was installed on your own servers. Software hosted internally by Councils often requires responses and solutions to problems that cannot be determined and delivered directly by our own support and maintenance team. That’s because we would not have the level of access needed to examine the problem or to test solutions for it. With the software residing on our servers we have full access priviliges but it also means we have nowhere to hide if something goes wrong. Therefore if we’re not managing and meeting your expectations when it comes to our service and our software, particularly when there is a problem, then we’re basically just not doing our job properly.
At JDi Solutions we’re not afraid of feedback even if it is critical. Over the past 10 years many of our customers have made suggestions for improvements to our consultation software which we have implemented at no extra charge as part of their support and maintenance agreement. We take a pragmatic view on such issues: if a new feature or function in the software is useful or is important to meeting their needs then more likely than not it’ll be useful and important in meeting the needs of all our customers.
Don’t just take our word for it. We always emphasise that you should speak to our existing customers about us and our software before making your decision. Are we meeting their expectations? We can also provide you with access to our demo system so you can compare what we and our customers have said about the software before you make your decision.
Neither we nor our software can stand still. Your demands of the software will change over time. If there is one constant in LPAs and in Councils it is that change will happen and somewhere down the line it will have an impact on your consultation programme and your use of the software. That’s why we provide a continuous release licence with our consultation software. This means that any updates and new features that we add to the software will be available to you at no additional charge to your licence fee or your support and maintenance fee over the entire duration of the contract. So there are no hidden charges or hidden costs. The price you pay is the price we quote.
Unless we are transparent about our consultation software, our licensing terms and our prices we cannot hope to meet and manage your expectations.
Rule 2: Be realistic
Do you have the manpower and resources in place to use our software? Do you expect the software to be a kind of ‘magic bullet’ that solves many internal problems? Do you think that if you spend more you will get more from your software and supplier?
The issue of being realistic about software is closely related to managing user expectations. Using our consultation software requires a commitment on the part of the LPA or Council beyond its initial financial investment. There will be a certain amount of change and disruption to day-today routines as officers adjust to using our software, particularly as it has been designed to create efficiencies and time savings in those processes and work-flows that are traditionally labour intensive or slow to resolve without a dedicated and integrated software solution.
Our consultation software is not designed to replace people, it’s designed and configured to help your current staff be more productive and efficient in their work. This is achieved by providing tools that either simplify and/or expedite processes and workflows associated with running and managing consultations and a consultatiom programme. It’s important to understand that Council officers will only maximise the full benefits of the system and maximise the returns on your investment if they are able to make full use of the system’s features and capabilities. In turn this may require some internal re-jigging of resources, roles and work-flows but the reward will be a more efficient and cost effective consultation programme.
Also it’s important that Councils think about the size of the team that is charged with managing and administering their consultation programme. We have clients with only 1 or 2 users and others with teams of 8 or 10 users. Potentially smaller teams will be more adversely affected if a member of the team is absent for whatever reason so there needs to be internal machanisms in place within the Council to offset any disruptions this might cause. If you need more people on the system when there are busy stages – e.g. for processing high volumes of submissions and responses – then you can easily assign roles and permissions for new users from within the software. We’re also on hand to offer advice and support if you find that you’re struggling to keep up with the demands of the consultation exercise or programme.
Part of being realistic about new software and a new supplier is looking before you leap but it’s also about identifying potential pressure points in your consultation programme and having a plan in place to offset or overcome those pressure points. Our 10 years of experience working with LPAs, Councils and consultations covering many topics and document types means we can provide insights and advice to help you.
Rule 3: Provide some hard facts, preferably from current users
One of our clients undertook an audit of the amount of officer time that was expended managing a consultation exercise using their previous method for consultation management and then compared that to the amount of time expended using our dedicated consultation software. Over one year they calculated savings of around £60,000, primarily from less time being needed by officers to process responses and to go move through each stage of the consultation cycle. We can provide the report for this efficiency and cost saving audit if you want to read it.
The bottom line though is that it is a false economy to not invest in dedicated software when it is proven to both save money and to bring returns to the LPA on the initial investment, sometimes within the first year of the contract.
There is also the old adage that if you can’t measure it then you can’t manage it. Our software provides tools for you to measure, monitor and monitor each and every stage of the consultation process – even on a day-to-day basis – making your investment of time and money and the results of your work fully transparent to thise who need to know. In itself that level of transparency can be rewarding for your staff as it means their efforts are far easier to irecognise and acknowledge.
Here’s another fact. In over 10 years of providing our consultation software we have only lost 2 customers. We didn’t lose them to other suppliers, both customers had reached a point where a consultation system was no longer needed. In other words apart from new customers we have acquired in the last 3 years all our existing customers continue to renew their annual licences, long after the initial contract period has ended.
Rule 4: Not all software is the same
There are a number of suppliers providing consultation software from a hosted platform. Before making a decision it’s important that you consider what software features are most likely to support your consultation programme and to assist those officers charged with administering each and every consultation exercise. This might seem obvious but it’s very easy to be attracted to software that promises more features and functions than other software in the mistaken belief that all of these additional features are useful or even necessary. Many features are ‘nice to have’ but it’s better to have software that is proven to maximise efficiencies and cost savings where it matters: by prioritising features and functions that are tried, tested and optimised for reducing timescales and work-flows associated with the consultation programme.
This is expecially true in relation to the Local Plan and the expenditure on it, with the costs associated for some Councils’ Local Plans are running into 7 figure sums. In that kind of context it surely makes more sense to invest in a software product that has been tailored for the Local Plan process and consultations associated with it.
Our software includes many integrated features and modules some of which are optional such as our interactive mapping system. Why have a mapping system when virtually all Councils already have a GIS? For the simple reason that our mapping system is designed specifically with tools and functions to enable consultations and consultation documents to have a fully integrated and interactive spatial context and for maps to to be created and published from within the same user interface as the main consultation software. Everything in one place and fully integrated thus saving time and resources.
One of our standard and inclusive modules in our consultation system is a Programme Officer (P.O) module to help Council officers and the elected Programme Officer prepare all consultee data, documents and responses collated and stored within the consultation system for use at the examination stage. The P.O module allows relevant information to be categorised based on the issues determined by the Inspector. Under current legislation the examination process and therefore the Inspector’s time and involvement now start as soon as the Local Plan is submitted by the LPA. With this in mind the Inspector consciously front loads the examination process with a number of fundamentally important administrative and assessment tasks that will require a quick and efficient response from the LPA as directed by the Programme Officer. Planning Inspectorate charges are nearly £1000 per day so as a feature of our consultation software the Programme Officer module is designed to save money by harnessing the processing power of the database structure that underpins the whole system.
Our consultation system is built on a database but for the public it’s important that their experience of your online consultation system looks and feels like a normal Council web page or web service. That’s why we ensure that all consultation documents are structured as proper HTML pages and comply with all necessary web accessibility guidelines. Our work in corporate web and CMS development means that we are acutely aware of what puts off the public from using online Council services such as a consultation system. Part of measuring the success of an online consultation system is measuring its uptake by the public. We have customers who have gone from <30% online public users to >75% thereby maximising the efficiencies gained by being able to process all stages of the consultation online from within the software.
Not all software is the same but knowing how to differentiate one software from another is often difficult because it’s only by using the software that you learn to appreciate what is included in your licence fee. So at the very least call us in to demo the software and to give you access to the demo system. The proof really is in the pudding.
Rule 5: Service First
JDi’s consultation system is licensed as Software as a Service and it is the service element of the licence that is most important to the company. That’s because experience has shown time and again that service is the most important aspect to our customers. Software is great when it is doing what you want it to do but people quickly take that for granted when they start using the software. It’s when, for whatever reason, the software no longer does what you want or need it to do that you will pass judgement on the software and the supplier.
That’s why we use a dedicated server based in the UK for our consultation software. Our server is provided by Rackspace with whom we have a dedicated account manager. If there is a problem with our server we are in direct communication with our account manager until the probkel is resolved. The level of support provided by Rackspace means we can guarantee 100% uptime for our consultation software and for any websites we host on your behalf.
There are umpteen different reasons why software isn’t doing what you want it to do. There might be a bug that needs fixing, there might be an update to your preferred web browser that needs addressing in the software’s code or it might be that your browser preferences have been changed by another user or it could simply be that the person using the software and who is having the problem isn’t using the software properly. For us it makes no difference what the reason is, whether it’s system error or human error, the outcome is the same either way: the software isn’t doing what you need it to do and that needs to be fixed as a matter of priority.
It helps our customers that when they speak to our service desk they are speaking to the same people who develop and maintain the software. For our team it is part of their personal job satisfaction that the software experience is as good as it can be for any user so even if human error is the root of the problem it’s likely to prompt questions like “Is this process more complex that it needs to be?” or “is this human error easy to replicate and means we need to change something in the software help files?”
So often good software is undermined by bad service, support and maintenance. It’s inevitable that software problems and issues will arise that need fixing but in the final estimation it will be the speed, efficiency and attitude of of our people in fixing them that will create your lasting impression of the software itself.
By following these 5 Golden Rules we not only improve our chances of winning your business but also improve your chances of taking full advantage of the benefits our consultation software and services will deliver to you, your organisation, your staff and all your stakeholders in the consultation process.