Public sector organisations are desperate for people to engage with them online. This has the potential to be, in the long run, transformative and radically cost-reducing.
But not if they do what the City of Edinburgh Council did to me. In April 2012, just after I received my Council Tax bill, I filled out the form on the Council website, and received an email back as follows:
Thank you for submitting your form for Set up a direct debit to pay your Council Tax or Non-Domestic Rates. Your request will now be processed and a bill detailing your direct debit payments issued to you.
Fine. I’ve sorted out my payments and don’t have to worry about this anymore.
But…no. I returned from a little while away to find a reminder notice (with no mention of the original direct debit) and, as I had been away and missed the original payment date, a Sheriff Officers’s letter demanding that I pay the original charge plus a 150 pound penalty fee.
I phone the City of Edinburgh Council, and after fighting with the telephone tree for several minutes finally managed to speak to a human. They said that the Direct Debit had failed and that I was meant to interpret the reminder (which made no mention of the Direct Debit) as an indication of this, despite having received the email saying that my “Direct Debit…was being processed” with no further email or letter to say that it had failed.
A call to my bank received the response that no Direct Debit Mandate had been received from the council, and therefore no payments had been able to be made.
I remain livid about this. I had tried to be a “good citizen” and use the system that the Council were promoting heavily, only to be stiffed with a financial penalty with no explicit warning that my attempt to pay by Direct Debit had failed, just a generic “reminder” which might still have been sent if the DD had been in the middle of being processed. Of course I’m going to appeal against the penalty but I don’t see why I should have to go through all this trouble.
Based on this experience I would advise people not to engage with this way of paying Council Tax—which is a pity as I am usually a great advocate of using technology to improve public services.
What could they have done better:
- Informed me properly that the Direct Debit had failed. A generic reminder letter, received after I had already received a positive email to say that my payment was being processed, was not enough. They really need to follow up that positive email with an explicit email/letter to say that the specific means of payment had failed.
- Shown some contrition when I phoned up to sort this out. If they had just said “yes, okay, we’re sorry that we didn’t inform you, we’ll take the payment now and waive the penalty charge” I would have been perfectly happy. As it is I’m now fired up to write letters to my Councillors and MP and to the local paper and tweet about it.
- Got the damn process right in the first place. If you’re going to try and persuade people to use a new system it really needs to work from the outset, otherwise people will be put off it for years. I’ll probably not engage with this web-based system again, I just don’t trust it. Early failure can poison the well for ever: I still don’t trust the automated cheque paying-in systems in banks because the first time I tried one, 20 years ago or so, it just failed and lost my cheque.
Update 2012-07-18. Edinburgh council sorted out the problem the next day and waived the penalty charge, and gave a very sincere apology. Kudos to them for fast correction of mistakes.