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Swindon Borough Council’s Innovative Approach to Free School Meals

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Following the anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown, Swindon Borough Council discusses the impact that COVID-19 has had on applications for Free School Meals. A team lead by Sarah Talbot, Emerging Technologies Lead, quickly initiated an innovative digital transformation project as the pandemic hit, enabling it to meet surging demand and ensure that local children could access much-needed support.

With more families entering the benefit system, applications for Free School Meals across the region rose more than 2,000% in  March 2020, compared to 2019 figures, and they remain consistently high. Understanding the financial difficulties that families in its jurisdiction were facing, the team developed a strategy that used a digital solution to eradicate manual processes where appropriate and achieve previously unattainable speeds for the processing of requests – achieving a 98% efficiency increase. The innovative approach enabled a team of four people to successfully manage the scale of the issue and reduce the turnaround time for parents and carers by 66%, helping to provide reassurance as well ensuring children were provided with vital nutrition.

Commenting on the success of the project, Sarah Talbot said: “We are delighted with the success of this project and the positive impact it made in such a socially valuable area. The past 12 months have been incredibly difficult for many families and through embracing new technology we have been able to make a genuine difference to real lives and outcomes.”

The team utilised Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology to create instantaneous communication between the council and the Department of Education. Synchronisation in data between systems (the Department for Education portal, Jadu and CapitaOne) has achieved multiple benefits, including providing parents and carers with confirmation of eligibility at speed, as well as safeguarding sensitive information and reducing the opportunity for error by removing the need for information to be recreated on multiple databases.

The Swindon team and NDL, a UK SME that specialises in transformational technology with social purpose, together built a seamless, automated digital process.  It enables a parent or carer to complete an online form that, once submitted, is automatically checked against the data held in relevant systems. On occasions where data needed to be resubmitted later, for example when an application for Universal Credits was being processed by the Department for Work and Pensions, the system automatically schedules a re-check.

The success of the Free School Meals project as a Proof of Concept enabled the team to create a new RPA system for the Children’s Social Care team, which integrated children social care processes (between CareDirector and CapitaOne). The team were able to build on existing investment and learnings to achieve time and cost efficiencies.

Sarah continues: “Initially a Proof of Concept, the project was successfully delivered in just two months by a very small team and at the height of a global pandemic. I believe that success was achieved through true partnership and collaboration between Swindon Borough Council and NDL. We’re incredibly proud of what we have been able to achieve so far on behalf of residents in our region, instilling new ways of thinking and pushing forward with innovation to deliver the best service possible.”

Tom Wright, Head of Digital Engagement at NDL said: “Sarah and the team at Swindon Borough Council were incredibly proactive in their approach, using innovation to meet the pressures associated with the pandemic. A digital-first approach enabled them to adapt quickly in a crisis and ensure applications were handled with precision and at speed, which made a meaningful difference to the lives of families that would otherwise have faced potentially significant delays accessing support in a time of need. This same situation is also being faced by the 150 other Local Authorities across the country, and we hope that they will find the learnings in Swindon useful as they consider their strategy moving forward.”

NDL works with a community of public sector organisations that share best practice and innovation, so that similar challenges across the country can be overcome more easily. For more information, please contact info@ndl.co.uk or visit https://www.ndl.co.uk/NEWS-EVENTS/Case-Studies/Case-Studies/Swindon-Borough-Council to download the case study.

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