Local governments across the UK are being told they need to do more with less. But to get the kind of results they’re after, local authorities can’t just go on squeezing additional efficiency out of business-as-usual – they need to do new with less instead. They have to truly transform their approach to service delivery -- and one of the best ways to do that is by getting citizens involved.

The London borough of Lewisham knew it needed to do a better job of cleaning up graffiti and illegal garbage ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games, so they worked with Blackburn IT Services, known as BBits, to develop the “Love Lewisham” service, which let officials show off the work being done to respond to citizens’ cleaning requests. It was a good start, but it wasn’t a truly transformative solution, because it didn’t get people involved. Citizens are always going be better than local officials at spotting urban problems. To really get a handle on urban blight, the solution needed to allow citizens to talk to officials with the same ease that officials talk to citizens. Citizens have long been able to call in complaints, but making the effort to call in a piece of graffiti can be difficult and time-consuming for the citizen. It’s also more expensive for the local council, since providing a citizen service online can be much cheaper than doing the same thing via phone.

BBits developed the Love Clean Streets solution, which allowed citizens to use an app to report graffiti or other issues directly their local authorities by submitting a photo of the problem with their smartphone. The solution ran in the cloud using Windows Azure, which meant it could be truly multiplatform. It also meant that citizens could get instant confirmation of their report, which helped them feel engaged in the process. The solution in now used by more than 40 local authorities in the UK. At one of those authorities, the solution lead to a 34% drop in aggregate call centre usage. That’s a big deal, since reporting and responding to a problem via the app costs about £1.50, compared with about £6 via a call centre. Officials from that authority estimate they’re going to save £125,000 a year by using the app.

Of course, those are just the financial benefits, which are easy to quantify. The long-term benefits of getting citizens involved in reporting urban blight are harder to calculate, but could prove to be much more significant in the long term. Getting citizens to report these kinds of problems in Lewisham lead to 87% faster response times and cut graffiti by 73%

Experts have long known that these kinds of seemingly minor cosmetic improvements can have enormous effects on everything from crime to economic acceleration.

What makes the Lewisham story so inspiring is that shows local governments can make big changes when they’re willing to step back and look for truly transformational changes that engage citizens. By putting people first and by being willing to question old assumptions, Lewisham are finding ways to do new with less.

Learn more about Love Clean Streets and check out the Microsoft CityNext page for more stories of how cities around the world are transforming services, engaging citizens and accelerating growth.