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Government Spending Cutbacks – What Can Be Done?

The current cutbacks following the review in Government spending seem to be hitting pretty much everyone within Bereavement Services at the moment.

I had a meeting with a Bereavement Services manager a few of weeks ago who said that he was expecting budget cuts of between 30% and 40%.  These cuts will come after already having had to deal with significant budget cuts in the past two years.

His view is that unless an alternative solution can be found then in order to cope with these spending cuts he will need to increase funeral costs.  He’s also fully aware that you cannot increase these prices significantly.  This is a service that the public ‘need’ during a period of emotional turmoil.  The moral implications of increasing prices are therefore significant and are compounded by the obvious ‘bad press’ that it might generate.

The bereavement services manager I met is not unusual.  Others have said that the only way they will be able to provide a service whilst operating within their given budget is to reduce the number of hours that their admin. staff work and therefore move them on to part-time contracts.   Of course this can have huge implications on the service that is offered to the public.

Other managers are saying that they will be forced to do less grounds maintenance work.  Cut the grass every 4 weeks as opposed to every 2 weeks.  Carry out restoration and painting works every 6 years as opposed to every 3 years.  This move won’t be popular with the public, but faced with such stringent monetary measures what are the alternatives?

Charging for Services

One of the alternatives that is being put forward at the moment is to take advantage of the huge public interest in Genealogy.  That is, for Cemeteries and Crematoriums to charge members of the public to access and view the records held within their registers and plot maps.

This is nothing new.  The vast majority of Bereavement Services that I speak to have some sort of charging mechanism in place already.  If a member of the public wanted to know if and where a particular person is buried within the Authorities grounds then the council charges a ‘look up’ service.  These prices vary widely.   I have heard that one authority charges £5 per look-up and another charges £35 for any part of the first hour and then £20 per hour thereafter.

But do Bereavement Service staff actually implement these charges?

The majority that I meet do not.  With the exception of only a handful of Authorities who have said that there are occasions when they implement their charges (i.e. for professional Genealogists) the others have told me directly that they don’t.  Why?  The reasons for not charging are obvious and are generally on moral grounds.  If a member of the public has visited the cemetery in order to locate a loved one in the grounds then it sort of goes against the grain to charge them for the look-up service.

However, what if that same member of the public then wants to locate a few more deceased records?  What if that same person asks for copies or print-outs of the original entries as written within the registers?  Or asks for a copy of a cemetery plot map which pin-points the physical grave?

This kind of scenario seems to lead to a shift in moral perspective for most Bereavement Service staff and probably rightly so.  Faced with budget cuts and the prospect of reducing or losing administrative staff, why should Authorities offer this service for Free when they could be charging and generating new revenue?

Generate New Revenue?  But what’s in it for me?

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that statement said to me, well, I wouldn’t be rich but I’d had a very heavy pocket full of change!

In the majority of cases it seems that when a Bereavement Service department generates surplus funds, the money simply goes back in to the central pot of the Authority where it offsets the other ‘less efficient’ or ‘cost burdening’ departments.  I am sure that every Bereavement Service Manager would like to retain part of the surplus funds they have worked so hard to generate.  They could then re-invest it within their department and potentially generate even more funds.

Persuading the ‘powers that be’ to allow them to retain some of the funds that they have generated is no easy task.  However, through these difficult and changing times there may be an opportunity to express your view and for it to be finally adopted.

At the moment, every single Authority is asking every Senior Manager to come up with new and innovative fund generating measures.  So now might actually be the very best time to put your ‘Business Case’ to the key decision makers.  What have you got to lose?

“Putting a Business Case together can take many, many months and a decision might take years”, I hear many of you say.

Well actually, yes, that’s probably true.

So if you are able to generate new revenue but you are not able to retain any of it (at least in the short term), is there really any incentive to do it?

Well actually, yes there is and it comes down to keeping your job and keeping your staff in jobs…

Keeping Your Job

Whilst mingling and socialising with many of you at the last ICCM conference in September, a word on the lips of many people seemed to be ‘re-structuring’.  Many Authorities are looking at ‘re-structuring’ departments in order to save costs.

Re-structuring has many connotations but in terms of Bereavement Services it generally boils down to:

  • Can the service be operated with less admin or grounds staff?
  • Can the service still be run efficiently if man-hours are reduced?
  • Can the service be moved and managed by a different department and therefore remove the Bereavement Service Manager altogether?
  • Can the service be run more efficiently if part of it was to be outsourced to a private company?
  • Can the Authority team up with neighbouring authorities and share services and therefore reduce headcount?

Quite simply, if you want to retain your job and the jobs of those around you, you need to start being pro-active.

I was speaking to a manager at a Scottish Authority recently who’s job is currently ‘under review’ whilst they go through a period of ‘re-structuring’.  What would you do in his case? Would you be patient and wait to see what happens?  Or would you be pro-active and try to show just how valuable you and your department are to the authority?

This particular Bereavement Services Manager has been very pro-active.  He has carried out a review of his service, made suggestions about possible cost savings and also described innovate new measures to save staff time and to generate new revenue for the Authority by charging members of the public to access his cemetery records.

Benefits of Providing Public Access to Cemetery Records

There are two main benefits to providing public access to your cemetery records:

  1. Saving Staff Time: If there’s a review or a mandate to reduce the number of staff on your team or to reduce their core working hours then utilising staff time more effectively becomes an absolute priority.  Freeing your staff’s time so that they can spend more time on ‘core services’ will be paramount.
  2. Generating New Revenue: In a climate where your bosses are asking you to come up with new ways to work and innovate ways to ‘cut or generate money’ for the Authority – then this seems like a no-brainer.  In fact, if truth be told, regardless of how much or how little might be generated by allowing public access – it’s the concept of your department being a ‘profit centre’ that will bring a gleaming smile to those people making the important decisions.  To put it another way, if you were to say to your senior managers ‘We are actually losing money whilst we do nothing’ then you may just get the reaction you are looking for.

So, if your staff are saving time by no longer providing the ‘look-up’ service; If your authority is able to charge the public for access to the records; If members of the public can access the records from the comfort of their own home and pay just a few pounds for the privilege; then in these uncertain times surely this is now a “win-win-win” all around.

Costs & Processes associated with Providing Public Access

But, of course, there are costs associated with placing your records online.  These costs can often be phased and split over financial years. You may even need to consider tackling the project on a cemetery by cemetery or year by year basis in order to work within your financial constraints.

If you are to place your records online then members of the public will want to search through your database by typing in a surname, forename and year.  And, of course, they will want to see an actual image of the entry from the register.  They may also want to see a map showing the physical location of the headstone.

So what are the costs and processes that you will need to go through in order to provide public access?

Scanning (or digitising) your registers and maps

The FIRST PHASE in the process will be to scan your indexes, registers and maps.  As you know, these are often old and fragile items and so it is important that they are scanned using appropriate (non contact) equipment.

Being without your registers and maps for any lengthy period of time is likely to be problematic for you because you won’t be able to enter records or do searches whilst they are not with you.  It’s therefore important to know roughly how long the scanning process will take.

Scanning a bound register of say 200 pages should typically take around 30 minutes.  To scan a map up to A2 size will take around 3 minutes.  Scanning a map between A2 and A0 will take around 30 minutes.

Some suppliers may be able to perform the scanning at your premises.  If, however, they are to be sent away then the supplier should be able to perform a ‘search and retrieve’ service whilst they are in their possession.

Output file formats should be to Tiff and Jpeg at around 300dpi and to ‘actual size’.  This will allow you to re-print them to the best quality and to their original size.  Tiff’s and Jpeg’s can be viewed using standard Microsoft Windows Viewer, however, the supplier might be able to supply simple software that allows you to flick through the pages of a register and also print, fax and email the pages.  If the software has ‘copy and paste’ functionality then you will be able to ‘copy and paste’ individual entries (rather than the entire page) in to external applications such as Microsoft Word or Outlook.

There are many benefits to scanning your registers and maps which include: Speedier lookups and retrieval of records; The ability to print copies of the pages and maps on demand; The ability to save and email pages and maps (as jpegs) to enquirers; The option to charge for delivery of the prints or images; The freeing up of valuable office space; Preservation of the original books and maps.

After scanning your registers and maps you may be looking for an opportunity to display your books online or to import the images in to a Cemeteries Administration System, however, it is likely that you will need to perform some transcription before being able to do this.

The cost for the scanning phase will vary depending on the number of pages/maps and whether the scanning is completed on site or off site – but typically you will be looking at a cost of around £100 per book and around £30 for an A0 map.

Transcribing your records

The SECOND PHASE in the process will be to transcribe your records.  The transcription would normally be performed from your scanned images which means that your registers do not need to be sent away.  It also means that the transcription should be performed quicker because more than one typist can work on the same register at the same time.

It goes without saying that the typists should be experienced in transcribing old, hand-written records and they should be able to offer and perhaps guarantee an accuracy rate of over 95%.

You will need to decide which fields you want to transcribe.  It sometimes makes little sense to transcribe all of the fields and there will be huge cost savings if you simply transcribe key fields from the registers that enable you to perform a look-up.  These will typically be: Cemetery, Section, Grave Number, Surname, Forename, Date of Burial.  You may also wish to consider transcribing some extra fields such as burial/cremation number and age.  These additional fields might be useful if you are looking to import the records in to a system or to place them online.

The records are likely to be delivered to you in Microsoft Excel format (or csv format).  This is a common format because it is easy to import the records in to other systems or upload them to the web in this format.

Ideally your supplier will be able to ‘link’ your records to the scanned register pages and then supply you with software that allows you to search on the keyfields (surname, forename, date etc.) and the software will then show you all register pages which match your search criteria.

There are many benefits to transcribing your records, not least the fact that it will significantly speed up your ability to find records.  But also the fact that there will be an option to import these records in to a Cemetery Administration System and perhaps also display them online.

The cost for the transcription phase will be variable depending on the number of records and the number of fields that are to be transcribed – but typically you will be looking at a cost of around £5K to transcribe 70,000 records.

Putting your Records Online

The THIRD PHASE in the process will be for you to consider placing your scanned images and associated transcribed records online for the public to view.

You have three choices with regards to how you go about offering this service to the public:

  1. Via a single third party ‘website portal’ on a revenue sharing basis.
  2. Via multiple third party ‘portals’ on a revenue sharing basis.
  3. Via your own website with the council retaining all revenue.

I met with a London Borough Council recently where they voiced a few concerns about using a certain third party portal website – mainly the length of the contract (7 years); the ‘exclusive sole rights’ (meaning you cannot display your records anywhere else for 7 years); and the amount of revenue that the council might lose (up to 55%).

However, displaying your records via a third party provider might still be the right way forward for you. What is more, there is not just one third party provider that will want access to your records but actually 2 or 3.  It is therefore important to realise that you have a choice and much depends on whether you are looking for sustained and sometimes higher longer term gains over shorter term quick wins:

  • If you are looking to place your records online via Service Providers (on a shared revenue basis) then perhaps try to ensure that there is no tie in to a sole provider “non exclusive sole rights”. This will mean that you can then potentially earn more revenue by having your data spread across multiple portal sites.
  • Once the ‘non exclusive sole rights’ contract has been settled then negotiate the length of the contract to ensure that the council is able to withdraw from the contract at a specific point if the agreement is failing.
  • Work out the potential loss of income that the council could lose my signing up to an ‘exclusive sole rights’ agreement.  Losses of up to 55% of revenue should be weighed up against factors such as what the council might save in terms of the amount of staff time it takes to handle genealogy queries; and also the marketing that the Service Provider put’s in to advertising their website.

One final note is that of course a council does not necessarily need to go with any third party service provider.  A council can place their records online via their own council website (and thus retain all revenue).  Furthermore the same supplier may be able to complete all three phases for you: 1. Scan your records; 2. Transcribe your records; 3. Place them online via your own website.

A typical cost for integrating the scanned records and transcribed records in to your own website will be less than £5K.

Summary

Pressures have been mounting for a number of years from central government with regards to tackling the subject of scanning cemetery records and making them publicly accessible.

This started with central government stipulating time-frames for supplying information to the public via the Freedom of Information Act.  The government then provided guidelines and stipulations with regards to offering online access to records (e-government).  Finally there’s legislation which says that should a  government department be at risk of losing their records to fire, flood, theft etc. then they must have a ‘business continuity plan in place’ (records need to be backed up).

Following the recent spending review and the huge cutbacks in public spending then the debate with regards to charging for existing and new services is now more prevalent than ever.

This is a fantastic opportunity where scanning, transcribing and making your records available to the public must be considered by your financial controllers who are currently scrutinising every last penny and looking for ‘savings’.  This is a prime opportunity to say ‘You must consider doing this because for every day that passes and we do nothing WE ARE LOSING MONEY’!

This article was written by Paul Sugden and Karon Smith of TownsWeb Archiving Ltd.  Paul and Karon can be contacted at: [email protected] or 01536 713834 and are  available to present these findings to heads of department.