Efficient customer service

With a customer service and efficiency theme it will come as no surprise to find, as one of the keynote speakers, Sir David Varney, author of December’s report for the Treasury called ‘Service Transformation: a Better Service for Citizens and Businesses, a Better Deal for Taxpayers’. Delegates will get the chance to question Sir David on the report, as well as the extent to which he sees its recommendations applying in local government as well as central government.

Managing different contact channels
The report identifies significant improvements and cost savings that could be made through better management of different contact channels, in particular by encouraging increased take-up of the web and by handling telephone contact better. Sir David notes that best practice from the private sector emphasises an approach based on ‘channel optimisation’ — using each channel for what it is best at, but cautions that ‘these channels need to be thought of as offering an integrated service, rather than being reviewed individually’.
    
These themes will be picked up later in the day in a presentation from Socitm Insight programme manager Martin Greenwood on recent findings from Socitm Insight research into the way local authorities are using the web and telephone to provide services and information. ‘Better answered’, one of the reports based on this research, has highlighted the fact that many councils are failing to join up the telephone and web channels to generate efficiencies in the way they handle incoming enquiries.
    
The research found that many councils are failing to encourage enquirers to make use of information provided on their websites – for example just 21 per cent use their out-of-hours message to refer callers there. In addition, telephone enquiries by researchers to a sample of local authorities found that on a number of occasions they were passed around different departments or even referred to different organisations only to find that valuable information on the council’s website had never been mentioned by council staff handling the enquiries.

Improving usability
Research published in ‘Better connected 2007’, the latest annual survey of all local authority websites has shown that although council websites continue to improve, usabilty remains a stumbling block. Testing of sites for the usability of third-party software used for three specific applications - planning registers, library reservations and e-payments - showed up some significant flaws in the software supplied to councils and in the way in which that software has been integrated in the rest of the website.
    
In addition, the report highlights some issues of major concern where users are required to register for online services. Only 19 sites of 168 tested were found to have a registration form that is secure, considered by reviewers to be well presented, and with the registration process and reasons for registering being clearly described.

Useful or usable?
The connection between a website being ‘useful’ and ‘usable’ and its being used – and thus creating efficiencies around enquiry handling – will be explored in a case study drawn from another Socitm Insight report that will be published at the end of March 2007. ‘Better marketed: achieving success with online services’ includes a case study on success with online recruitment from Leicester City Council.  This will be presented at the Spring Seminar by Shilpa Arya from Human resources and Steve Scott, web manager.
    
Over the last three years, Leicester has developed and launched its online Job Shop. The project has involved revisiting recruitment processes across the council and has revealed huge opportunities for efficiency gains. It has also led to a convenient, easy-to-use jobs service which is clearly valued by applicants.
    
By the end of 2006, some 85 per cent of all applications were being made online, while strong usage of the website vacancies pages has given the Council the confidence to reduce by two thirds its traditional media advertising budget – leading to anticipated savings in 2006/07 - and in future years - of up to one million pounds.

Lyons’ report
Complementing the Varney exposition of emerging Government policy on service transformation, and the presentations about how service transformation is being approached in real life, will be an address from local government commentator and public service reform expert Tony Travers. Director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, Tony Travers will be giving his views on Michael Lyons work on the funding and function of local government originally commissioned in July 2004.
    
Also included in the day’s programme is a case study on business continuity presented by John Nutley, head of customer and information services, Carlisle City Council. In January 2005 Carlisle city centre, including the council offices, were inundated with flood water, incapacitating the ICT function and as a result, compromising the council’s ability to respond to an emergency that left many citizens stranded and homeless.
    
A number of recent, high-profile disasters like the Buncefield oil terminal explosion and the flood at Boscastle, have affected council ICT services, and Carlisle’s story provides a reminder of the expectations on councils from the Civil Contingencies Act, and whether they are sufficiently prepared to cope with threats to business continuity arising from these dramatic - as well as more mundane – events that take out the ICT service.
    
Some councils may need to establish up to date disaster recovery plans for ICT services, and the lessons that can be learned from the Carlisle experience will provide plenty of food for thought, including the question: ‘How would we have coped faced with a similar situation?’

Highlighting partnerships
Finally, there will be a presentation around the highly topical subject of partnership working from Andrew Moulton, corporate head of IT at Wokingham District Council and David Lewis, account director at Digica.
    
What is interesting about the relationship between Wokingham DC and Digica is that it started out being genuinely recognised as an outsourcing relationship. Unusually it has since that time developed in to a partnership arrangement that is now key to the Council’s transformation programme. At a time when selective outsourcing is being used by an increasing number of local authorities (see IT Trends 2006/07) this unusual case will be of significant interest.

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