Transforming control rooms

If a caller doesn’t feel they have received an adequate response to their enquiry, it could negatively impact upon their view of the local police force and knock their trust and confidence in the police in general.

Prioritising good call handling
While a report conducted by the benchmarking consultancy Merchants in 2008 praised the service for its commitment to improvement in contact management, measurement of customer satisfaction and low call abandonment rates, good call handling has not always been a priority. Indeed, a Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) assessment conducted in 2004 identified call management as the second worst performing function in a range of policing activities across England and Wales. Meanwhile, a report entitled ‘First Contact’, published by HMIC a year later, admitted that the call handling provided by most forces “currently falls short of the standards the public demands and deserves”.
    
So what has happened over the past four years to radically alter the way police contact centres – or control rooms, as they are more commonly known in the service – manage their customers: the public?

Beyond the call
Undoubtedly, developments in technology have helped; many forces have already bought or are looking to invest in kit such as workforce management. But the various authorities overseeing the police service have also had a major part to play in the transformation.
    
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), in conjunction with the Home Office, arguably kick-started the process in 2004 by launching a ‘Quality of Service Commitment’ which laid out overarching principles around ease of contact for members of the public, quality of service, the handling of enquiries, and provision of information and feedback, swiftly following them up with a set of National Call Handling Standards in early 2005. The ‘First Contact’ report and a subsequent HMIC piece entitled ‘Beyond the Call’ also created much impetus as both contained a series of recommendations for individual forces to adhere to.
    
In addition, the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) was formally launched in April 2007 with one of its key remits being around the supervision of a National Contact Management Programme that would help individual forces implement the Call Handling Standards. That agency has now committed to producing a National Contact Management Strategy, expected to be published later this year, and to updating the 2005 Call Handling Standards. It is also looking to produce an online central repository of effective practice and guidance to support forces.

Change at local level
The transformation isn’t, however, only attributable to those agencies overseeing the work of the police service. The appetite for change in individual forces has also had a significant role.
    
“It might sound basic, but one of the first things we did, maybe two years ago, was to get our switchboard staff to ask more questions when people rang in to ensure callers were routed to the right place,” says Andy Massey, operational communications branch room manager – Claytonbrook Site – at Greater Manchester Police (GMP). “By doing that, we were able to reduce demand on the control rooms by 10 to 15 per cent straight away.”
    
“We’ve also started collecting a lot more details at the first point of contact,” he adds. “So rather than telling a member of the public that they will be called back or routing them through to a specific officer, we are now taking down the details of crimes straight away at our end so the investigating officers can get on with their job rather than spending valuable hours gathering information.”
    
On the flipside, he also acknowledges that the practice has made GMP a lot more citizen-focused: one of the key targets laid out in a Policing Green Paper published by the government last July. In time, the approach may even drive up detection rates – as evidenced by Pauline Smith, head of contact centre operations at Nottinghamshire Police.
    
“We saw this happen when I was [working] at Staffordshire [Police],” she says. “By gathering more intelligence when people called the contact centre, our investigating officers were able to give a much better quality of service, quicker, and detection rates went up.
    
“For me, it’s about using the contact centre as a strategic part of police service delivery – seeing it as an integral part of the machine rather than as an add-on,” she continues. “While capturing more detail at the beginning of a call may appear to create extra costs because of the increase in call duration and so on, the overall cost to the organisation is reduced because investigation time goes down and detection rates go up.”
    
Outside the realm of ‘first contact’, GMP has set up a quality assurance public satisfaction team which rings back members of the public before an officer has arrived at the scene of an incident to gauge how they felt about the telephone service they received.

Scheduling appointments
It has also, like London’s Metropolitan Police Service, started using a scheduled appointment system whereby if a member of the public rings with a non-emergency query, they are asked if they would prefer to be visited by an officer, at a time convenient for them, over the next couple of days rather than wait for someone to arrive that same day.
    
“We’ve successfully piloted this in some of our boroughs and are bringing at least one more online in early 2009,” says Lucy D’Orsi, superintendent at the Metropolitan Police (Central Communications Command). “It’s a positive move from the customer’s point of view because we’re giving them a choice based on what would suit them rather than telling them they have to wait indefinitely for an officer to arrive.”
    
Other positive steps undertaken by the Metropolitan Police include the creation of a ‘command and control pod’ to deal with large-scale incidences without affecting the rest of the call handling service, and a support mechanism for call handlers in the force’s three contact centres should they be faced with exceptionally high call volumes.
    
“If the call volume for one particular borough gets too high, we have an overflow system which enables people from a local, borough-based support pool to call customers back to update them on the progress of their initial enquiry,” D’Orsi explains.
    
“We’ve also developed a community engagement group for each of the three centres, and invite representatives from each of the boroughs’ independent advisory groups to come in to talk about the needs of the community and relations on the customer contact side,” she adds.

Improving strategies
While HMIC had identified call management to be the second worst performing function in a range of policing activities across England and Wales in 2004, it witnessed significant improvements in the following two years. In 2003-4, no forces across England and Wales were graded as ‘excellent’ in terms of their contact management, only 16 were deemed to be ‘good’ and five were considered ‘poor’. Two years later, in 2005-6, four were considered to be ‘excellent’, 20 ‘good’ and just one ‘poor’. A reassessment undertaken in 2007, meanwhile, showed that no single force now sits in the ‘poor’ category.
    
When the NPIA unveils its National Contact Management Strategy later this year and its new National Contact Handling Standards thereafter, there will undoubtedly be more progression still.

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