01 February 2000
Steve Seaber describes how Hertfordshire County Council is using their call centre and website to enhance public access and add value and benefits
During late 1997 the County Council carried out a fundamental review of the way it operates. The findings of the Whole Organisation Review suggested a number of ways in which the County Council could deliver its services in a more integrated, effective and cost effective way.
As a result of these findings feasibility studies were carried out during the summer of 1998 under the title of Herts Connect. This name was chosen to reflect the aspirations of the County Council to make better connections with the people of Hertfordshire, between its own departments and with other agencies both in the public and private sector. An implementation programme was approved in September 1998.
Whilst the main focus of this paper relates to the proposals to enhance public access, the other elements of the project are summarised as the inter-relationships between them adds additional value and benefit.
The potential to reduce office stock was identified by using technology to reduce the reliance on fixed office locations. "Workwise" uses tele/home working, drop in office oasis and hot (shared) desking and aims to deliver a 26% reduction in office space over the next three years.
The County Council has also agreed that there is significant scope to rationalise property in partnership with other agencies such as district councils. A number of reviews of County Council property use based on specific settlements in Hertfordshire are planned including some in conjunction with District Councils. Discussions have also been held with the Health and Police Authorities and the Property Advisers to the Civil Estate (PACE).
Integrated Casework (Multi Agency Working – Children with Disabilities)
The Whole Organisation Review identified that services are delivered to people from within traditional structures and do not sufficiently recognise that the public may well need assistance from one or more other related services. This feasibility study concentrated on a specific group, children with disabilities and Special Educational Needs, receiving services from Education, Social Services and Health.
This work concluded that each of the agencies currently provided discrete services to the children and that there was no countywide strategy. There was also duplication in the recording, assessment and provision processes which some parents found extremely confusing. Agreement has been reached to adopt a holistic approach to these children utilising multi-disciplinary teams. This work is seen as not only improving the quality of this particular service but providing a model for use with other inter-agency working.
Public experience of contacting the County Council was not good, they did not know which council was responsible for services, phones were not answered or engaged, they were passed around and had to provide the same information to different people.
Analysis of the telephone contacts with the County Council revealed that most calls were transferred at least once and often several times before the caller made contact with the department they wanted. What the analysis did not reveal was how many people did not get through or how well the telephone was answered.
The public survey also indicated that increasingly people would want to use the Internet to contact their local councils and to carry out transactions relating to their entitlement and the purchase of services.
The following channels to improve public access, collectively known as the Gateway are currently being implemented:
• Herts Line – call centre
• Herts Online – Internet access
• Herts Enters – personal visitors
In addition to providing information more effectively these facilities will enable the public to carry out transactions with the County Council and other partners. The Gateway facilities will also enable information to be collected electronically on the demand for services and issues relating to them. The call centre and web site would also enhance the County Council's ability to consult the public.
The conclusion of the feasibility study relating to the call centre was that initially almost 1.5 million calls could be transferred from a range of services and locations. The majority of these calls would be for information but the public will also be able to carry out straightforward transactions such as the provision of education and travel benefits although it is anticipated that more complex activities could be added at a later stage.
The main task of the call centre will be to provide highest industry standards for call answering with improved consistency of response and service. More than 70% of calls would be dealt with without referral to specialist staff.
It is estimated that the call centre will utilise 80 operating positions and cost significantly less than the current arrangements. Initially the call centre will be open for 67 hours per week compared with the current 45 hours, a limited 24 hour service will also be available and may be further enhanced if demand increases.
The call centre, managed by Capita and located in Stevenage, was opened on 29th October 1999.
The use of the Internet for both personal and business use is growing rapidly. It is predicted that the number of people wishing to contact and do business with local government by the Internet will increase significantly. The existing web site is being upgraded to provide transactional facilities. The web site, which will provide 24 hour access, will also have different channels for specific groups such as young people and individual communities.
Underpinning the call centre and web site is a database containing information on all of the County Council services and relevant information on district, town and parish councils, other public organisations and the voluntary sector. The information base has brought together a large number of existing information sources, these included existing databases, hard copy and the most difficult to access the information carried in peoples heads!
The Information Pot will also be available to all County Council establishments, staff (including those on Workwise) and members via the intranet, offering significant potential to reduce the printing costs of the County Council.
This will require a significant shift in a culture reliant on hard copy. Guidance notes, telephone directories, procedures, meeting papers and the myriad of information and consultation documents can now be published on the intranet. Additionally internal transactions currently requiring paper transfers can be carried out electronically.
Home Office Services
The Fire and Rescue Service remained a department of Hertfordshire County Council following the Local Government Review. The service will make full use of the Gateway to provide information on the service and fire safety matters. The Internet site will also allow businesses to apply for fire certificates and communicate by email with the service. The call centre could also be used to support recruitment campaigns, which generate several thousand requests for information and several hundred applications. Currently these are managed by specialist personnel and uniformed officers diverted from their normal duties. The call centre and web site could also support general and targeted fire safety campaigns.
The information base already contains basic information on Police services in Hertfordshire. Discussions have been held with the Police Authority to consider how they might make wider use of the call centre and web site, which will be determined as part of their wider review of communications.
The provision of personal access (one-stop shop) facilities was also considered as a way of improving contact between the public and County Council. However, the actual demand has not been easy to identify and it is proposed at this stage to pilot the principle in existing locations and where possible in partnership with other agencies.
Potential Future Developments
There are clearly a number of benefits to the delivery of local government services using the technology now available. County Council members requested that the potential for partnership with other local authorities should be explored.
Three Rivers District Council were investigating the use of a call centre and the two councils have shared their technical knowledge and worked together through the procurement phase of the project. This co-operation will result in staff being able to deal with enquiries relating to either council providing a seamless service to the public and is seen as a model which could be transferred to other councils or public sector bodies.
The selection of a partner and location for the call centre has encouraged interest from other District Councils in Hertfordshire. In addition discussions have been held with the Valuation Office, Land Registry, Citizens Advice Bureau, TEC and Careers Service all of whom wish to explore how their services can be incorporated and/or delivered through the call centre. Similar discussions have also been held with a number of agencies in Hertfordshire to seek to agree a framework to allow an integrated public sector web site.
The County Council is currently part of a consortium bid for funding from the government 'Invest to Save' Scheme. Partners in the bid are Three Rivers District Council, North Herts District Council and Watford Borough Council, Harpenden Town Council, NHS Direct and a combination of the TEC, University and Colleges.
The use of the call centre and web site offer a number of advantages in terms of efficiency and economy to the county council and its partners. However, most importantly they can provide much easier and efficient and seamless access to the public of Hertfordshire with a resultant increase in confidence in local government.
Please how do I get our U3A onto your site as our branch (Harpenden) desperately needs new members. We are in danger of having to fold if we cannot ride the recession. Many thanks
Valerie hughes - Harpenden/ UK/U3A