Public access to information and services
13 June 2000
Caryl Wright, Information Services Manager for Surrey County Council, recommends careful planning and training to reap the benefits of the call centre revolution
In early 1997, Surrey County Council set up a review to examine ways of achieving budget savings. Elected members and officers sat on the review committee, chaired by the chief executive. It was known as Fundamental Review 51, and one recommendation highlighted the issue of how the public accessed council services.
The review concluded that technology will enable very considerable changes to service access. Research shows evidence of considerable growth in direct and on-line services by telephone and by the internet. The future prospect is of the integration of computer and TV technology, so that customers and citizens can order services, and indeed vote by TV – thereby enhancing direct democracy. The integration of TV and internet services is a breakthrough technology that will have radical implications.
It was recommended that the public's access to services should be restructured for the following reasons:
• Access needs to be convenient to the public and match its expectations.
• The Surrey public is highly educated, but is also diverse, with significant segments of the elderly, disabled and those with high needs, so access needs to match that diversity.
• Service access arrangements also need to take account of Surrey's geographic and community diversity.
• Since the public is presently confused about local authority services, opportunities should be taken to achieve seamless access for the public, whilst retaining the identity of, and accountability for, county and district services.
• Information should be provided on the 'input once, output many' principle.
• Technology, combined with different working practices, should substitute buildings where appropriate, because the former is more cost-effective.
The Fundamental Review led to the Public Access to Information and Services Strategy (PAIS), agreed by the elected members in April 1998. This focused on reviewing how the public accessed services by telephone, electronically and face to face. Fundamental Review 51 research showed that 80% of Surrey residents chose to access the Council by telephone, and it was decided to set up a call centre to act as the first point of telephone contact.
The call centre would act as a filter, dealing with requests for information and selected service transactions in a one-stop shop way, releasing the time of services under pressure by removing the need for them to answer time-absorbing routine enquiries. Through carefully defined parameters with service departments, accurate referrals would be made when the call fell outside the agreed role of the call centre staff.
In order to ensure that staff were adequately trained to deal with the calls received, it was decided to phase in services over time, with education and community services being the first services to come into the call centre.
Surrey County Council appointed a project manager, Mark Cope, to be responsible for setting up the call centre. He gathered a design team, with representatives from Education and Community Services as well as experts in IT and telecommunications, who guided the development process. I was appointed as call centre manager four months prior to opening. Although I had trained as a librarian, and worked for many years in television, my immediate background had been in setting up and managing telephone helpline information services, and I have over the last ten years worked in the voluntary sector for SANE, the British Diabetic Association and Refuge. At a time when commercial call centres were widely criticised as modern day sweatshops, I understand that it was felt that someone with this kind of experience would add understanding and integrity in a world driven by fast-developing new technology.
I appointed seven staff, some working full time and others part time. As well as one internal candidate with a very useful knowledge of the education department, I appointed two people who had worked in information-giving roles for other local authorities. The others had worked in call centres. The blend was crucial to the success of the call centre, and they had six weeks of training, in which they learned to work together as a team as well as assimilating knowledge of how they would find the information to answer calls.
Opening and Development
The call centre opened on 31 March and 5,000 calls were received in the first month alone. In the first year 85% of calls were on education issues, the majority concerning choosing schools and other admission queries. Concentrating staff training prior to opening on the issues that they would be dealing with led to greater confidence in the first months. Restricting the development initially also allowed for preparation and in-service training to cope with a wider spectrum of calls and, more importantly, the ability to deal tactfully and efficiently with enquiries where the answer was not immediately known.
Currently open between 8am and 8pm, the call centre is used primarily by the public, but is also proving to be a resource for staff. A Lo-call number is used (0845 6 009 009), so that callers only pay the cost of a local telephone call.
To date, over 75,000 calls have been handled, averaging 350 a day, and that with hardly any publicity! In September 1999, the call centre started to expand into other areas of the County Council's work. The services now covered by the call centre include:
• Renewing and reserving library books.
• Answering queries from people concerned about a new waste disposal contract.
• Sending out copies of newsletters in response to calls.
• Responding to requests for information about roadworks on major roads through the county.
• Booking staff onto courses.
• Liaising with contractors in reporting street lamp faults, and other highway enquiries.
• Sending job application packs for jobs in the environment department.
• Market research projects that have involved calling out, rather than dealing with incoming calls.
How Calls are Handled
Calls are distributed amongst the staff by an ACD system, and calls are held in a queue if they cannot be answered immediately. An answerphone cuts in after 45 seconds, allowing callers to leave a message and be called back or to continue holding to speak to an operator. Each call is logged by reason for call. If callers require information to be sent to them, a standard letter is generated and call centre operators fill the envelopes themselves at quiet times. Operators can search the service information held on the intranet, and they also have access to specialist databases, eg pupil admissions, transport and student awards, so they can give out information.
Statistics and Evaluation
Statistics on the reasons for calls can be produced from the call database. Statistics on call times, length, abandoned rate and call centre operator performance are taken from the ACD system. Qualitative information is reported via various evaluation exercises in place:
• Reply-paid card – this is sent out with information sent to callers, and around 40% of these are returned; they ask callers where they obtained the number, how long it took to get through, how clearly information given was explained etc.
• Call-backs – return calls are made regularly to callers: they ask whether information requested has been received or, in the case of referrals whether the person referred to has been in touch.
• Mystery Shopping – a joint shopping venture was undertaken with West Sussex County Council front-line services in the autumn, and another is planned for this year involving Hampshire County Council.
Information given out is stored on Surrey County Council's intranet in the 'Surrey Directory', and is available to all staff. In view of the fact that 40% of Surrey households have internet access, cleared information will, in time, also be replicated onto the internet to facilitate those members of the public who wish to pursue electronic access themselves.
The service information is broken into chunks, owned and updated by staff within each department; there are links from document to document, and also links into the Council internal and external websites – the principle of 'in once, out lots'. It means that someone looking up the statutory school age would find links to admission procedures, transport arrangements and a link into the list of schools on the website; these also include links to OfSTED reports and a map showing the location of each school.
In August, it was decided to merge the call centre with Surrey Information Link (SIL), whose role is that of information hub to ensure that up-to-date and relevant information is delivered both by front-line staff through the Surrey directory, and on the internet. This is done by monitoring the information on Surrey County Council's intranet and the website, and then working with staff and partner organisations to update and maintain the data as required. SIL also provides back up by dealing with complex information enquiries, ensuring a fast and effective response to all queries. Staff from the two teams are being cross-trained, giving much needed flexibility to staffing the call centre at busy times and meaning that staff working on developing information have a real knowledge of the needs of customers.
The success of the call centre is demonstrated by the results of evaluation on calls, which show that over 90% of callers consider that they receive a good or very good service overall, with information explained clearly and politely:
"...incredibly helpful. Nothing was too much trouble, explained simply and without jargon. A pleasure to deal with and gives the Council a good name."
"...could not have been more helpful. All the information was sent to me by post within two days, I am impressed."
"I regard call centres with suspicion and distaste. However, yours sets a new standard in service and civility which many other organisations should copy."
In the future, the PAIS team will continue to work with partners and the public, to improve local services and to make them easily accessible for everyone who lives and works in Surrey. This ties in with the Government's Best Value initiative, which encourages local authorities to plan, review and continuously improve services. The Government has set local government the target of delivering all services electronically (which includes the telephone) by 2008, and Surrey County Council is at present planning an 'e-service' programme to do just that.