The Thanet Gazette today leads with news that the home of fellow ‘Blogger’ and Northwood councillor Nottingham (LAB) was struck by lightning during the week. It leads me to ponder whether this was a simple act of nature or some kind of divine comment on the perilous state of British politics; encouraging me to anxiously study the skies above my own house, which as I write remain blue and clear of any obvious portents.
Today, I was once again over at the council offices meeting members of the customer services team and I was delighted to hear that the team successfully passed its Charter Mark, reassessment with full compliance. This award for customer-facing public services reflects the Government's new standards in Customer Service Excellence and Thanet Council is recognised for the remarkable improvements that have been made to customer services over the last four years and now sets an example for other councils to follow.
Other than discussing the progress of several complex business transformation challenges involved in joining-up the different council systems to make them more efficient and cost effective (see photo of Tony Flag's cat), I visited the call centre to discover more about its work. The impetus from central Government today surrounds the concept of ‘Avoidable Contact’ and what this involves is a constant search for efficiency gains and service delivery transformation. In plain English, the idea is to minimise the level of the more expensive and intensive, direct public contact with the council, through changing perceptions and making vital information available and comprehensible in such a way that you don’t have to telephone or go looking for an answer for a question.
This can be achieved through making documents and payment systems available over the internet and walk in centres, taking the revenues and benefits team to the public through sending up a mobile unit directly into the community and running regular walk-in clinics from local libraries and primary schools in the area.
Many readers won’t be surprised to hear that most of us have very little contact with the council, other than paying our council tax bills. Equally, many if not most of us have a very narrow picture of what a local council does and where it’s responsibilities and services start and end. What I discovered today is that around 23% of the population absorb a good 80% of the call centre bandwidth, which is what you might reasonable expect in an area of marked social deprivation . This includes trying to use the council customer services number as a kind of universal one-stop helpline and directory enquiries system.
So here lies the principle challenge moving forward and particularly as the recession bites even harder on the more vulnerable members of our society. Not only is the driving impetus towards making our own Charter Mark status customer services even more efficient and cost effective; with less money now available from central Government but councillors and council officers alike need to think imaginatively on how to best communicate and deliver the information to the target audience. That struggling 23%, in a way that will help them most effectively and as speedily as possible, where vital issues such as benefits and payments are involved.