Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Using call centres to deliver public services

Public Accounts Committee 27 Jan 2003

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SIR JOHN BOURN KCB, Comptroller and Auditor General and MR MARK DAVIES, Director, National Audit Office, further examined.
MR ROB MOLAN, Second Treasury Officer of Accounts, HM Treasury, further examined.
Using call centres to deliver public services (HC 134)
Memorandum submitted by the Environment Agency

Examination of Witnesses

MR ANDREW PINDER, e-Envoy, Office of the e-Envoy, MS URSULA BRENNAN, Group Director, Working Age and Children, Department for Work and Pensions, BARONESS YOUNG OF OLD SCONE, a Member of the House of Lords, Chief Executive, Environment Agency, MR GARY AUSTIN, Chief Executive, Driving Standards Agency and MR BERNARD HERDAN, Chief Executive, UK Passport Service, Passport and Records Agency, examined.

Mr Steinberg

Mr Steinberg: I am 100% in favour of using the telephone to seek advice and sort out problems. There are however several things - and I wrote them down as I read the report - which really annoy me. I am 100% in favour as long as I can get through, is the first thing. I do not have to wait a long time and listen to those awful tunes you get or a prolonged wall of silence. I do not have so many choices on the buttons that I forget what the first button is for after the thirteenth button; the Passport Service give you 13 choices of buttons. Then when I get through I do not want to be passed from one person to another and have to repeat myself a dozen times on the complaints. Provided all that is catered for, then I am quite happy to phone up and be given advice over the telephone. I forgot: a sympathetic helper at the other end. Sometimes you do not get a sympathetic helper. Recently I had cause to ring the TV licensing agency. They are not here this afternoon but I have a flat in London which had four different addresses. Consequently I kept getting four different threatening letters telling me I did not have a television licence. I must have phoned up half a dozen times to tell them to put it right and I still kept getting the letters. That annoys me as well. Provided you can solve all these problems and you guarantee you are not going to get these problems, then I am 100% in favour of call centres. Would you agree?

Mr Pinder: Having spent a substantial amount of time this morning ringing a private sector retailer on the telephone I have had a very similar experience to yours. I have a lot of sympathy with what you are saying.

Mr Steinberg: I rang Prudential recently and they have so many buttons you forget which button you want and when you get through you do not get satisfaction anyway. Is it not much better to face somebody directly rather than over a telephone, unless you get satisfaction. It seems to me out of the four here this afternoon, you certainly do not get a lot of satisfaction from the Child Benefit Agency because they seem to have all the problems which I have mentioned. Could you tell me something else? You get all these buttons, all these choices, do you at the end of the day still get the same girl at the other end of the line? You might as well go straight through and ask for her.

Mr Pinder: Shall I give a generic answer before handing over? I have to confess that I was partly responsible nearly ten years ago for setting up the early Prudential call centres, so my inheritance is apparently not very good. The point generically of pressing these buttons is to make sure either that you get to a different operator if you are dealing with a manifestly different sort of enquiry, or that the operator, if they are using some computer assistance, gets the right sort of screen up in front of them, so they are able to deal with your call quickly. I agree with you that it is very easy to be annoyed with a wrongly set up call centre, both on the musical side and also on the information and finally the execution side. It is very important to have this right and you have some examples in front of you of call centres which do get those sorts of things right.

Mr Steinberg: Reading the report, it seems that the Passport Service and the Driving Standards Agency - Figures 37 is the Driving Standards Agency and Figure 49 is the Passport Service - seem to have it all worked out and you can see by the graphs that the staff on duty represent the time they are getting the most calls, but the Child Benefit Agency clearly does not. When we read the report we see the reason why. If we have a look at page 29, paragraph 3.11, we find that in the Child Benefit Agency you only have 241 staff and the staff who are working are working at the wrong time of the day anyway. You then try to argue or explain to the Chairman the reasons why but if you read the report it is because they are on flexi-time, is it not? They only work the hours they want to work. In other words, they know they are going to be very busy at certain times of the day so they do not bother to work those hours. Is the Passport Service on flexi-time?

Mr Herdan:A very limited number of staff work on flexi-time.

Mr Austin:We only have about 3% on flexi-time for that reason.

Baroness Young of Old Scone:We have an out-sourced call centre, so we have a very different interest in that.

Mr Steinberg: How many are on flexi-time at the Child Benefit Agency?

Ms Brennan:The child benefit centre in particular has 80% of them on flexi-time because they were not recruited as call centre staff, they were recruited as child benefit centre staff who had this 12-week training. We set up the child benefit centre -

Mr Steinberg: You have set up an organisation which is wrongly set up so why set it up in the first place? You have 80% of your staff who do not work during the busy hours because they are on flexi-time and they do not want to. You have 200 fewer than you need, so no wonder people cannot get through.

Ms Brennan:We do not have 200 fewer than we need and we do not have staff simply working the hours they want to work to their own satisfaction as opposed to the needs of the business. What I do need to explain is that the child benefit centre tele-service was not set up as a call centre, it was set up in 1996 when calls simply went to the back office; people just dialled an extension in the child benefit centre. We said we would use the staff of the child benefit centre and move them into a single place where they answer telephone calls. We did not have the kind of technology which enables us to do things like measuring the length of call or predicting how many people we would need. What we have had to do is to take the staff we had in the child benefit centre who have this 12-week training and redeploy them in order to be able to answer queries.

Mr Steinberg: I understand that but you have redeployed them wrongly, have you not, under the wrong working conditions?

Ms Brennan:At the time the NAO were reporting we certainly did not have them deployed in order to answer calls satisfactorily and we did have a problem. Since the NAO report, following up the NAO report and with the advice of our own call centre advisory team, we have been redeploying staff from the back office to the front office, because all the staff have the child benefit 12-week training, so we can redeploy them to meet the peak demand. As a result of that our volume of engaged tones has come right down and the volume of calls we answer first time has shot right up.

Mr Steinberg: What is the percentage then?

Ms Brennan:In November and December instead of only answering small proportions of calls first time we were answering 80% and 90% first time.

Mr Steinberg: Is there a high turnover of staff?

Ms Brennan:No, there is not. There is a very low turnover of staff.

Mr Steinberg: Why is there a low turnover of staff? Is it because they have a good "kebble", as we say in the North. Do you understand that?

Ms Brennan:We generally have a low turnover of staff for our offices. It is one reason why we replace the call centres in the North East rather than in London.

Mr Steinberg: One of the things which I get a lot of criticism about, particularly in the North East, because we have lost mines, we have lost heavy engineering jobs and we have a lot of call centre jobs now, is that people say these are not really jobs. They say that all these jobs have been created but they are not really real jobs, are they? They say that somebody sitting behind a telephone, looking at a television screen, does not have a proper job; they have bad working conditions, they do not get very much pay. What do the four of you say to all that criticism?

Ms Brennan:They certainly are real jobs. These are people who are giving advice on quite technical matters like home responsibilities protection, which is an important matter in relation to your retirement pension entitlement. They give advice to people on residence. It is a technical job. It is not merely press a button and answer the question. Yes, they are serious jobs.

Mr Steinberg: Do you all agree with that?

Baroness Young of Old Scone:Certainly from our point of view as the contractor of an out-sourced agency service - and I suspect Mr Herdan as well - I am satisfied with the fact that there are not high turnover levels in staff involved and that there does not seem to be a problem with recruitment. We are certainly seeing sustained service levels come through according to our contract.

Mr Steinberg: May I ask one question which I have been wanting to ask Mr Herdan? I am very interested in the Passport Service because I have a new passport office in Durham. Has the new passport office in Durham helped to solve the problem of a couple of years' ago in terms of calls as well? Do you get fewer calls because you have an extra office? What has been the effect?

Mr Herdan:The new office in Durham has been a great success: a very high quality of staff, low levels of turnover, the benefit of the new office having new working practices so we are now benchmarking our other offices against them on some things. Because everything is running very smoothly now, because we have that extra capacity in the network as a whole, something like 30% extra capacity, therefore we meet our turnround times, therefore our call volumes are much lower than they otherwise would be. It has played its part and the more complex calls, generally 15% of our calls, get referred. Durham takes its part of those 15% more complex calls and handles them very proficiently.

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