Councils should avoid cuts by ‘spending smarter’ on essentials

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This week, I look at the recent report by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which states that councils should cut spending and consider removing some essential services, such as call centre provision. I argue why this action could alienate the vulnerable and digitally excluded, and how they could avoid doing so, while keeping costs down.   

The recent report by the TaxPayers’ Alliance states that councils should cut spending and consider removing some essential services. Whilst many would agree that local authorities should try to avoid increasing Council Tax to plug gaps from falling central Government budgets, there are ways councils could reduce their spend without the loss of fundamental services.

The ‘201 Ways to Save Money in Local Government’ report states that councils should reduce their call centre provision by creating an app, allowing residents to access information services from their smartphones. The report claims that it costs £1.50 less to process a smartphone enquiry compared to a telephone call, and therefore efforts should be focused on directing communications through this channel.

However, removing or significantly reducing the call centre provision from a local council could result in the loss of vital contact services for a sizeable proportion of council service users, such as the vulnerable and digitally excluded.

As smartphone use is dominated by the younger generations – with only nine per cent of over 65 year olds using one – those without them would no longer be able to pick up the phone to inform their local council of issues such as missed waste bin collection, potholes in their road or a broken streetlight.

All of these services are essential for local authorities to run smoothly, and there must be platforms available so that all members of the community can feedback on or query their performance when necessary.

So how can councils maintain their call centre provision, while reducing their costs in order to meet today’s budget restrictions? Here are a few key improvements which I feel could be made by local councils to achieve this.

Filtering

Rather than significantly reducing or completely removing their call centre provision, councils should invest in their digital offering, and promote it as the ‘first call’ for users, allowing them to self-help and access essential information online.

That way, community members seeking information and advice quickly can ‘self help’ online 24 hours a day. This will then free up telephone operators to focus their attention on those most in need of council services, who may not have access to the internet or a smartphone.

An organisation that has benefited from this ‘online as the first call’ approach is Sussex Police. The police force was looking to reduce the number of calls it received on its non-emergency ‘101’ number, and therefore introduced a feature in which community members can access useful information through its online knowledge base and also report crimes such as criminal damage and antisocial driving.

Smarter in-house software

Many councils are still using outdated customer relationship management (CRM) systems. These older systems often rely on operatives manually inputting information, such as copying and pasting email or social media correspondence, at the expense of their time.

Whereas, more advanced systems automatically input data, and then integrate all forms of communication, including email, SMS and social media, storing it in the same place. This saves operatives considerable amounts of time to focus on more complex tasks and those in need of help and support.

Going social

With social media user numbers increasing each day, councils could invest their efforts further into posting updates and answering queries using Facebook and Twitter.

As registering profiles and sending updates via social media is free, it only costs an organisation in time. This therefore presents an extremely cost-effective way for councils to engage with their community members.

Monmouthshire Council is currently benefiting from the power of social media, having built up a strong local following on Twitter. The Council uses the platform to post local news and updates, as well as responding to community members’ queries directly.

Final thoughts

By investing in digital platforms and promoting them as the ‘first call’ for community members, local authorities can reduce the number of calls they receive, allowing them to make savings with their contact centre provision, without the loss of vital services.

Furthermore, by maintaining the council’s contact centre, vulnerable or digitally excluded community members will still be able to access information and make queries regarding council service delivery over the phone.

Finally, by incorporating digital alongside traditional call centre provision, councils will ensure that they are best-placed to offer support and information to all members of their community, using the platform they are most comfortable with.

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Case Study

Case Study: Grocery Aid

1.1.          Grocery Aid

1.1.1.      About our customer

Grocery Aid, the trading name of the National Grocers' Benevolent Fund, is the charity for the grocery industry. Grocery Aid helps people all over the UK who have worked, or are working, in the grocery industry and have now found that they need some extra support to get by. The help that Grocery Aid provides can make a very real difference and it provides not only monetary support, but also appliances and everyday items that many take for granted.

1.1.2.      The service we provide

The helpline was a new service for Grocery Aid. We set about improving the reach of their valuable service and sought to reach out to the people needing the help and support that they provide. In early 2010, Connect Assist successfully helped Grocery Aid launch their first helpline via our 24/7 Contact Centre. Today we offer multi-channel solutions via phone, e-mail, knowledgebase, ask a question and live chat.   The multi-channel helpline provides information and support to people and business owners working in the trade – from large supermarkets to corner shops. This includes an innovative ‘incident support’ service following attacks, arson and other incidents that are prevalent within the industry.

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