There's something strange going on in local government up and down the country. In town halls and benefits offices across the land, old dingy consulting rooms supporting outmoded working practices are being transformed into bright and friendly customer service centres, with streamlined administration made super-efficient with the help of computers.
But the most startling change, it has to be said, is in the attitude of the staff who work for these much-maligned institutions. Counter clerks in benefits offices no longer seem bored and frustrated with their lot, unable or unwilling to answer customer queries. Today, staff are quick off the mark to "own" your problem and resolve it as fast as possible, no matter how much inconvenience this causes. And, what's more, they succeed in doing so - something that just a couple of years ago even the most optimistic local government official would not have gone on record to guarantee.
The catalyst for this rebirth of local government has been a willingness to spend money on information technology systems that enable every local citizen to be treated as a much-valued customer. The technology sitting at the heart of this initiative is customer relationship management (CRM) software.
Does all this sound too good to be true? Well it is - but not for long. Local government is getting its act together and dragging itself and its staff into the digital age in recognition that customer service is key, but it will take a while before the word spreads across the UK.
Meanwhile, there are shining examples of how to get it right, for example, Leeds City Council, which serves 725,000 people and is the second largest council in England and Wales with a budget of over £100m.
IT infrastructure-wise, Leeds can be classified as a big user, running around 6,000 networked PCs, 130 to 140 Compaq, NT and Novell servers, and some mainframe and Unix boxes. The council also hosts a Web site, that has been recognised for being one of the best produced by a local government authority in the UK.
With so much to live up to, Leeds has become the first council in the UK to roll out CRM software, worth £500,000, across its organisation. The move to embrace CRM began three years ago as part of a wider £8m city regeneration scheme designed to redevelop customer services to enable the council to get more in touch with local citizens. The whole underpins the city's "Vision for Leeds", which puts the focus on the citizen.
The CRM software, which is being deployed this month, will allow Leeds Council staff to seamlessly deal with citizens' queries across many departments - from housing, benefits and social services to GP surgeries. It will streamline and improve the handling of queries from telephone callers ringing the new call centre or visitors calling in at one of the 12 physical customer service points situated in the more deprived areas of Leeds and called One-Stops - as in one-stop shop for all your needs.
The council reckons that it will take a year to roll out the CRM software to all its customer service centres, but, eventually, the new system will dovetail into an intranet-based customer service knowledge management system previously developed to provide a complete customer-centric council service.
The long-term aim is to create integrated systems that will support the rapid development of multiskilled council teams so that customer services staff can deliver a wider range of social services more effectively. In time, the council hopes to use the management information generated by the systems to assess the effectiveness of its strategy and identify areas for improvement. Feedback will be used to improve the community planning process and to underpin longer-term strategic thinking.
In practice, the strategy means that whenever customers talk to the council, staff will immediately be able to call up the history of their previous dealings on screen. They can then check on the progress of issues raised, or set in train resolving a new issue, "owning" the problem from start to finish.
Apart from providing a better service to customers and saving on staff time, this process will also provide valuable management information. The system will be capable of revealing what issues and problems most affect local citizens. This will then be matched with social-profiling information to reveal a more detailed picture of the needs of specific groups of people living in different parts of Leeds so that resources can be focused on the most needy areas.
For council staff, the CRM software will provide a simple interface into legacy systems and enable them to automatically send faxes, e-mails and completed forms to other users on the network, instead of putting paper into the internal post.
Leeds residents, or customers as they are now known, will benefit in many ways, not least in having a more standardised approach to their dealings with the council. One phone call or visit should resolve their problem.
Councillor Keith Wakefield, executive board member for what was the customer service department but which is now called Community Planning and Regeneration, says, "The CRM software will make it much easier for people to gain help and information on our services. We will also be able to better target information and services according to customers' needs, leading the way to further improvements in the way the council serves the people of Leeds."
In adopting CRM technology, Leeds is the first customer of the recently announced alliance between IT services company ICL and Siebel Systems, supplier of CRM software. ICL is training more than 500 consultants to deliver Siebel consulting and implementation services, positioning it as a key Siebel strategic partner, and also deploying Siebel's applications internally for key sales processes, involving the training of over 3,000 staff worldwide.
The companies will also collaborate more in future on development of new CRM solutions for key industry sectors, including government, and integrate ICL's loyalty and marketing applications, e-business solutions and customer data warehouse technologies with Siebel's Front Office suite.
At Leeds the Siebel Enterprise CRM customer service and call centre software will be deployed in all the customer service centres during the course of this year. The key modules involve computer telephony integration (CTI), Smartscript (to ensure common high standards of processing customer enquiries), and workflow. The software's customer agent and contact/service-tracking capabilities will initially support 90 front-desk council staff, helping them improve the consistency, quality and speed of service to Leeds citizens.
The CRM roll-out within customer services is also the first stage in a much bigger strategy to implement the Siebel software throughout Leeds City Council. The overall vision is still being agreed and funding sought, but there are plans to use the software in other departments and also extend its access to the ward-based teams. It will also eventually be opened up to local citizens, for example so they can fill out local government forms online, or get information via Wap (wireless application protocol) mobile phones.
John Bennett, director of ICL's government business, acknowledges the efforts that Leeds Council is making to transform first its customer services and then the rest of the council to improve the image of local government for the better. He describes the council as "one of the most forward-thinking local authorities in the UK today".
But Leeds Council's IT project manager, Chris Derry, is modest about the council's achievements. "Although we are at the forefront of the move towards a customer-centric approach to local government, other councils are catching on to the idea of one-stop shops like ours and the use of CRM software."
It's all exciting leading-edge stuff for local government staff and a far cry from what was in place in Leeds barely three years ago, according to Derry.
"If someone wanted to make an enquiry to one or more of our departments they were faced with making a number of telephone calls," he says. "Even then there were far too many numbers in the telephone directory and it wasn't clear which one they should ring.
"When the customer got through, staff might not have been able to answer the enquiry. The best they could do was point the customer in another direction. People were being passed around departments with no-one owning the problem.
"We've since rationalised the telephone numbers and introduced a call centre which went live in March with 45 staff. We're now in the process of collecting management information to see how many calls we're getting and to ensure we are meeting the needs of the community."
Today, if a Leeds citizen calls the council requesting a house repair job then the customer services officer who takes the call will respond to the request right through to booking an appointment for a surveyor to visit to assess the situation.
"This means we're providing a better service and it's more efficient, which generates cost-savings, and it means that people don't have to make repeat calls to the council to sort their problem out," adds Derry.
But the move to treat people as valuable customers and create a front-to-back office seamless service has not been without its headaches. Derry says that the biggest management challenge has been rooting out the established working culture in the council, which was very much one of "us and them" between the front, customer-facing staff and back-office support workers.
"We had to change people's mindsets - convince them that they are responsible for more than just the activities in their own department and that they can rely on the performance of others," says Derry. "Blurring the dividing-line between departments meant quite a lengthy process of agreeing service levels and delivery agreements between customer services and the other departments."
To bring home the importance of the customer in the minds of staff, all customer-facing posts are now higher paid than back-office positions.
For the IT department's 100 staff, the culture shock revolved around introducing pioneering new technologies with additional functionality. Leeds was one of the first UKcouncils to use an intranet to provide information for customer services offices from a common repository database.
It has also been quite a departure to use third-party suppliers and business partners. The chosen software development strategy - the rapid application development methodology DSDM - was alien to anything staff had used before.
"We had to deploy DSDM because the timescales were quite tight for delivering the customer service programme," says Derry.
However, apart from help from ICL in handling the change management programme and dealing with the cultural impact of the move to a customer-centric approach. Leeds has also benefited from a skills transfer from ICL's IT staff to its own people.
"Because of this skills transfer we know that we can easily carry on and do further software development work and support the CRM project once this initial phase with ICL is over, in September," says Derry.
Everyone within Leeds City Council has had to undergo training to absorb the council's new focus on the customer as king. All 150 customer service staff have undergone extensive training to learn how to treat people as customers, working through around 40 training modules.
The courses ranged from customer care, which all staff across the authority have attended, to more specific training in functional areas such as housing repairs and social services.
Leeds' success in breaking down the barriers between itself and the people it serves has much to do with it being run along business lines, but Derry isn't complacent.
"We've made a good start but I don't think we've totally licked it yet," he says. "There's still much to do, but we're getting there."