Pioneering service lets Ashford tenants choose council houses using SMS system

Smart projects: council reduces administration time spent on housing queues.

Smart projects:  council reduces administration time spent on housing queues.

Ashford Borough Council has become the first local authority in the UK to enable people to choose council houses by SMS message.

The Kent council has introduced an SMS service for would-be tenants to respond to offers of housing made under the authority's choice-based letting scheme.

By enabling citizens to send an SMS rather than make a phone call, Ashford Council was able to cut the time administration staff spent processing requests for available homes.

Before the council offered the SMS service, its housing department had to input requests made by telephone manually on to its IT system.

The volume of calls to the council's housing department fell by 35% after the SMS channel was set up. Furthermore, 80% of housing queries were answered at the first point of contact.

The system cost relatively little to implement. Ashford spent £6,000 on an SMS server and the project took just four weeks to implement.

Rob Neil, the council's head of ICT and customer services, said, "Text message servers take a message from a mobile phone and convert it into a text file.

"We can take messages and, rather than drop them into a normal text file, put them into a queue."

Incoming SMS messages are directed to the call centre worker who has gone the longest without handling a query. When the query has been dealt with, the employee sends an e-mail. The system converts the e-mail to an SMS, which is sent to the mobile phone of the person making the query.

SMS messages may be sent to the council at any time. Under the previous system, queries could only be handled when the call centre was open.

The SMS server links to Ashford Council's head office systems via an IP network from supplier Mitel. The council has implemented Mitel Contact Centre Solution 6100, Mitel VoIP phones and Mitel Teleworker Solution 6010. The supplier has developed the system so that it can be resold to other local authorities, said Neil.

The council said, "Beyond housing, Ashford is phasing in SMS communications for numerous services. The public will soon be able to use text messages to report street lighting faults, report abandoned vehicles, book council facilities and courses and request details on council services."

People living in the borough will also be able to register to pay their council tax by SMS. The council will keep citizens' account numbers and sort codes so that payments collected by the authority, such as parking fines, may also be paid by SMS.

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