Swale's service centre success

A new council contact centre in Kent uses IT to improve access to public services, writes Karl Cushing.

A new council contact centre in Kent uses IT to improve access to public services, writes Karl Cushing.

Swale Borough Council in Kent has set up a customer service centre to enable local residents to access council services via e-mail, phone and letter and to link to other local service providers such as Kent County Council and Swale Housing Association by phone.

The contact centre, which went live in March with 10 services, will form the bedrock for the council's drive towards joined-up government. The number of services available via the centre has since risen to 52 and, although still in its first phase, it is already handling 400-500 calls a day and is capable of handling financial transactions such as council tax payments.

The centre, developed with Northgate Information Solutions, is staffed by 10 agents, each trained in all 52 of the services covered. Callers requesting services run by partner agencies such as Kent County Council are transferred using a telephony link once an agent at the partner agency has been briefed. The council is about to go live with a face-to-face component for the centre.

The centre's project and customer service manager Robin Eede says the project is the result of an ongoing drive orchestrated by the management team at Swale Council to make the council more customer-focused and stop callers being "bounced around" between departments. "Customer service is probably the most important issue now for Swale," he says. "It is our main agenda."

The council has embarked on a number of other schemes to tie in with its drive for improved customer service. It has implemented videoconferencing technology to allow citizens to link up with the main office in Sittingbourne and access the full range of services from remote council sites. The system supports remote document exchange and accepts digital signatures to allow users to carry out complete transactions.

Swale also has plans to improve its work management. It will implement business intelligence software from Cognos to enable better management "across the board", says Eede.

In another pilot scheme, the council is giving its mobile staff PDAs with front-office software to report things such as abandoned cars. By Christmas this software will be available on the council's Web site so that local people will be able to book services and report such incidents online themselves.

Eede explains that the project has seven separate streams, including human resources, workflow and communication, and involves about one third of the workforce. He says Swale has gone for high-volume transactions first and is already "very close" to having half of its enquiries handled by the system.

The council is on target to have half of its services incorporated into the customer services centre by the end of 2003, Eede adds.

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