A South East council expects to make significant improvements in the way it manages out-of-hours calls from council tenants by giving call centre staff the ability to interrogate and update council computer records via a low-cost internet link.
Dartford Borough Council is investing "several tens of thousands of pounds" in a virtual private network, which it said will transform its call centre from a message-taking service into a unit that can respond to tenants' questions and keep track of the progress of repairs to council properties online.
Until now, call centre staff have either had to taperecord conversations with tenants and forward them to council officials, or e-mail summaries of their conversations for action the next day.
The network, which went live last week, will allow call centre staff to check whether callers are genuine council tenants, initiate and track the progress of emergency repairs, and will be extended to allow staff to check rent balances for tenants.
The council said the system, which interfaces with its internal mainframe, PC and Unix systems through a Capita Direct web interface, will end a "terrific amount of duplication" and provide tenants with a better service.
Richard James, the council's head of IT, said that after his department had rejected dial-up connections and traditional VPN products as too complicated and expensive, a Secure Sockets Layer virtual private network connection was the only practical alternative.
"In the past we have found that dial-up remote access is not an acceptable solution because some of our client server applications require too much bandwidth. We looked at installing a [standard] VPN but the implementation would have been complicated and the costs prohibitive," he said.
The council bought a Neoteris Instant Virtual Extranet box, which can be configured to provide call centre staff, council workers and IT staff with secure external internet links to its internal network.
James said he plans to extend the range of services that staff can access remotely when the council replaces its ICL mainframe, now more than 10 years old, with up-to-date Sun Solaris Unix systems, by April next year.
The council also plans to use the system to provide wardens in the borough's old people's homes with links into council computer systems, in a move that will provide elderly residents with a one-stop shop for enquiries.
Dartford's systems at a glance
- ICL VME mainframe manages council tax and housing benefit on ICL's Housing Benefit Information System and Ledger accounting financial information system packages
- Sun Solaris Unix systems
- ICL mainframe to be replaced with Sun Solaris servers in April lCouncil tax and housing benefits to be transferred to Capita's Academy software.