The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of MPs said there is no guarantee that the call centres used by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can be efficient enough when it comes to answering the public’s calls on benefits.
In a report on the DWP’s contact centres, the PAC said that in 2004–05, only 56% of calls were answered, which left 21 million calls unanswered.
This level of service was not acceptable said the PAC, and the DWP acted to improve the rate of call answering. In the first half of 2005–06, the rate had improved to 84%, but millions were still unable to get through.
The PAC said, “There is still scope for improvement and it is not yet clear whether recent improvements will be sustained in the longer term”.
The PAC said the DWP’s contact centres are constrained from operating efficiently by a number of limitations.
For example, many agents were not originally recruited for contact centre work, and they have been redeployed from elsewhere in the department on flexi-time contracts that do not match contact centre hours.
In addition, the department’s different IT systems are not linked up effectively, so customers have to repeat information on a number of different occasions.
In some cases information held on one IT system has to be printed out and input again into another IT system.
The department also has gaps in its cost data and management information that do not permit accurate quantification of the efficiency savings made by introducing contact centres.
It is likely that these savings are substantial, as the average cost of processing a telephone call is around £3, whereas a postal transaction costs around £5.
The DWP believes it could not have made £375m of savings in staff costs without the efficiencies gained from contact centres, reported the PAC.
To help avoid the serious problems seen in 2004/05, said the PAC, the DWP should extend to all (not just some) parts of the organisation demand forecasting tools, and should train staff in their use, and share better good practice in the management of workflow between centres.
Implementation of the Customer Management System within the Jobcentre Plus organisation in 2005 was seriously flawed, said the report.
Holding customer information in one place is a good idea but the DWP should learn from the troubled roll-out of the system, which at times badly affected service to the public.
In particular, it should not introduce systems which are not fully tested and without enough suitable staff being available and properly trained to use the system.
The PAC also said the DWP should reduce the number of phone numbers the public has to use to contact different departments, and make sure that DWP staff offer to call back the public when it is apparent they are struggling to pay the call costs.
The DWP should also reduce the number of staff on flexible contracts that do not meet the needs of the department’s call centre hours, the PAC said.
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