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A little less conversation please

A little less conversation please

🕔21.Nov 2012

It’s become a way of life for many, but thousands of Birmingham City Council customers are finding the internet to be something of a mystery.

When contacting the council, and there are more than a million telephone calls made each year, most people prefer to discuss their problems by telephone or, even better, face to face rather than tapping a computer keyboard.

The reluctance to embrace new technology has landed the city with a major financial headache.

A business transformation programme, which is supposed to save £1 billion in total, is based to a large extent on shifting service delivery to online methods. But the savings are running at least £1 million a year under budget because the so-called “channel shift” to the internet is lagging way below projected targets.

In theory, every council tax payer is supposed to have their own personal online account which enables a variety of tasks to be performed including benefit applications, reporting problems with housing or street services and paying bills. In practice take up has been woefully low.

It had been hoped that a third of contacts with the council would be made online by Christmas. But by September this year only 13.3 per cent of business was conducted via the internet.

There are signs that the city’s Labour leadership is preparing tough action over this issue. Deputy council leader Ian Ward suggested that people might be “compelled” to go online to access services, although he did not give details or say how this might be achieved in a city where many families in low income areas do not have access broadband or computers.

Coun Ward (Lab Shard End) told a cabinet meeting: “We are well short of target on channel shift. Every five per cent improvement in performance is worth about £350,000 so if we can get up to target we are talking about a further £1 million of savings that could be realised.

“One of the things being considered is where we strike the balance between choice and compulsion on where citizens interact with the city council.”

The council hopes to launch an app for I-phones by Christmas, which it expects will result in significantly more contacts being made online. Efforts are also underway to “improve the accessibility and appearance” of the council website.

But the safety blanket effect of face to face meetings cannot be underestimated.

Lengthy queues outside neighbourhood offices, where people waited hours merely to make an appointment to see someone, evaporated when a new telephone call centre opened. Paradoxically, the absence of queues encouraged more people to shift back to the neighbourhood offices and the queues are starting to grow again.

It’s a tricky position for the council leadership and also happens to mirror problems the Government faces in introducing the Universal Credit system of benefit payments next year. Ministers have announced that applications will be “digital by default”. Applicants will be steered towards communicating online and given help if they need it.

Trade unions, voluntary groups and charities fear that millions of benefit claimants will be disenfranchised and denied payments because they will be unable to get to access or use the online system. Citizens Advice said: “The new universal credit system risks causing difficulties to the 8.5 million people who have never used the internet and a further 14.5 million who have virtually no ICT skills.”

There are no signs, yet, that Birmingham City Council is ready to adopt a digital by default approach, but it seems clear that pressure will be applied to persuade technophobes to reach for a computer the next time they want to report a blocked drain or ask for their bins to be emptied.

 

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