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Neil Elkes: Birmingham City Council's bid to improve services

Huge numbers of callers to Birmingham City Council's state-of-the-art Service Birmingham contact centre have been left unhappy and without the help they requested.

Birmingham Council House

At a time of unprecedented cuts to local authority funding it is perhaps encouraging that Birmingham City Council is paying such close attention to its customer services.

Huge numbers of callers to the council’s state-of-the-art Service Birmingham contact centre have been left unhappy and without the help they requested.

Of course this is an experience common to many users of call centres – although the scale of dissatisfaction appears to be of a much higher order.

It probably did not help that the incentives to the Capita run call centre were based on answering the call quickly and ending it quickly.

There was also no incentive to direct callers to the council’s website – where an increasing number of transactions can be made.

Whether or not the citizen (the council is no longer to refer to them as customers as this implies choice) is happy had not been considered.

Now satisfaction levels are to be a priority for the new in-house service.

Not only will callers be rewarded with a better service, but the council will spend £20 million less than it would have on the Capita call centre.

The accepted wisdom of the last 30 years has been that the private sector is so much better and much more efficient than the “bloated and inflexible” public sector at providing services.

But now it seems this is not always the case – especially when company and council have contrived to negotiate a watertight contract that inadvertently guarantees poor service.

The ease with which Capita also gave up the call centre, when it had a contract tied up until the end of the decade, suggests that this was not the most lucrative side of its ongoing relationship with the city council.

So it has chopped off a problematic service, while the council gets a service which may be better for both the citizen and the authority bank balance. Winners all round.

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A scrutiny committee inquiry into customer services also looked at the new Birmingham Promise – a set of pledges to the people that their complaints will be dealt with, their bins emptied and potholes filled in a timely fashion.

The nature of what is a reasonable time to pick up a missed bin bag or fix a broken street light has exercised the keenest minds in the council.

Firm pledges on benefits, waste and recycling, highways, parks, housing, school admissions and blue badges are all covered.

It is a laudable aim and the authors have tried hard to make sure the Promise is easily understood and deliverable – concepts which are frequently alien to local government.

A commitment to have the seven pages proof read by the Plain English Campaign would probably help.

But pity the poor governance and customer services scrutiny committee which spent the best part of an hour debating whether three days in which a missed bin will be emptied should be absolute, or the number of working days.

There was all manner of discussion about weekend working and the 24/7 society before they eventually came to a firm decision that the council’s deputy leader Ian Ward will decide the targets should be absolute anyway, with or without the scrutiny committee’s help.

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One of our local stars from the Conservative Party Conference was undoubtedly Parliamentary candidate for Northfield Rachel Maclean who gave a confident speech on the opening day.

But it has now emerged that her polished performance took some practice. In fact she found a quiet hall at the ICC to test out her oration – in which she heaped praise on the Conservative government – and upon finishing heard a hand-clap from the back. Peering into the darkened auditorium she asked: “Who’s there?”.

“It’s me, Cameron” came the reply.

Yes the Prime Minister himself had wandered in for look around the place before the conference got underway and was treated to a little sneak preview.

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Manners of course cost you nothing and little bird tells me that the ridiculously posh MP Jacob Rees Mogg has thanked the people of Ladywood for hosting this year’s Tory conference.

He sent an extremely polite letter, addressed to Ladywood’s Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, not only thanking the people of her constituency for tolerating his party’s annual shindig, but also apologising for any inconvenience involved.

The handwriting left a little to be desired though because his correspondence ended up at the office of Khalid Mahmood, MP for neighbouring Perry Barr, before being passed on.

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