A £175million upgrade of Birmingham City Council’s computer services will enable benefit forms to be completed on-line, but applicants still face a two-week wait if they want to discuss their problems face to face.
The Customer First project aims to end lengthy queues at neighbourhood offices by allowing appointments to be booked in advance for the first time.
Everyone contacting the council will be given their own personal account on the local authority’s website, where they will be able to report broken street lights or pot-holes in the roads and track the progress of their inquiry.
But Customer First programme director Steve Glaze admitted that the current 14-day delay between booking an appointment and meeting a neighbourhood office official was unlikely to improve.
Mr Glaze said there would be a move away from dealing directly with the public in favour of conducting business over the telephone and by computer.
“You will be able to go to the new website and report a query and track it through to resolution. You won’t need to speak to anyone.”
But his comments did not impress members of the finance scrutiny committee, who warned that many people would be unable to use a computer and would face considerable delays in waiting for an appointment.
Coun Ian Ward (Lab Shard End) said: “To be saying to someone ‘you ring up and we will get back to you in 14 days’ time’ is not good enough.
“The government set a target for an appointment with a GP within two days, yet the council can’t come anywhere near matching that performance.
“Waiting for two weeks is unacceptable if you are frail and elderly, and you want help filling out a benefits form. People who need help don’t want to be filling in forms over the phone or on a computer.”
Customer First aims to solve 80 per cent of inquiries from the public first time, compared with a 43 per cent success rate at the moment.
Other benefits include replacing 450 existing council telephone numbers with one single number.
The new system would save the council £321million over 10 years, Mr Glaze said.
He added: “There will still be customers who need face-to-face access. But a good proportion of benefit claims are straightforward and the software will take you through it.”
Mr Glaze added that many appointments made at neighbourhood offices were unnecessary because problems could easily be resolved over the phone.
“You will see improvements to the service from day one,” he added.