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The Department for Work and Pensions has made significant progress in delivering services through contact centres so that they are delivering improvements in value for money, but needs to continue to tackle a variety of barriers to exploit their full potential, according to a National Audit Office report published today. The Department’s 60 contact centres have already made a major contribution to the service provided to millions of citizens and have the potential to further improve customer service whilst realising further efficiency savings.

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The DWP is in the process of developing its contact centre network but already the centres are making a valuable contribution to service delivery. For example, they are starting to allow the Department’s agencies to process applications for benefits and pensions more quickly; they take 275,000 calls per week from people wishing to claim benefit; Jobcentre Plus Direct has helped an estimated third of a million find work and makes 400,000 job vacancies available over the telephone and online, while Employer Direct takes 31,000 calls a week from employers wishing to place a vacancy advert. The centres also provide a comprehensive helpline service for people applying for Disability Living Allowance or Attendance Allowance.

The DWP is undergoing a major transformation in the way it handles many of its customers. It is increasingly using contact centres to deliver services, and envisages that eventually almost all non face-to-face contact will be done in this way.

Because of the scale of the transformation programme, however, it will take some time before all the potential benefits are realised. The report highlights a number of barriers to exploiting the full potential of contact centres, including over 50 different telephone numbers that customer use to access services, which can be difficult to market; limited ability to transfer calls or customer information between agencies; the complexity of the benefits system and the limitations of the Department’s core legacy IT systems.

The Department’s contact centres are well advertised and the majority of customers say they are open when they want to use them. Accessing them has become easier in recent months. Currently only 3 per cent of calls are engaged and 13 per cent abandoned. Around 70 per cent of calls are answered within the 30 second standard. This is a significant improvement from the position in 2004-05. In that year, over a third of all calls to DWP contact centres received an engaged tone, calls were not answered within target times and almost 10 per cent were abandoned by the caller before they were answered. Call backs from Jobcentre Plus centres were not always made promptly. New arrangements with BT will provide advanced telephony facilities offering greater business flexibility. The report found a variety of provision is available for those with special needs, such as language, speech and hearing problems, although some customers can still have difficulties using contact centres.

There have been problems with implementation of some new contract centres processes. In some offices, Jobcentre Plus did not have enough trained staff to operate its new Customer Management System at the time it was brought in. This led to some sites returning to the use of old paper based systems. Steps have been taken to address these problems, leading to performance improvements, with the current percentage of calls answered up from 75 per cent in July 2005 to 96 per cent in January 2006.

Customer satisfaction with the services provided by the Department’s contact centres is generally high. Almost all felt the person who dealt with them was polite and around 80 per cent considered their query was resolved in one call. However, the Department does not collect sufficient data to be able to monitor quality effectively in terms of the accuracy of the handling of the contact, but it has developed a ‘balanced scorecard’ approach, which is starting to capture data on a wide range of indicators and which will be in use in 2007.

The DWP needs to address various staffing issues to ensure that customers are getting the service they need. There are some challenges with the flexibility of staff in manning the centres, particularly with existing DWP staff necessarily redeployed from elsewhere in the department, whose experience and aptitude may not always be suitable for contact centre work. The Department accepts the need to ensure that these staff are receiving the necessary training to adapt to the new demands of working in a contact centre and is considering the contractual arrangements to maximise the effectiveness of the service at a time of reducing staff numbers.

“I welcome the progress made by the Department for Work and Pensions in establishing contact centres across the organisation. However, if this major transformation in the way the DWP serves many of its customers is to be successful, the centres must be managed more flexibly and the service provided should be seamless and easy to use.”

Sir John Bourn


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