Like many local authorities, Wirral Council has introduced a system for handling telephone enquiries to its adult social services department. The system involves, for the first time, call handlers carrying out initial needs assessments and, where possible, dealing with people with low-level needs.
By Wirral’s own admission this is a “radical” redesign, but one driven by political will and the government’s determination to make the public sector more efficient.
In 2004, Sir Peter Gershon’s review of public sector spending prompted councils to make savings in 2005-6 of more than £1.2bn, of which £117m was in adult social care. In total, nearly £2bn was saved between 2004 and 2006. Increased use of technology and automation of call centres was specifically mentioned by Gershon as offering opportunities for efficiency.
Liverpool and Westminster were among the first authorities to put Gershon’s words into practice and redesign how they handled initial client contact by making call centres an integral part of the process. They introduced council-wide systems similar to those developed for NHS Direct and the Care Direct pilots.
Now most local authorities use call centres in some form to field either all calls they receive, or all calls to a specific department.
Generally, these changes have been accepted by social workers and the public. Evidence is also starting to emerge on the pros and cons of the systems and which structures work better than others. The quality of information provided by call centre operators plays a critical role in the success, or otherwise, of a system. Earlier this year, prime minister Gordon Brown recognised this when he said quality information was a “prerequisite for achieving personalised services”.
However, a report published earlier this month by the Commission for Social Care Inspection raises questions over the quality of information provided by councils. Although not focused on call centres per se, CSCI mystery shoppers telephoned every council in England twice to seek advice on older people’s care services and reported varying degrees of satisfaction.
The report found information given not only varied from council to council, but between telephone operators working for the same council. There was also little co-ordination between the information given over the phone and that sent out to callers.
CSCI says this lack of standard information needs to be addressed. An initiative being developed by the Department of Health could help. The information accreditation scheme for health and social care information providers will award a kite mark to approved information providers who can show they have systems in place to check information is up to date, written in clear English, available in accessible formats and consistent with what other reputable information providers are saying.
Key to obtaining the right information is the skills of the call handlers themselves. The CSCI study says call handlers are generally helpful and empathetic, but use too much jargon and assume people are familiar with the assessment process. Given the varying quality of information sent out, there are doubts about whether they always fully understand callers’ needs.
According to the British Association of Social Workers, this criticism of call centres is common. Professional officer Nushra Mansuri says: “This issue was mentioned by a trainer at one of our meetings recently. She has seen it more than once. Some of the call handlers weren’t asking the right questions. You have to ask the right questions if you are going to get the information you need.”
Initial contact systems
Research in 2004 by the Department for Education and Skills into initial contact systems used in children’s services found the most important issue was not who takes the inquiry but the quality of the initial information gathering and recording.
The report concluded: “The type of organisational arrangement for receiving calls expressing concerns about a child appeared less important than ensuring that those in the frontline – whether social workers or trained administrative staff – were good at their job and had sufficient time and resources to do it well.”
As long as five years ago, evaluation of the first Care Direct pilots identified the issue of the varying quality of call handlers. Yet social workers say this remains a problem in some authorities.
One social worker, who did not wish to be named, told Community Care: “Anyone including the pest control lady could fill in when the call centre people dedicated to children’s services are off sick or on training. The quality of advice that they are getting from these people is not good.”
Martin Willis, author of Call Centres: one stop shops or community-based information centres?, says his research found “huge differences” in the skill and confidence levels of call handlers. Whether they came from a social care or call centre background had a major bearing on the way they approached the job, he explains.
There appears to be no overarching standards governing call centre handlers to help explain the inconsistency across the country. Even so, there are key factors linked with their success.
To begin with, an open stance is important. “It needs real skill to be the first port of call and you’ve got to have somebody who is sensitive about who they are talking to,” says Mansuri.
Pete Gosling, principal manager for older people’s services at Wirral Council, says that, although the authority’s new system uses a template for eliciting information from callers, those answering the phones still need to be flexible in their approach.
“It is important that you give people time to tell us what the issue is from their perspective as when they contact us it is usually at a point of crisis,” adds Gosling. “For us it is a balance between the time we need to invest in someone in order to get the information and the level of demand that this centre gets.”
Martin Willis’s book published 2004, University of Birmingham, obtainable from firstname.lastname@example.orgThis article appeared in the 22 November issue under the headline “An answerto Gershon’s call?”