Pick up that phone!

The head of Jobcentre Plus admits  that the tele-claim service is “failing badly”, writes Gary Vaux

In early November 2005, the newly appointed chief executive of Jobcentre Plus, Lesley Strathie, admitted to a House of Commons select committee that Jobcentre Plus was “failing badly” and had  a “huge, huge journey to make” in relation to meeting customer service targets for its contact centres.

Yet, by mid-December, Strathie felt she was able to announce in the foreword to its annual report that Jobcentre Plus  delivered excellent progress against a challenging set of objectives.

Strathie said the department was expected to achieve or exceed five of its six performance targets for the year, despite staff reductions of 5,000 in the year to March 2005.

When two such apparently contradictory statements are made within just a few weeks of each other, it’s difficult to see where facts end and spin starts.

The comments in the annual report actually relate to the 2004-5 year, while the problems with contact centres were highlighted during last summer, so it may be fair to say that the comments to the select committee better reflect the most recent situation. 

The contact centres for making benefit claims are central to the Department for Work and Pensions’ plans to introduce tele-claiming. As this column has noted previously, there have been massive problems for many claimants in contacting the centres, making claims and getting benefit actually paid. In some parts of the UK the Customer Management System collapsed to such an extent that job centres reverted to using paper claim forms and clerical systems entirely.

Strathie admitted in her select committee evidence that, as a result of the need to make “efficiency savings” across the DWP, Jobcentre Plus has been unable to recruit permanent staff to its contact centres: “We did not have the number of trained, skilled staff to deal with the volumes of telephone calls.”

As a consequence, staff morale was low, with only 22 per cent of job centre staff satisfied with the way the centres were being run and how they felt about their jobs.

The Jobcentre Plus business design director and chief information officer, also giving evidence to the committee, said there was a large group of staff having difficulty in coming to terms with working in a different way.

If that “different way” involves being able to answer the phone, which is a prerequisite of tele-claiming you would think, then  the DWP clearly has a problem.

Recent government figures show that, of 150 million calls made to DWP helplines since 2002, more than 62 million received an engaged tone or were abandoned while the caller waited in a queue.

The worst individual DWP helpline in terms of calls missed was that for attendance allowance and disability living allowance with 79 per cent of calls unanswered. Would private companies tolerate that level of customer dissatisfaction I wonder?

If you have any information about how problems with customer management systems or the call centre model is affecting your clients or service users, Jobcentre Plus wants to hear from you. Please call the public affairs team on 0207 273 6064 or e-mail Neil.lands@jobcentreplus.gsi.gov.uk

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question to be answered  please write to him c/o Community Care

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