Committee of Public Accounts

Department for Work and Pensions: Delivering effective services through contact centres

Chairman: Edward Leigh MP


Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"Those citizens who need to apply for benefits, seek advice, claim a pension or look for a job increasingly do so by phoning one or more of the 'contact centres' established by the Department for Work and Pensions. The local offices which people used to visit are in many cases no longer there. This is, in theory, a welcome advance in how the DWP interacts with citizens. In practice, the telephone service provided has often been unresponsive, overcomplicated and unreliable. This has got to change.

"In 2004-05, millions of calls were not answered promptly and 21 million were not answered at all. The people left hanging on the phone would no doubt have met with derisive laughter the claim by the DWP that it was modernising the delivery of welfare benefits. It is essential that recent improvements in the proportion of calls answered must be sustained.

"Calling contact centres can be very frustrating. There are at least 55 different telephone numbers for contacting the DWP and, quite incredibly, if you contact the wrong service, the Department's technology will not enable your call to be transferred to the right service. Calls to a contact centre will in some cases be lengthy, but no one will tell you how much the call costs. The staff in contact centres are often drafted in from other parts of the DWP. This can undermine the efficient running of the centres, especially where the staff's existing flexi-time contracts do not match up to contact centre hours. And - stop me if you heard this before - the underlying IT system is complex and unreliable."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 53rd Report of this Session, which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus and The Pension Service, examined the cost-effectiveness and quality of service provided by the Department's contact centres and on their accessibility for customers.

The Department delivers benefits, pensions and employment services to 28 million customers in Great Britain. The Department's agencies are increasingly using contact centres to deal with their customers, usually by telephone but also in some cases by fax, e-mail or post.

The Committee examined the performance of the 62 contact centres operated by Jobcentre Plus, The Pension Service and the Disability and Carers Service. Between them, they answered more than 33 million incoming calls, made 7 million outgoing calls, as well as handled 300,000 e-mails, 300,000 faxes and 4 million letters. The network of centres has been rolled out over a number of years. One consequence has been that there are more than 50 numbers to publicise, which can be confusing for customers. The Department does not have a target for reducing the number of telephone numbers but may establish a single number to act as a sign-post to other numbers.

While contact centres have been introduced in the interests of efficiency, the local office network has been reorganised, resulting in closures. The telephone is not a convenient means of contact for everyone, and should not be the only option available to the Department's customers. Pensioners can arrange a face-to-face meeting in their own home from the local service, but this option is not available for customers with a disability.

Not all customers attempting to call the Department's contact centres are successful in getting through to speak to an agent. In 2004-05, only 56% of calls were answered, which left 21 million calls unanswered. This level of service is not acceptable and the Department has acted to improve the rate of call answering. In the first half of 2005-06, the rate had improved to 84%. There is still scope for improvement and it is not yet clear whether recent improvements will be sustained in the longer term.

Customer surveys show a high level of satisfaction with the service provided when they get through. Some 97% of customers said the agent who dealt with them was polite, and 80% said their query was answered by the call. Contact centres can offer a valuable service to customers by helping to overcome the complexity of the benefits system, for example, by avoiding the need for customers to complete an application form, and possibly reducing the level of customer error as a result.

The Department's contact centres are constrained from operating efficiently by a number of limitations. For example, many agents were not originally recruited for contact centre work and have been redeployed from elsewhere in the Department on flexi-time contracts that do not match contact centre hours. In addition, the Department's different IT systems are not linked up effectively, so customers have to repeat information on a number of different occasions. In some cases information held on one IT system has to be printed out and input again into another IT system.

The Department has gaps in its cost data and management information that do not permit accurate quantification of the efficiency savings made by introducing contact centres. It is likely that these savings are substantial, as the average cost of processing a telephone call is around £3 whereas a postal transaction costs around £5. The Department believes it could not have made £375 million of savings in staff costs without the efficiencies gained from contact centres.

Notes for Editors

1. Contact details for requests for further comment from Mr Edward Leigh are provided below. ISDN facilities are available for broadcasting purposes.

2. The full text of the Committee's Conclusions and Recommendations is attached to this press notice.

3. This report can be accessed via the internet from around 11.00 am on the day of publication.

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