Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 20 of Session 2002-03, dated 5 June 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today urged government departments to make sure that call centres could handle demand and to monitor the quality of advice provided.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 20th Report of this Session, which examined the quality and cost of public services delivered through call centres operated by government departments. There are over 130 call centres which handle 95 million telephone calls a year from people who wish to obtain information or advice, or to purchase services. The centres cost just over £350 million a year to run and employ some 15,000 staff.

The Committee found that call centres provide opportunities to deliver a range of public services more quickly and at times more convenient to people. To provide a prompt and reliable service, departments need to estimate the likely volume and incidence of calls and ensure they can handle demand through the most cost effective balance of flexible staffing, automated electronic responses, or alternatively outsourcing part of the service.

Existing quality of service measures tend to focus on the speed with which calls are answered and whether the enquiry was handled courteously. To obtain a more reliable assessment of service quality departments should also monitor and assess the extent to which advice provided was accurate and complete.

Nearly half of departments' call centres lack sufficiently complete information on the full cost and time it takes to deal with calls. Without such information departments cannot determine whether their costs are reasonable or consider options for reducing costs by reengineering existing ways of working or by amalgamating with other call centres.

While it is for departments to decide whether to set up a call centre, the Office of the e-Envoy is responsible for electronic government strategy which includes call centres. The Office has, however, limited information on the performance of call centres and the quality of service which they deliver. The Office needs to obtain reliable data to benchmark call centre performance, identify and spread good practice and press departments to tackle poor quality service where it exists.

Mr Leigh said today:

"It is often more convenient for the public to obtain government services through call centres and the number of telephone calls has increased by 40% over the last three years. Departments must make sure that call centres can handle demand so that customers are not frustrated by the line being constantly engaged, as happened to an astonishing five million calls to the Child Benefit Centre in 2001-02. But providing a good service is not just about the speed with which calls are answered, and Departments should assess the accuracy of the advice provided."

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