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Is there anybody there? ...
Is there anybody there?

Contact centres are the subject of a lot of interest at the moment. But for many in local government they conjure up images of the early call centres -semi-robotic responses by operators who were judged by the number and length of calls and how well they stuck to the script.

I have recently visited a number of council contact centres and was struck by how far they have moved from the much-hated sweat shops of the 1990s.

Hertfordshire CC, for example, now operates a contact centre in Stevenage through a joint venture with Capita. The facilities are impressive - a new air-conditioned building coupled with up-to-date equipment and systems. The staff are bright and articulate. 'There are no scripts,' explains director of community information Andrew Robertson.

The aim is to ensure staff have quick, easy access to the right information. They are primarily problem solvers and enjoy talking to people.

Liverpool City Council took a similar approach. They stress the more flexible use of staff has resulted in improvements in service and cost savings.

E-government is not about technology. It is about the effective use of information. A council's front-line staff are its ambassadors. If they are efficient, friendly and well-informed it benefits the whole council.

This does not mean every council needs to set up its own contact centre. As Vertex has shown, it does not matter whether the contact centre is within the council area or 200 miles away.

With electronic service delivery you can have joint contact centres on a regional, county, district or functional basis.

What is more, if you can route the frequently asked questions through the contact centre you do not tie up expensive resources such as engineers, planners and social workers.

John Thornton

Director of e-government, Improvement & Development Agency

BT and Stockport's neat side-step

Connecting Stockport MBC's 120 schools is no

easy task. But thanks to a£4.5m deal with BT the borough will enjoy the benefits of a broadband network. Not only will children in the area enjoy greater learning opportunities, but the network will boost Stockport's chances of hitting the government's 2005 electronic services target.

Stockport has been actively pursuing the government's National Grid for Learning targets and all its schools are linked to the council's network. As well as internet access, curriculum support material has been produced. But as usage of the system has grown within schools, the network has become overloaded. Pupils have to be rationed in their internet use, and multimedia content often takes several minutes to download.

In 2000, the council undertook a best value review of ICT when it realised it needed to increase its development of ICT to meet government targets. In fact, the council set the ambitious target of achieving beacon status by 2005. A major problem was the speed of the network especially at remote sites away from the council's main administrative buildings.

At the time, the solution was to introduce a new broadband, high-speed network. But the council had started a fundamental accommodation review and was uncertain which buildings it would be using in the coming years. The broadband network was expensive and depended upon having five or six major nodes at strategic locations throughout the borough. If a node was installed in a building subsequently vacated by the council, there would be huge abortive cost and severe disruption to the service.

The solution to these problems was to enter into a close working relationship with BT to provide a broadband network. The difference with this partnership is that the major nodes are located in BT exchanges rather than in council buildings. This was a major departure from previous practice by BT, who had always installed the nodes in customers' premises. The major advantage to the council is that the accommodation review could proceed independently.

BT is delivering the network in three phases. The first provides the broadband backbone and links the main administrative buildings, all secondary schools and some primary schools. The second phase will link the remainder of primary schools, and the final phase will link smaller council buildings. By the end of the project, all 120 schools and 80 other council buildings will be linked.

Ken Horton

Strategic head of e-services,

Stockport MBC

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