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Using mobile technology

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Over 75% of the UK population owns a mobile phone, and at least 90% of those are aged 15-34. In response, more and more councils have started delivering services by text messaging.

Send restaurant inspections

More than 50 councils offer people the chance to get information, by a text service, on the food hygiene of local restaurants and other food outlets. "After the Freedom of Information Act we were inundated with requests about food businesses," says Drew McClenaghan, food safety officer at Belfast City Council.

So it took little persuasion for the council to take part in what started out as a Food Standards Agency pilot project and is now an established service. "We wanted to be seen to be working in an open and transparent manner," he adds. Through the 50p text service, people can get details of an outlet's last food hygiene inspection, a nationally recognised five-star rating system that covers compliance with health and safety legislation, the structure of the premises, and confidence with the management. People can also file their requests on the council's website, from which, in the first three months of the scheme's operation, Belfast received a staggering 600,000 requests.

There is widespread demand for food hygiene data from inquisitive residents, concerned parents and anyone fearful of food poisoning, says Mr McClenaghan. Surveys commissioned by the consumer group Which? have found that 97% of people feel entitled to know restaurant hygiene scores, and that similar numbers feel the information should be displayed on restaurant doors or available online.

Make efficiency savings

Four different services are involved in Derby C ity Council's pilot text messaging project, introduced to contribute to efficiency savings called for in the Gershon Review. It costs the council around one pound to send out a letter, but only 10p to send a text, says A ndy E lliott, from the council' s customer services department.

The pilot is used to remind residents about visits by staff and to remind benefits claimants to bring documents to pre-arranged meetings. Texting is also being used to alert people when their library books are coming up to their due date, and by the housing department to contact clients who are homeless. "They are a transient community, hard to contact by letter and suspicious of being called by a private phone number," explains Mr E lliott.

Barely one month old, the trial is reported to be going well. Local residents have been easier to get hold of, and pest control staff have reported a reduction in missed appointments. "The pilot is extending quicker than we expected," adds Mr Elliott. T wo other council departments - sports & leisure and waste & street cleansing - have expressed interest in the texting project as a way to promote their services.

Support young people in crisis


In Lambeth LBC, a text service has been developed by the council's family support service to encourage young people to think twice before leaving home. In a partnership with MPP Global S olutions, young people that text "letstalk" to a telephone number are sent a video clip of a young person preparing to leave home, and are encouraged to contact the council' s family support service for help. Or, if they want to discuss their problems with someone, they can text "callme" and the council will phone them back within 48 hours.

"It offers a way of resolving conflicts between parents and young people," says the council's housing options development manager, Winston Brown. "And it's a way of making our services more accessible." By using a medium that is familiar to young people, the council hopes that the service, which was launched in April, will encourage them ask for help before their situation reaches crisis point, and reduce youth homelessness. "Young people think they can leave home because they have had a row, and that they will get a council flat," says Mr B rown, "but they don't have the life skills to cope."

Keep parents in the loop


A pilot texting project introduced to tackle school truancy in Scotland has been expanded. Under the automated call system trial, which ran in 31 councils during 2005-06, parents were sent a text message if their child was absent from school. Texting was favoured by schools for being quicker and cheaper than trying to make phone contact.

Dundee City Council has reported that truancy has gone down in its schools by 20%. Several councils have widened the texting experiment to relay other information, informing parents about school closures and parents' evenings, and to congratulate pupils on their achievements. Particularly popular has been the use of texting to keep parents informed about their children's safety, for example if a school trip is returning later than expected. "The scheme has had a little impact on truancy rates, but the impact on personal safety has been greater," says Andrew Miller (SNP), West Lothian Council's executive councillor for education. "We get lots of positive feedback," he adds. "The parents really appreciate knowing what is happening."

Use text to engage pupils


"Introducing text messaging has had a double whammy," says Louise Ogilvie, the human resources manager at Blackburn College. It was introduced as a way of informing people about job opportunities and has been extended as a method of communicating with students. The impact on recruitment has been modest, but Ms Ogilvie and her colleagues realised they could also use texting for communicating with students. The college's use of incoming text messages - for example by prospective students when requesting a prospectus - is well established. But in a new partnership with the education specialists, www.ja.net, texts are sent out to remind students about library loans and appointments with student services.

"We are always looking for new ways of communication, and how to get people through the door - especially those without much formal education," says Ms Ogilvie. "Texting is a great way to overcome that hurdle, and it's how young people talk."

Find out more

Derby City Council - Andrew Elliott, customer services performance and programme manager

Belfast City Council - Drew McClenaghan, food safety officer

Lambeth LBC - Winston Brown, housing options development manager

Blackburn College - Louise Ogilvie, human resources manager. Tel: 01254 55144 or email: l.ogilvie@blackburn.ac.uk

West Lothian Council - Elaine Henderson, public relations development manager

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