Instead of the usual bored tone of switchboard operators, callers to councils are increasingly likely to get the perky response of call centre staff who are on hand around the clock to give advice
on everything from refuse collection to noisy neighbours.
A Unison survey found that, out of a total of 215 English councils, 125 have established call and contact centres and a further 154 are planned or developed.
The size of call centres varies greatly, as do their working conditions. While some are striving for high standards, others have been branded 'the sweat-shops of the 20th century'.
Unison wants to ensure our local government members do not have to work in such poor conditions and has researched and produced Holding the line, Unison's guide to making call centres a better place to work.
The guide is based on information collected from surveys and union officer visits during which discussions were held with staff, managers, supervisors and trade union representatives.
Call centres are often not good places to work, with managers behaving badly when dealing with staff. Many managers do not allow sufficient breaks and put excessive pressure on staff to increase the number of calls they respond to.
Often workers are relentlessly fed calls they feel they must deal with quickly, rather than giving priority to the quality of the response.
Staff in local government call centres must not fall prey to bad practices. They need to be treated fairly and not be seen as a mere extension of technology. Call centre staff are pivotal in making the system work.
Local government services use call centres as a contact point for the community in a variety of ways. In many cases call centres have been established as part of the council tax or housing benefits operations for dealing with enquiries, giving advice, and processing claims and other financial enquiries.
In other councils the call centre is run by a private company and can be described as an information and transaction centre.
Hertfordshire CC call centre, run by Capita, deals with everything from queries about the availability of library books, education facilities and tourism, to where to find a GP or nursery. Call centre staff feed enquiries through to other departments who then act on it. The call centre also provides an initial contact point for social services.
In the early days of council call centres the majority were contracted out to private companies. This means most of the staff now working in a local government call centre will have been transferred under TUPE regulations.
These will not be sufficient to guarantee good working practices or the pay, terms and conditions of new starters so it is important staff ensure they arefully involved in any negotiations with outside companies.
At Hammersmith & Fulham LBC, the council tax call centre has been kept in house and is apparently able to satisfy best value criteria and generate a better rate of income than a privately run equivalent could.
In acknowledging that both good and bad employment practices exist, Unison does not want to dwell on the negative issues but is determined to bring all centres up to standard.
All staff should have rights and entitlements that ensure call centres are comfortable places in which to work.
n Holding the line is available from Jon Besserman at Unison. Tel 020 7388 2366
n The Unison survey was carried out by the Employers' Organisation and the Improvement and Development Agency.
Communications officer, Unison