After almost eight years in charge of the borough, Croydon’s Labour leadership has finally admitted what thousands of residents have been saying throughout their time in office: the council’s phone system is not fit for purpose.
“The council provides essential services to more than 386,000 people and while most prefer to contact us via email or our website, not everyone has digital access, particularly some of our most vulnerable residents.
“That’s why it’s vital that our telephone systems are fit for purpose,” cabinet member Callton Young has said, in what amounts to a stunning admission that the council’s phone system has not been up to standard.
“We know the technical issues we have been experiencing have been frustrating for residents and staff, and are working with our new provider to get the new upgraded system up and running as quickly as possible,” Young said.
Even before covid hit, getting hold of anyone in the council offices at Fisher’s Folly by telephone would often prove to be an impossible task. Residents would routinely report endless waits in queues just to get to speak to an operator, only to be cut off just when they were led to believe their turn had finally arrived.
Years of cuts to services at the council, underway as part of “efficiency” savings implemented by Tory and Labour administrations alike, have seen the number of staff working on the council’s phone lines reduced to a bare minimum, with the “opening hours” for helplines down from 40 hours per week to just 30. There would rarely be anyone answering even “emergency” phone lines at weekends.
As Inside Croydon reported recently, even residents phoning the council to respond to urgent Council Tax demands, trying to make payments to the cash-strapped authority, were unable to get through to complete the process, resulting in some facing a County Court summons.
The phone situation has become far, far worse since the first covid lockdown.
According to council sources, when administrative staff were forced to work from home, many did so without the use of a functioning council telephone, or internet connection to the council. This poor provision by management under Jo Negrini may explain why the former chief exec was so reluctant to authorise the move to working from home when covid infections were spreading so rapidly in early 2020.
“Dozens of staff were at home, supposedly ‘working’, but in fact unable to communicate with their colleagues or their managers because no one had bothered equipping them with a functioning phone or laptop,” a council employee told Inside Croydon.
“They certainly weren’t in any position to answer phone calls from the public.”
In 2013, the then Conservative-run council signed an eight-year, £73.5million “mega-deal” with Crapita [sic] to operate its IT and telephone systems, an arrangement which was plagued with technical failings from the very start.
While an essential plank of the council’s “efficiency” agenda has been to shift its contact with the public from the phone to online forms, even after spending many more millions on establishing the Croydon Digital Service – basically a souped-up IT department – while operating its “clunky” website and poorly-designed apps, this month’s announcement of a “new” telephone system confirms that Croydon residents have been enduring a sub-standard service from their council for years.
The council has not released any details of the costs or term of its new deal with Wavenet, only saying that “will make it quicker and easier for residents to contact the council when they need to”.
According to the council press release, they receive 1million calls every year, “which are routed into the main contact centre, the revenues and benefits team, and other council services”.
The council says that the contract with Wavenet “will reduce waiting times for callers and help to ensure they are directed quickly to the right council team to handle their query”. As if this is some kind of 21st Century technical breakthrough, rather than a basic requirement of any functioning local authority.
“There have been ongoing issues with the council’s telephone system, which is over a decade old, resulting in residents not being able to get through, or their phone calls being cut-off,” the council admits.
The council says it is aiming to launch the new telephony system in two phases, starting with a dedicated election number for residents to contact the council with any queries regarding the local and mayoral election in May, and completing the rollout by the middle of June.
“We’re investing in our telephone systems because we want residents to be able to get in touch with council officers, quickly and easily, whenever needed,” said Young, heralding a move that probably could have been taken any time during his Labour adminstration’s term in office.
“Once rolled out, the new system will enable officers to make and receive telephone calls directly from council laptop computers.” VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocols, have been commonplace in most well-run organisations for about 20 years.
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period