Council admits its phone system hasn’t worked for years

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.

Crossed lines: the council has finally admitted that its phone system was 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”.

Dialled up: Callton Young has admitted that the council phone system was not fit for purpose

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.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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6 Responses to Council admits its phone system hasn’t worked for years

  1. Lancaster says:

    As a staff member I have been told weekly from external sources that my phone line is not working or goes unanswered, despite being at my desk 9 to 5. This has been a recurring intermittent issue for years.

  2. Jim Bush says:

    After “Wavenet” take over the Croydon Council phone system, will residents have to wave at the council – communicate by semaphore ?!

  3. Peter Underwood says:

    How can the Council claim they are listening to residents when they don’t even have a working phone system?

    Trying to report even simple things like a missed bin collection can turn into a Kafkaesque nightmare and I have lost count of the number of people I have spoken to who have just given up trying to contact the Council by phone.

    And this is more than just trivial annoyance. The people most in need of Council services are often the people with no access or difficulty accessing online services. This is one of the reasons why it’s vital that the Council has properly functioning phone lines.

    The Council exists to serve residents so providing fast and efficient ways for residents to contact the Council should be one of its top priorities.

  4. Don White says:

    As I have told Inside Croydon readers before, a telephone system which responds to me by saying that I am “number. . . zero . . . in the queue” is not only an insult but had to be programmed by someone who must be deeply contemptuous of us. That it then told me that the average wait for someone in my queue position was “…..one….minute” and then kept me on hold for 12 minutes before telling me I had to e-mail instead, shows only the sneering disdain that those who set up and operated this system have for the people of Croydon.

    I have been complaining (or trying to) since last September, that my bins do not get collected, week after week. I have had to do this by letter as there is no other way to get through to Croydon. None of my letters was answered or even acknowledged, but eventually I discovered a couple of weeks ago that I must report within 48 hours ‘on my account’ or no action will be taken. As some of ‘our’ collections (my neighbours but not mine) happen at midnight on collection day, or even the day after, this effectively reduces to less than 24 hours, especially when I assume that the working day (for receiving reports), like the phone answering service, ends at 4p.m.

  5. Michelle Ann says:

    The last time I rang the Council, I was told they are not allowed to take calls from people with internet access. I was phoning because I couldn’t get an answer to my query on the internet.

  6. Colin Cooper says:

    Let’s face it, the Council doesn’t ‘work’ so why should its phone system. Total waste of OUR money, with the debacle about the Parks etc on top, someone explain WHY we continue to pay Council Tax that is simply going straight into the greedy executives pockets and not even to the front line staff who ACTUALLY work!

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