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Sandwell Council 1

IS THERE ANYBODY THERE?

15-06-2009

Lynn Hawthorne asks you to all join hands, close your eyes and attempt to contact Sandwell Council….

I’ve been trying to contact a department of my local council. I wanted to do it in writing, so it was nice and official and I could keep a copy of the letter.

Now you’d think that would be quite a simple thing to do, wouldn’t you? Actually, it wasn’t. Sandwell Council doesn’t seem to want to interact with its taxpayers very much at all.

The website seems deliberately vague and departments now have fancy titles, like ‘Community and Living’ or ‘Neighbourhood Renewal.’

When I worked in local government back when Ashes to Ashes was reality TV, departments were obvious: Housing, Legal, Finance. You knew what they were responsible for. Not anymore.

I was simply trying to find the address of the Legal Department, but all I could find was links to legal advice for which the Council claimed no responsibility. None of the departments seem to have postal addresses, according to this website.

What the site did seem keen to do, however, was to get you to e-mail a generic hub that would acknowledge receipt within 24 hours. What happened after that was not explained.

I tried the phone book. Walsall Council has two pages of ‘key numbers’ (no addresses except the Civic Centre) but all broken down into departments. Birmingham City Council also has two pages, this time in alphabetical order, with the headline, ‘How can we help?’ It also suggests that if you’re unsure, you ring the main switchboard on an 0121 number. Excellent! Well done, Brum!

All Sandwell lists in the same phone book revolves around anti-social behaviour, paying them money and arguing about school places. Not at all helpful.

The alternative to e-mail for Sandwell, though, is to ring their call centre on an 0845 number. I’ve rung this call centre before. Like an old-fashioned doctor’s receptionist, you never get past it. Not for an enquiry or a complaint. They deal with it all. You can’t be put through to a department or person and it’s seldom that you get the direct line number. All they do is take the details and pass it on. Or not, in some of the cases I’ve been involved with.

In a way, I understand this method of ‘screening’ calls, because it can be time-consuming dealing with the public every time the ‘phone rings. But surely it’s quicker and more accurate for a member of the public to speak directly with the departmental ‘expert’ that some battery hen in a call centre?

By the time you’ve told the operative what your enquiry/complaint is and they’ve typed it up and read it back to you, it’s gone through a stage of interpretation (it’s not verbatim) and losing impetus. By the time it gets to the department and done the rounds there, it’s as good as useless and you’re lucky if anyone ever responds.

Perhaps this is Sandwell’s plan, to be as obtuse, awkward and bloody-minded as possible so the public will give up? The trouble is, a simple enquiry then often turns into a complaint because you’ve received no response. That’s the Customer Insight Team in play then.

I have a number of concerns here. Firstly, the cost of running a seemingly-inefficient call centre as opposed to a switchboard. All the officers related to this body have expensive-sounding titles and everything has to be passed on at least once.

Secondly, the cost to the public of ringing an 0845 number. Every piece of documentation or advertising from Sandwell posts this number or set of numbers. What Sandwell Council neglects to tell you is that its old telephone number (0121 569 2200) still exists and still works – at a fraction of the cost to the public.

It’s outrageous. It looks like they’re using the profit from these calls to fund the call centre, so council tax payers are paying twice to use council services! There’s an expense scandal for you!

So where does this leave me? I am attempting to use snail-mail and I’m hoping that everyone reading this article is acting as my witness that I intend to post this letter as soon as possible, so that, should I receive no reply, I can call on you!

Cheers!

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