Select Committee on Work and Pensions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 15

COMMITTEE VISIT TO BUCKINGHAMSHIRE

Wednesday 9 January 2002

1.  INTRODUCTION

  At its meeting on Wednesday 7 November 2001, the Committee agreed to visit the Buckinghamshire area ONE Pilot as part of its inquiry into the ONE Pilots. Buckinghamshire was one of the four areas nationally chosen to pilot the Call Centre Model of ONE. During the day Members visited both the area's telephone call centre, in Milton Keynes, and a ONE service caller office in High Wycombe. They met management and staff in the ONE Pilots and, in High Wycombe, representatives of local client groups. The visit had been arranged by the Committee staff in co-operation with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

2.  CALL CENTRE, MILTON KEYNES

Presentation

  Mr DH, the ONE Manager, welcomed the Committee to the call centre and delivered a short presentation on the organisation of the Buckinghamshire Pilot, its method of operation and its recent performance. He explained that Buckinghamshire was one of four areas chosen to pilot the Call Centre model of ONE (the other three being Calderdale and Kirklees, South East Gwent and Somerset). The county was mainly rural with three principal centres of population: Aylesbury, High Wycombe and Milton Keynes. The job centres, or local authorities, in all three had ONE personal advisers based in them, in addition to some at Amersham, Bletchley and Chesham. As ONE Manager, Mr DH was responsible to the Pilot Management Group for the operational side of the ONE Pilot. This included not only the call centre but all the Personal Advisers across the county. Many of these advisers had dual responsibilities, both to him and their Employment Service (ES) managers.

Call Centre process

  Mr DH then explained the standard ONE call centre process by means of a diagram (below). The call centre staff were divided into three teams of start-up advisers: team one received incoming calls; team two made the outgoing, longer calls; and team three, who mainly dealt with calls from clients who were using HOT phones (see below).


  * The integrated claim form (ICF) is an electronic claim form developed for ONE that incorporates Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) and Income Support (IS). It does not include Incapacity Benefit (IB).

  This represented the "standard" process. Some clients, often those in direct need, contacted the call centre through a HOT telephone at one of the ES or ONE sites in the county. These calls were dealt with by team three who could, if needed, fill out an ICF with the client immediately and arrange a PA interview at very short notice. Team three also dealt with claims that were, mistakenly, sent in by post to Benefits Agency (BA) or Local Authority sites.

  The Milton Keynes call centre was linked to those for the other two call centre pilot areas, located in Cwmbran and Taunton. If the volume of calls at any one centre were too great, clients could be diverted to a start-up adviser at one of the other centres. However, the call-back would be handled by the local office.

Performance of the ONE Pilot

  Mr DH concluded his presentation by outlining the performance results for the ONE Pilot over the period April to December 2001. The key results are given below:

 
April-December 2001
Change since last year
Clients entering ONE, of whom:
25,575*
up 11.6%
—JSA claimants
64%
up 15%
—non-JSA claimants
36%
up 6%
Clients whose work-focus interview was deferred (eg owing to recent bereavement)
2,468
27% non-JSA
Clients submitted to a job
12,158
Up 29%
—by call centre staff
816
up 9%
—by personal advisers
11,342
up 41%
—non-JSA clients
780
up 57%
Job entries achieved
686
Up 34%
—by call centre staff
43
up 16%
—by personal advisers
643
up 34%
—non-JSA clients
74
up 52%


  * The increase in the number of JSA clients had taken the Pilot by surprise and had been caused chiefly by an unforeseen rise in the number of high-tech job losses in the area.

  He also outlined some of the performance details of the service achieved by the call centre:

  
April—December 2001
Change since last year
Total calls received
53,473
up 4%
Total calls answered
48,461
up 8%
Abandoned calls (caller replaced receiver before speaking to adviser)
5.1%
12% previous year


  A majority of call backs (69 per cent) were made within 48 hours of the initial call, with 48 per cent being made on the next day. On average, there was a five to seven day delay between the initial call and a PA meeting.

  When asked what he would like to improve about the ONE service, Mr DH asked for "two wishes":

    (i)  completely integrated IT. He would have liked a system where information could be inputted once and be available to all the appropriate agencies: BA, ES, LA etc. The ICF was an improvement but there was still "double-keying" involved: the client's personal information was entered onto the Vantive system and then an appointment made on another system. Owing to data protection legislation, client details were electronically "cloned" for the different agencies (eg removing data pertinent for a housing benefit claim from the form sent to the BA), who then printed them off. Full electronic integration would make this labour-intensive work unnecessary;

    (ii)  joined-up thinking by DWP, BA and ES. Nearly all important changes, eg benefit rate increases, the abolition of SDA, etc happened in a rush in March to take effect in April. This required large amounts of re-training for staff, which effectively wiped out March as a "productive month". Were these changes spread over the year, it would make planning much easier.

Tour of office

  Members were divided into three groups to see different parts of the office and the call centre process.

Sitting with start-up advisers

  Members had the opportunity to sit with the advisers receiving inbound calls and making outbound ones. Those advisers spoken to appeared quite content with the working conditions and environment. They had experienced some teething problems with the new system but most of these had been ironed out, although the IT was still a little slow. JSA claimants seemed most at home with the new system, but it could be difficult with some of the more sensitive cases, for example a recent bereavement. Advisers were often surprised by the information clients volunteered over the phone, which they probably would not have done face-to-face or on a form. Some advisers were uncertain about their future within the DWP, with the advent of Jobcentre Plus.

Call centre management

  Members were shown the real time management computer programme, through which the calls were monitored. This allowed the supervisors to see how many advisers were free at any one time, what duties they were engaged in (administration, receiving calls, making calls, etc) and how many calls were waiting. The system also produced extremely comprehensive statistics for the centre on all aspects of its performance.

  With the other two call centres, Cwmbran and Taunton, the management ensured full cover each day from 8.30 am to 6.00 pm. They tried to offer staff flexibility in their hours and a variation in their tasks. The management were aware that ONE did not match some of delivery targets for commercial call centres, but were extremely conscious of the different service they were offering: "If a call takes two hours, then it takes two hours". They were keen not to put the pressure on their advisers that some private call centres did.

Electronic Data Systems (EDS)

  EDS, under contract with the DWP, developed the Vantive system for ONE (including the ICF) and were responsible for supporting the IT on a day-to-day basis. In the call centre, three of their employees worked side by side with ONE staff to both support the system and to pass on feedback to developers. There had already been four versions of Vantive in two years, in response to advisers' needs.

  New software was being developed, which was slightly faster and allowed for better telephony, for example more options at the first stage of the process. It had a greater capacity too, which would allow increased flexibility in the future. The EDS employees spoken to felt that there could have been more communication between the two projects—ONE and Jobcentre Plus. Many of the problems they had overcome during the development of Vantive, for ONE, were being faced again, by the developers of Jobcentre Plus.

Meeting with local stakeholders

  The Committee then held a round-table discussion with members of the local stakeholder group. They represented a variety of local groups—careers service, probation service, etc—with an involvement in ONE. The group met regularly throughout the year and was administered by the BA.

  All those present praised the good relationship they enjoyed with ONE management. They felt their concerns were listened to and that the BA and ES were interested in their views and input. For example, one local disability group had been invited into the office to speak to PAs about the services it offered. On the whole, they also seemed pleased with the service offered by ONE, describing it as a "friendly voice on the end of the line". Most of the initial glitches had been quickly overcome.

  The local careers service, however, said that it had created more problems for 16 and 17 year old clients, who did not know which route to take to benefits: the job centre or ONE. A disability representative informed Members that often PAs lacked sufficient knowledge to deal with some benefits, especially the more complicated, nationally-administered ones, such as Disability Living Allowance (DLA). She also regretted the fact that IB was not part of the integrated claim form.

  The work-focussed approach appeared to be effective, especially for lone parents and disabled clients. The PAs were good at exploring the in-work benefits available and encouraging clients to "dip their toes" into the employment market.

  A problem with the ONE approach was that clients often believed that the PA knew all the answers, whereas in fact they needed to make extensive use of other experts. This created further problems if there were delays in the claims process later on, for example, with Housing Benefit (HB). They would contact the PA whom they had spoken to and assume that they could deal with the problem, which was often not the case.

  The issue of the telephone basis for the Pilot was raised, Initially, it had been a significant issue (resolved by that time) that ONE would not call back a mobile phone—many clients found them cheaper to operate than landlines. There was a substantial ethnic minority population in Wycombe and it was important to have the appropriate language available immediately. There had been problems getting translators especially for the initial call. Clients had been encouraged to bring family or friends with them, as translators, for the PA interviews, which some found distasteful and intrusive. Some clients had apparently been told that if they brought such an interpreter they could have an interview in a few days, but would have to wait a week or so otherwise. Often clients had to rely on the services of local charities to help. Access to phones was also difficult for those in shared accommodation, clients with learning difficulties and prisoners.


 
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