At Borough Council this week, the five Council Pledges were discussed. My Group opposed this on the basis that at least two pledges differ to what Labour promised residents at the previous Council elections.
Some of these discussions are not new, namely Labour promised to deliver 100 Officers in each of the five areas of the Borough. Now they only aim for 100 in the entire Borough and most of these will be existing personnel given a new item of clothing. They also made a promise regarding Grimebusters at the previous Local Elections and implied that there would be 24/7 responses to reporting. There is no evidence that this is happening.
These arguments will continue but I wanted to focus this particular column on something I have mentioned before but not in the Council Chamber until this week.
The most recent publication of the Council's 'Hounslow Matters' recently published a list of telephone numbers that residents can use to contact Council Departments. Nothing unreasonable about that, is there? Well, it would depend on whether we are talking about good intentions or in making sure that the Council works as efficiently as possible in a way that utilises the fast changing world of technology. It would also depend on whether we believe that exchanges between the Council and its residents should lead to a tangible outcome.
Over the past 15 years there have been revolutionary changes to how private sector companies interact with their customer base. How many people under the age of 30 have experience of booking a flight or a train journey in person or over a telephone? I would suggest very few because such transactions are now performed on a computer, a tablet or an iPhone.
These changes have happened because technology has enabled a major decrease in the cost of delivering services and interacting with the wider world. To not fully utilise these as a Local Authority and to push more costly forms of providing services is not the best way to handle diminishing resources. The slow pace of change at the Council in this area over the past couple of years is unsustainable, not only in terms of reducing costs but in enhancing both the customer service experience and delivery of services.
During my time as Deputy Leader, there was a major growth in the amount of eForms offered to the residents and in their usage but I was always clear that there is a lot more that can be done. The possibilities are endless.
One of the telephone numbers published on the back page of Hounslow Matters was for the Parking team. Nothing wrong with that on face value but when it comes to Penalty Charge Notices for example, this telephone exchange will not be able to by-pass the fact that there is a statutory process for dealing with PCNs.
To me this is an example of good intentions that were not thought through that will achieve nothing positive. The resident who will have had their expectations falsely raised by this deserves better.
If a resident makes a planning application to the Council, they are unable to pay for that application online, meaning that an Officer of the Council has to potentially spend time taking payment details over the phone when they could have been doing something else. This is an exchange – and use of valuable resources – that need not be there when it is possible for that process to be automated in a way that delivers cost savings, better use of time and better customer service.
Of course, some in Local Government will focus on the fact that a minority of people do not have access to the modern technology that excites me so much. Some will also claim (wrongly I would add) that I care less for these people than they do. There is no suggestion that the Council's door should be closed to anyone. More traditional forms of being contacted should remain for as long as these are necessary (I have not known anyone unable to locate the Council’s switchboard number) but the Council really needs to change its way in terms of tapping into the potential that technology offers and in making it clear to those who do have access to modern technology that it is best for them to utilise it when it needs to report, request, pay or comment on something Council related.
I made these points earlier this week. Some facial expressions from the Labour Councillors implied agreement but no positive comments followed, indeed one Lead Member was critical.
I hope that this changes because if the Council does change its way I really do see a major win-win, both in terms of the challenges that the Council faces going forward and, more importantly, for residents of the Borough.