Press 1 for hold music or Press 2 to be cut off

ViewsApril 5th, 2012

We have all experienced the frustrations suggested by the title of this article.  As financial pressures increase, the trend away from face-to-face communication and towards encouraging us to use the telephone or internet to engage with public services has increased.  As technology becomes more sophisticated, and as we become more comfortable with using it, we can see benefits to this approach in some areas.  The DVLA, for example operate a very simple and user friendly service to renew your tax disc online.  However, as with many initiatives, a blanket move by public services away from face-to-face communication may not be appropriate.

The DVLA tax disc renewal system works so well because it is a simple transaction.  Consider planning applications, housing benefit applications or legal help and advice.  These are all complex interactions requiring an understanding of the individual circumstances of the person submitting the application, or seeking the help and advice.

Where complex applications have been undertaken online, there are very predictable and consistent consequences.  When I have worked in these systems, the first thing to notice is that everything tends to be printed off!  Then, a call is made to the applicant to clarify what is on the form and to gather additional information.

Meanwhile, a call centre somewhere, is receiving hundreds of calls, such as, “You don’t have a box on the screen that covers my specific circumstances”, “What does ‘include registered documentation’ mean?”, “Have you received my application?”, etc.

This is not good service to citizens and, as stated in previous posts, when we move away from delivering what matters to citizens, our costs increase as citizens come back to us, or other parts of the system, until the problem is resolved.

The difficulty is, when costing up the alternative ‘channels’, the internet does indeed appear cheapest, telephone more expensive, and face-to-face most expensive.  However, these costs are based on the cost of each transaction not the total cost of the system end-to-end.  It does indeed look cheaper to make everybody use the internet, but when you have to print off each application and phone each applicant, or call them into the office, or they are phoning somewhere seeking clarification, the end-to-end costs increase dramatically.

So, we have two assumptions: if we believe the internet or telephone is cheaper, we will, as providers of public services, gravitate towards those channels; also, if we believe that demands placed by citizens can be progressed perfectly, the first time, through internet or telephone services, we will pursue those approaches.

Before making a decision, these assumptions need to be tested:

1. Firstly, we need to understand the predictable demands citizens are placing on the system (see previous post “Not Everything Through the Door is Work to be Done”);

2. Secondly, we need to find out what matters to citizens about the service we provide, and test whether we can deliver what matters, and meet these predictable demands, on-line or via the telephone (it should be very obvious just by listening to what citizens say);

3. Thirdly, the true end-to-end costs (including the costs of those calls into the contact centre) need to be established – and not merely rely on the fact that transaction costs for internet transactions are cheaper.

Let me leave you with this study into legal advice, comparing provision via the telephone and face-to-face.  The research found “telephone advice took longer than face-to-face advice.”, (Balmer et al, 2011) which was not anticipated when the telephone advice service was created.  They also noted “the efficiencies offered by face-to-face services where client-advisor communication benefits from nonverbal cues (Crouch & Dale 1998) and miscommunication of information is reduced (Munro et al. 2001).

Finally, their analysis “suggests that mode of delivery is a significant determinant of outcomes achieved for service users, with a greater proportion of tangible outcomes delivered in the face-to-face setting.”

As a public sector leader it is important to identify your assumptions about an issue and robustly test them – they may prove to be correct, or challenged.  Either way your decision should produce better outcomes for the people of Wales.

Balmer, N., Smith, M., Denvir, C., Patel, A., 2011 Just a Phone Call Away: Is Telephone Advice Enough? Legal Services Research Centre, Legal Services Commission, UK 2 Faculty of Laws, University College London, UK Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law (In press), Volume 33, Issue 4


Crouch R., and Dale, J., 1998. ‘Telephone triage – How good are the decisions?(Part 2).

Nursing Standard 12, 35: 33␣9.


Munro, J., Nicholl, J., O’Cathain A., Knowles, E., Morgan, A., and Dagnall, A. 2001. Evaluation of NHS Direct first wave sites: Final report of the phase 1 research. Sheffield, England: Medical Care Research Unit. University of Sheffield.


Simon Pickthall worked in the public sector in Wales for many years before forming Vanguard Consulting Wales.  He has been fortunate to have worked with many leaders in Wales to help them understand their organizations from a Systems Thinking perspective –  and improve them as a consequence.  Simon was privileged enough to work on the Munro Review of Child Protection, and is committed to helping the public, private and third sectors deliver social justice.  [email protected]

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