Saturday, 17 September 2011

“Channel Shifting” In Barnet - Isolating the least advantaged

In the papers for the forthcoming Budget & Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee we start to see where Barnet Council is going with the outsourcing process and what will be required from the private outsourcing companies. They have included an example of the draft output specification for the new Customer Service Organisation, a service which currently costs a shade under £44m a year.

The output specification doesn’t tell the private companies how to deliver services. The council even states that it is “agnostic” about how they go about providing this service but it does set down some key principles one of which is something called "channel shift". It is a typical buzz phrase but in layman’s terms what they are saying is that they want to change the way people contact the council. They want to shift them away from calling the council on the telephone and or going to council offices to using email or the internet. The reason for this is quite simply financial. It is much cheaper to deal with an inquiry on the internet, which may be automated, than to pay someone to answer a phone or sit at an enquiry or reception desk.

Now in theory that sounds very plausible. However, it does not take into account the very wide diversity of people in Barnet and their very differing ability to access the internet.

Reading through all 797 pages of the very comprehensive Residents Perception Survey it sets out how people prefer to contact the council. Overwhelmingly, people prefer to contact the council on the telephone. Set out below is a brief summary of how people like to contact the council for different tasks:

The survey also breaks these figures down into range of different personal profiles.

I have shown a few examples below to illustrate how different groups access the council for advice and to request or apply to use a service.

First if we look at those people asking for advice or information.

• Overall 4% visit a council office whereas 13.5% of the unemployed visit a council office.

• Overall 24% use the web/email whereas only 12% of over 65 year olds use the web/email.

• Only 10% of council house tenants and 6% of housing association tenants use the web/email.

• 36% of Finchley Church End residents are use the web/email compared to only 14% in Hale ward.

If we now look at people who request or apply to use a service you see similar trends.

• 40% of 18-24 year olds use the web/email compared to only 14% of over 65 year olds.

• For the unemployed 76% use the telephone and 10% attend the office whilst only 13% use the web/email.

There are numerous other examples but what keeps coming out to me is that certain groups are much less likely to channel shift than others and often they are the least advantaged. If you are young, employed or living in an affleunt ward, that may be a great idea, but if you are old or unemployed or a council tenant, it may cause you real problems. Often these are the people who are most likely to need to access council services. A private contractor who is required to get people to “channel shift” (it is one of the key performance indicators) risks leaving a large section of the population disengaged from council services.

I wish the councillors would start looking at their own data in a bit more detail and realise that not everyone in Barnet has the advantages they enjoy. It also show how this outsourcing project could go horribly wrong.


  1. A very important post, Mr R: and yet another example of the way in which the the One Barnet policies of the present administration are failing the less advantaged residents of our borough. From parking payments to the closures children's centres and libraries, it is the group who are the most affected.

  2. Here is a link to research of how many older people use the web. 60% of over 65s have never used the internet

  3. This is an example of both the tail wagging the dog and the stick being used instead of the carrot. People will use whichever communication method that they like. I don't ever phone the council, partly because they only answer it 50% of the time but mainly because I trust them as far as I can throw them so I want what they say to be recorded in writing. I typically use email, I don't like webforms which put you in a reply straitjacket so if the council try that trick they will find that I suddenly give up email and start writing letters ( which I will send as signed for ) and that will then cost more to process.

    What the council should be doing is offering all of the methods and nudging or inducing us towards the methods that they find most convenient ( although this is of course to ignore the fact that the council work for us the residents and not the other way around ). I am sure there must be an equalities assessment problem here somewhere.

    I think we need a new Chief Exec who truly understands what customer service means and who is dedicated to providing the lowest cost service of the kind that residents actually want.