Agenda item

Access Wirral: Transforming Customer Services


MatthewPatrick UPDATED

Councillor Matthew Patrick, Cabinet Member – Community Engagement and Communications, said:


“Contacting the Council needs to be as easy as possible – Access Wirral will do just that.


Access Wirral will deliver a quick, seamless and efficient route for residents to contact the Council.  By removing the duplication of systems, it will help staff provide much needed support in the most efficient way. 


By investing £1.2 million in a state-of-the-art system, we will improve our customer services enabling people to be self-sufficient by accessing services quickly, digitally and easily.


With improvements, we could drastically reduce the waiting time for low-risk claims for Housing Benefit.  This would see those claims paid sooner, protecting vulnerable residents from turning to expensive pay-day lenders.


This investment allows us to make savings in the near future; once the system is embedded and working to specification, it will enable us to direct our skilled staff resources to ensure the most vulnerable residents receive appropriate support to successfully and confidently access the services they need.


Access Wirral is a major step forward in how the Council supports residents”.


Councillor Phil Davies informed that Paddy Cleary Wirral UNISON’s Branch Secretary had asked if he could address the Cabinet on this item of business and he had given him permission.


Mr Cleary informed that the report was asking for approval for a £1.2m investment over and above the £860,000 already committed that would look to save £3m in two years’ time.  Therefore, in effect, a net saving of £940,000 unless there were add-ons or other further costs.


Mr Cleary also informed that what was not in the report was the 50% reduction in staff from 199 FTE to 100 FTE. It was unclear what the staff reduction would be in the Council’s One Stop Shops provision and access points found in our libraries. In the light of this he believed that the 2020 pledge of looking after the most vulnerable in our society was brought into question.

Mr Cleary informed that as branch secretary, he was accountable to the members who had elected him. Therefore, he could not allow these proposals to go forward without challenging the reduction in staffing numbers, the potential reduction in one stop shop provision and the likely reduction in access points in Wirral libraries. The staffing reduction would affect the livelihood of staff, would have a detrimental impact on their families and could see an increase in usage of the services they currently provided.  This was because the majority of the staff lived in Wirral.  They would see their income reduced and they may then need to rely on benefits. This also meant less money going into the local economy. Mr Cleary told the Cabinet that as Elected Members they were accountable to these Wirral residents.  He drew attention to the ethical element of a labour administration putting over 100 people out of work.


Mr Cleary informed that it was clear that no operational manages had been involved in this initiative to transform customer services so far.



Mr Cleary referred to the first line of the quote from the Cabinet Member for Community Engagement and Communications which stated:


“Contacting the Council needs to be easy as possible, access Wirral will do just that.”


and asked for proof that this would be the case. He noted that Enfield had been used as the example that had fully implemented this software and informed that he had contacting the Branch Secretary of Enfield UNISON who had informed that the Enfield experience has seen:


  a de-skilling of the workforce;

  a reduction of staff by 40-50%;

  website and channel shift;

  creation of one big call centre;

  reduction to just 3 personal access points with ‘horrendous queues and more and more difficulty in getting  appointments’;

  telephone calls could involve at times people waiting up to 40 minutes; and

  very good collection rates at Enfield had fallen since implementation of this product


Mr Cleary made the point that the report did not mention any of this.


Mr Cleary reported that Council tax collection rates remained steady at present at 95.4% and had averaged that since 2013-14.  The last time there had been a system change it had resulted in a full collection point drop from the highs of 97.3% to 96.3%.  It was his view that a similar reduction this time would more than wipe out any theoretical savings and actually result in a deficit.


Mr Cleary informed that he had highlighted a number of issues for concern but that he was only scratching the surface.  He considered that, in the light of the emails and contacts he had from staff and managers alike, Members should be protecting the Council’s Access Points and One Stop Shops.  They should:


  be looking to increase our collection rate;

  not be writing off £1.1m of debts in this area;

  make sure there are sustainable results over full financial years;

  be protecting the Council’s experienced skilled staff, only allowing volunteers to go through any natural wastage policy once clear results can be presented and not have to rely on agency staff.


Finally, Mr Cleary concluded that the Council had been in a similar position previously.  It had been here before and had put the staff and public through this before.  It had closed the cashiers section.  Payments could not be taken in the One Stop Shops.  The public are sent to the post office!  Mr Cleary considered that the one bonus coming out of the report was that staff had been notified 12 months in advance.  He urged the Cabinet to learn from its mistakes and not rely on officer and consultants only.


Councillor Matthew Patrick introduced a report which informed that Access Wirral was the Council’s approach to reshaping and improving customer service, making it easier, faster and more efficient to do business with the Council.  The Wirral Plan 2020 recognised the need for the Council to be a modern public service.  It was noted that:


“Technology continues to move at breath-taking speed… we must be – and will be – a Council which is fit for the digital world.  Our services must be accessible, delivered sometimes entirely online to reduce costs and to improve speed and efficiency”.


Councillor Patrick informed that the report and the attached Full Business Case took Wirral a step forward with that intention, by automating Council Tax and Housing Benefits as much as possible, while ensuring that those who needed more focused support were able to get it.  Not everyone had the ability or means to use digital services, and many of Wirral’s more vulnerable residents would continue to need expert advice and support.  It was believed that the Council could considerably shorten the process for low risk benefits claimants so that they could receive their housing benefit much more quickly.


The Cabinet noted that through the Access Wirral transformation project, extensive work had been undertaken during the past nine months to develop a detailed Full Business Case aimed at delivering major improvements in the council’s ability to provide excellent customer services. 


The Full Business Case included an analysis of strategic fit, the economic options appraisal, and the commercial viability of the proposal together with the financial case and an assessment of the Council’s requirements to enable delivery. 


The recommended option for approval through the report was Option B – Redesign of in-house provision, with investment to procure a state-of-the-art Customer Access System to support the effective digitalisation of services over the period of the programme at a cost of £1.2 million.


Successful implementation of the Customer Access System would enable the Council to deliver major savings in future years.  In the first instance, transforming the way in which the Council dealt with Council tax and Housing Benefit would provide a return of £3 million by 2020, and it could then consider using the system to gain greater benefits once proof of concept had been demonstrated.  This provided the further opportunity to target resources into providing more intensive support to those vulnerable residents who may feel ‘digitally excluded’ from newer technologies.


An extensive programme of user testing, staff engagement and customer outreach would take place over the course of the implementation of Access Wirral to ensure it was delivered in a fashion which responded to residents’ needs.


Access Wirral was part of the overall customer experience programme under the transformation programme.


Councillor Patrick informed that this approach had been considered against the back drop of the Government’s relentless austerity programme.  He informed that he was grateful to the Business Overview and Scrutiny Committee for the scrutiny it had carried out and that he would be attending a meeting on Monday to provide an update.


Councillor Ann McLachlan informed that the Council had already invested £800k in Phase 1.  This was the second Phase to provide digital access and there was 3m projected savings projected by year 3.  This was a phased programme to deliver a better service and benefits to the people of Wirral.




(1)  the contents of the Business Case provided, including options appraisal, staff implications, consultation proposals and risk implications be noted and the recommendation that Option B be the preferred option be supported;


(2)  delegated authority be given to the Director of Transformation to take the appropriate actions to deliver the agreed option; and


(3)  the Business Overview and Scrutiny Committee be provided with regular updates on progress.

Supporting documents: