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News : Darlington Council Says Human Beings, Not Robots, Will Answer Phones


Darlington, UK, Jan, 2022 -- Council bosses have assured residents there will always be a place for face-to-face help amid a drive towards digital services.

Councillors discussed "digital exclusion" as moves are made to deliver more services via computers.

Housing and revenues assistant director Anthony Sandys said customer services would still be there for people who could not get online.

He said: "There will always be a front desk. There will always be a telephone service.

"That’s an absolute guarantee. There will always be a member of staff at the end of the phone or in our contact centre or indeed some sort of visiting service."

Councillor Mike Renton jokingly asked: "So you’re not going to have any robots stood on the front desk?"

Mr Sandys replied: "No, definitely human beings."

Darlington Borough Council’s economy and resources scrutiny committee was discussing a customer services and digital strategy.

This will aim for excellent customer service and easy-to-use, safe and reliable digital services for the next three years.

Mr Sandys said they wanted to help people unable to access digital services.

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He said: "For a number of years we’ve been consciously moving more and more of our services online that were traditionally provided face to face or via telephone, primarily because that’s what our customers wanted.

"I guess the big change here is that, for a lot of our services that are available online, there is an expectation that those people who can use them will do so.

"We want to obviously deliver value for money but be clear this is not just a cost-cutting exercise."

Committee chairman Cllr Renton asked how long the council would work in a "hybrid" way trying to reduce the number of front desk staff.

"Do we see there being a point in the future where there just won’t be a front desk and everything’s done online or on the phone?"

Mr Sandys said: "I think that will never happen."

He said some residents would always need advice and support: "There are some services we can’t put online.

"In terms of providing support and advice to particularly our vulnerable members of society, it’s not appropriate."

Councillor Stephen Harker said some people did not use digital because they liked talking to people, did not have the facilities or did not feel confident with computers.

He said: "I’m thinking primarily of older people... I think the strategy doesn’t really take into account those people who for whatever reason are not engaging in using IT."

Mr Sandys replied: "We know that a vast majority of people can use it and want to use it."

But he said: "I can reassure you we don’t refuse people who want support. We’re happy to provide that so that support will always be there for our customers."

He added the move online had resulted in less footfall, cutting visits about benefits forms by 80%.

There was a consultation on the strategy but this was limited because of the pandemic. In one case, people were asked whether they could go online in an online survey.

Out of 62 responses, 44% found the council website or online forms difficult to use. Efforts are being made to put the site into "plain English" and train staff in this.

There was discussion of positive feedback and "shifting the needle", with more people becoming confident with IT during the pandemic.

On the other hand, Cllr Harker raised the mental health effects of months in isolation.

He said: "If we’re not careful we are drifting into a society where there’s no need to have any human interaction, you can do everything online.

"For lots of people that’s absolutely fine, that’s what they want to do, but there are some people for whom that brings severe mental health problems. I think we need to be very conscious of that."


Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent

Today's Tip of the Day - Play Your Agents Their Calls

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Published: Monday, January 10, 2022

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