New council switchboard leaves people on hold

Just two in five people are getting through to who they need to when they call the Council’s new switchboard.

In May the Council launched a new automated telephone system which uses voices recognition software instead of operators.  The software should then connect you to the person requested. 

The new switchboard has raised fears of creating a ‘digital divide’ in the borough between those who are confident using automated systems and those who aren’t.  The system has been piloted with staff. 

Figures released by the Council though last month show that even one in five staff callers hung up on encountering the new system.  Another two in five callers had problems with the new voice recognition software and had to wait for an operator.  Just 40% of staff have managed to use the new system successfully.

The failings of the new voice recognition software have been the biggest issue. A huge 68% of callers were forced to wait for an operator because the software did not recognise what they were saying.  The new system relies on the caller knowing the name of the officer they want to speak to and understanding the caller’s request.

Opposition councillors have expressed fears that the system could crash when it is rolled out to residents over the summer and that it will create a two-tier service for residents contacting the Council.  They have urged that the new software works properly and can recognise all accents in a borough as diverse as Southwark.

The decision to move to an automated system was made in the council budget last year.  The aim is to save £421,000 on reducing telephone call volumes and call centre staffing.

Southwark Liberal Democrat Finance and Performance Spokesperson, Councillor Hamish McCallum, said:

“The Council’s new switchboard seems to have some major glitches, so it shouldn’t be extended to residents until these have been sorted out. 

“It is not acceptable that the voice recognition software fails so often.  It defeats the object that so many people have to wait for an operator, especially when their number has been reduced to cut costs. 

“It is also not right to just tell residents to use the council website and make their request online instead.  Even the Council’s own figures show that one in four residents either has no access to the internet or is not confident using it.

“Labour’s ruling councillors must not create a ‘digital divide’ in Southwark where access to council services depends on you feeling comfortable using automated systems while everyone else either has to hang on or just hang up.”