Five million benefits calls still unanswered

'Complex and unreliable' IT systems partly to blame
Written by Andy McCue, Contributor on

'Complex and unreliable' IT systems partly to blame

More than five million phone calls to benefits call centres went unanswered during the first half of the 2005/2006 financial year because of an "overcomplicated and unreliable service" underpinned by poor IT, a report by MPs has found.

The report by parliamentary spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that in 2004/2005 just over half of all calls to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) call centres were answered - leaving 21 million calls unanswered.

The most recent figures, for the first half of 2005/2006, show the rate of call answering has improved to 84 per cent, but that still left millions of benefits claimants unable to get through and speak to an agent.

The PAC examined the performance of 62 call centres operated by Jobcentre Plus, the Pension Service and the Disability and Carers Service. Between them, they answer more than 33 million incoming calls, seven million outgoing calls, 300,000 emails, 300,000 faxes and four million letters.

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The report says that the DWP's 55 different telephone numbers, including 11 for pensioners alone, is confusing and makes it harder to market the department's services. The situation is made worse because callers getting through on the wrong line are unable to be transferred to the correct service and have to call again on the right number.

Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the PAC, said in a statement: "There are at least 55 different telephone numbers for contacting the DWP and, quite incredibly, if you contact the wrong service, the department's technology will not enable your call to be transferred to the right service."

Leigh said the DWP's underlying IT system is also "complex and unreliable". In some cases information held on one IT system has to be printed out and input again into another IT system.

The report criticises gaps in the DWP's cost data and management information that make accurate quantification of the savings made by introducing call centres impossible.

"It is likely that these savings are substantial, as the average cost of processing a telephone call is around £3 whereas a postal transaction costs around £5," the report said.

When customers do finally get through to DWP helplines, however, there is a high level of satisfaction with the service provided. In a customer satisfaction survey 97 per cent of DWP claimants said the agent who dealt with them was polite, and 80 per cent said their query was answered by the call.

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