Local government blazes the trail in public sector CRM

Town hall switchboards are notorious for being unhelpful. But now several boroughs are deploying CRM systems to improve enquiry handling and services on offer to local residents

Several local authorities have installed CRM systems recently and are already achieving higher satisfaction ratings with council services as a result.

Epsom and Ewell implemented a CRM system in ten weeks and is already achieving its target of dealing with 80% of council enquiries in the first call to the call centre.

Two London authorities, Tower Hamlets and Haringey, have standardised on Siebel eGoverment Applications. In the East End and Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets is using CRM to build one comprehensive source of user information.

This will "enable Tower Hamlets Council to maintain seamless, high quality communications with each and every citizen." said Eric Bohl, Tower Hamlets director of customer services.

Many of the challenges local authorities face with CRM are similar to business -- in terms of getting business processes to chime harmoniously with CRM systems. Haringey's director of support services, Tim Thorogood, told ZDNet UK that he believed CRM would act as a catalyst to hasten the adoption of more customer friendly practices from councils.

Bohl sees benefits at Tower Hamlets even if the business process cannot click in immediately behind the CRM system. Citing the example of the council's disposal service for old fridges and washing machines, residents can easily book the pick-up appointment even if the refuse department can't deal with the pick-up straight away.

The issue of cost -- a bone of contention in CRM for business -- seems to be less of an issue in local government. Haringey is benefiting from central government funding as a pilot CRM project and the Tower Hamlets scheme is largely self-financing through savings made by the system -- particularly in the issuing of parking tickets and fines. Haringey also expect its CRM system to save money in the long term -- though Thorogood admits this will not be the case in the short term.

Another local council benefiting from central government pilot funding is Warwick District Council. Warwick received £1m of 'Invest to Save' funding from central government.

Working with the local government IT specialist contractor, ITNET, Warwick is now regarded as a reference council for others to follow. ITNET spokesperson, Neil Hollings, told ZDNet UK that Warwick have set up several innovative customer contact points including call centre, Web site, and video conferencing contact for minority language interviews.

The future of e-business systems for local government hinges on the success of 'Invest to Save' schemes says Hollings. Nationally it is estimated that it will cost £2.5bn to upgrade every council in the country. He is confident that providing the general public can be persuaded to use some of the 'self serve' systems that are put in place, the savings can and will be made. The evidence from Tower Hamlets and Warwick helps to make the case and the strong progress made by local authorities in upgrading IT systems brings central government's bungled efforts into sharp contrast.

The Economist last week listed seven major projects that have gone awry -- including a £1.4bn overspend at the Inland Revenue, a write-off of £1bn for a failed Post Office benefits payments system, and a £118m write-off of failed projects for immigration applications and the passport agency. This follows a recent ZDNet UK report about a National Audit Office warning that one in six government departments still aren't online, and urging the e-envoy to focus on e-government implementation.

ITNET's Neil Hollings is reluctant to jump to conclusions about the contrast between local government success and central government failure. Local authorities benefit from their relatively small size -- which means it is usually possible to fit all the decision makers in one room, he says, which would not be the case with the Inland Revenue. However, central government is not completely off Hollings' hook -- as he believes there are some lessons to be learned from the planning and roll out of successful local government e-business projects.

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