Thursday, December 2, 2021
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Fears over council’s new switchboard plan

Plans for Southwark Council to roll out an automated switchboard to residents has raised fears after a pilot involving staff led to frustrated callers, writes Thomas Deacon…

Figures released by the council last month show that only 40% of staff successfully managed to use the system, with just two in five callers getting through to the right person.

Opposition councillors have expressed fear over plans to extend the system in the summer, to save £421,000 from the council budget.

Southwark Liberal Democrat Finance and Performance spokesperson, councillor Hamish McCallum said: “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.”

The figures showed 68% of callers had to wait for an operator because the software did not recognise what they were saying. A council spokesperson said: “We tested the system with staff so that we could identify problems and correct them before residents started to use it.

“We’ve had just one complaint from a resident about an issue we then resolved, and we’re pleased with the system so far, although we will continue to tweak and improve it over time.”

One criticism is that the system struggles to understand various accents, however the council said the software continually learns to recognise more accents as it is used and they expect the success rate to rise to 80% after a few months.

The council cabinet agreed on a wider Digital Strategy in February which will move more services online.

Liberal Democrat councillors have received complaints from residents that the existing switchboard refers them online, despite the council finding 8% of residents have no home internet.

The Digital Strategy warned that the over 60s, disabled people, council tenants, unemployed residents and those in low-paid jobs are all less likely to have internet access or confidence online.


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