Comment: Long call delays are inexcusable

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Should it really take an average of 11 minutes for Edinburgh City Council to answer phone queries on bin collection? And with waste recycling all the rage, how come the council has a massive 10,500-strong backlog of requests from householders for bins?

Few features of modern life are more irritating than phoning a service or advice “hot line” only to be kept waiting for a response. Such long delays by the city council in the basic courtesy of picking up the phone to city residents are inexcusable.

It is all the more galling to have such delays described as “the problems of success”. There is nothing at all successful about driving residents to the point of distraction and undermining their confidence in the city’s commitment to public service.

The phone line hassles coincide with reports that up to 1200 jobs are to go from the council as it switches to a “Tesco-style” self-service approach for dealing with the public. Everything from reporting potholes to routine complaints over council tax and registering children for school trips are to be processed online in future in a drive to cut “avoidable” contact with residents.

Everyone appreciates the need for the council to bear down on costs and provide an efficient service, making best use of internet technology. Every time council staff deal face-to-face with a member of the public it can cost £20 to £30 compared to just a few pence for an online transaction. So overall, the encouragement to householders to switch to online communication make sense.

But the council must bear in mind that many householders, particularly the elderly, may not be so savvy in contact-less online communication. It is also in the business of public service. And while many matters can be dealt with speedily online, not everything can be reduced to a faceless “beeping” of goods through supermarket self-service check-outs. Face-to-face – or voice-to-voice – contact is often necessary and exactly what the council is in business to provide.

Householders are phoning in to register problems with their refuse collection or the delays they have experienced in being supplied with recyclable bins. To cut itself off from such queries and make callers suffer inexcusable delays is the opposite of what a service-
conscious council should be doing.