Local government voice telephony doesn’t have to be a Cinderella service

Freddy Kanter of Foehn argues that voice communications can make a greater contribution to councils’ cost-cutting activities – and that its time in the spotlight has come.

Voice communications could make a come-back as cloud-based technologies improve – Photo credit: Pexels

Local authorities’ hopes for meeting communities’ needs depend on refining their customer service models with online channels, self-service options and joining up areas like health and social care with other public bodies.

But there’s a greater contribution to be made by voice communications, which has been, until recently, something of a Cinderella service compared with more cutting edge technology developments.

Despite councils’ undeniable achievement of keeping most services intact in the face of 40% budget reductions, some observers believe that the next phase of digital transformation will be next generation voice telephony based on cloud hosting.

That’s because voice remains an under-realised element in the redesign of town hall services.

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It’s traditionally the most popular route for citizens to contact their council, especially for the older generation with complex service needs. And, with the number of people aged 80 and over set to grow from 6 million to 16 million by 2037, it will remain well-placed to wrap these types of local services around residents and manage long-term demand.

And the case for next generation voice is becoming more attractive given the struggles of ageing telephony platforms. Unified communications based on PBX hardware, touted as transformative only a few years ago, no longer provide the efficiency and flexibility to cope with today’s level of enquiries.

For example, many legacy call centres still lack a self-service dashboard, demanding costly third-party support to adjust services such as incoming call levels and team workloads.

In contrast, proven cloud telephony now enables supervisors to take control of dial plans through simple changes on the user interface.  

Public bodies, from borough councils to the Ombudsman’s Office, are already using flexible cloud telephony options to slash call costs and spin-up new service capabilities.

On-premise voice systems are often maintained by external telecoms partners, with buyers locked in to restrictive service agreements that hinder staff mobility and office moves. In contrast, cloud-based telephony systems offer transparent pay-as-you-go costing, reduced staff training needs and less administrative support from ICT.

In some areas, local councils’ uptake of ground-breaking cloud tools is surprisingly low. Some 76% of total G-Cloud sales by value are from central government, yet the advantages of the procurement platform could enable hard-pressed town halls to redefine services without major capital outlay or extended purchasing cycles.

Boston savings

A recent example shows the risk-contained path to change. Boston Borough Council in Lincolnshire reduced annual telephony costs by more than 40%, while improving the end user experience using a small-scale, cloud-based IP telephony system, hosted by a telephony and open source specialist, procured as a pay-as-go-you contract through G-Cloud.

The council led an ICT transformation project using high-speed networks and adopted cloud computing for its ‘desktop’ telephony services, replacing an increasingly-costly legacy on-premise telephony system. It also provided an effective alternative to sharing services with other local bodies.

Using the new cloud telephony system, the borough is on track to achieve savings of up to £30,000 each year from 2015 – without staff reduction or adverse service impacts.

The council reduced its annual fixed telephony costs by over 40% (£57,000 a year, down to £27,000), while call costs for each extension are invoiced monthly and directly to the relevant cost centre.

The council’s new system allows the real-time reporting of high-volume calls through the virtual contact centre environment, which is built around call agents that see a dedicated call queue, waiting times and status of available agents.

This led to quick improvements in call handling, because team leaders could re-allocate resources based on emerging traffic patterns, and it has also allowed the council to remove the barriers than come with an onsite system.

The council’s strategic ICT advisor Matthew Clarke has said that, historically, voice telephony has been an “oddity” in local government because it was run over a separate, dedicated network owned by customer services, but managed externally – it also represented a large capital purchase.

However, cloud telephony has blown that out of the water: there is no significant a capital investment or corporate decision to be made around adding IT features, and moving to the new system has not meant major organisational changes.

Moreover, ongoing training has been transformed at the council, because a managed service gives it the financial benefits of open source and it doesn’t have to train up an internal cadre of technicians.

Clarke has described the move as being the start of a transformation project, in which the council can now redesign the way our different service areas work.

You could argue that, based in the cloud, voice telephony shall go to the ball.


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