Select Committee on Public Accounts Twentieth Report


1. Departments and their agencies are responsible for deciding whether to set up a call centre. No one central organisation has policy responsibility for call centres but departments can draw on advice from the Office of Government Commerce, COI Communications (formerly the Central Office of Information) and the Office of the e-Envoy. The latter is responsible for formulating common policies and guidelines, and for monitoring departments' implementation of electronic government which includes call centres. In May 2002 the Office issued guidelines supporting the use of call centres as a means of delivering services more cost effectively. The guidelines specify that the Cabinet Office will carry out reviews of departments' use of call centres and that compliance with the guidelines will form part of these reviews.[2]

2. Asked why no reviews had taken place, the Office of the e-Envoy said that when the guidelines were originally issued a number of government agencies were responsible for enforcing them including the Cabinet Office. Responsibility for monitoring compliance had become unclear following subsequent organisational changes. This responsibility now rested with the Office of the e-Envoy which would be issuing new guidelines over the next two to three months and would press departments to follow them.[3]

3. Although, the Office of the e-Envoy has central responsibility for driving forward the electronic government agenda, it cannot require departments to take specific action. The Office could draw non-compliance and the consequences to the attention of the appropriate departmental permanent secretary or chief executive of an agency with the expectation that they would take action. To date, however, the Office had not done so and accepted that it needed to take more assertive action if a call centre was not delivering a service of appropriate quality or represented poor value for money.[4]

Disseminating good practice

4. With over 130 departmental call centres and many more in the private sector there should be considerable scope to share and promote good practice. The Office said that guidance had been disseminated through the network of e-champions who were responsible for promoting electronic government in each department. In addition, the Department of Trade and Industry sponsored the guidance issued by the Call Centres Association, and COI Communications provided support particularly in advising departments on outsourcing their call centres and in occasionally running seminars for civil servants who wanted to know about call centres and how to set them up. More needed to be done, however, to disseminate good practice.[5]

Location of call centres

5. Departmental call centres are dispersed throughout the UK (Figure 1). There is a high proportion in the South East of England, but in terms of the volume of calls the distribution is more even across the country. None are based overseas. The Office had not specifically sought to encourage call centres to be based away from London, but its new guidance would emphasise the importance of giving sufficient consideration to costs as well as the availability of staff with the necessary skills in determining the location of call centres. In some circumstances call centres might need still to be located in London despite the higher costs.[6]

Figure 1: Location of departmental call centres

Promoting public awareness of the services which call centres provide

6. The public need to know what services they can access using the telephone and how to get in touch with them. Information on where to call is, however, not easily accessible. Departments advertise their services in a number of ways such as in leaflets and on the internet. But only 14% of call centres advertise in telephone directories and there is no single directory of helplines and call centres available. The Office of the e-Envoy said that all call centres should be included in telephone directories as this was the most likely source the public would consult. The only exception might be where a call centre was set up quickly for a short period in response to an emergency or to handle a particular problem such as the foot and mouth crisis.[7]

2   C&AG's Report, para 1.5 Back

3   Qq 16, 59, 62  Back

4   Qq 60-64, 88 Back

5   Qq 17-18  Back

6   C&AG's Report, para 2.3; Qq 94-99, 153 Back

7   C&AG's Report, para 2.5; Qq 14, 130-132 Back

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