Over the years, I’ve witnessed some quite jaw-dropping decisions at Tower Hamlets council, but a decision by the Labour administration – yes, a Labour administration – to sack almost the only eight people who have ever made any sense at Mulberry Place wins first prize.
Blink and you might have missed it: a small item here in last week’s East London Advertiser reported that the council is getting rid of eight unfailingly polite switchboard staff. The ELA reported that this would “save” £208,000 and quoted a council spokesman as follows: “The council’s new voice-recognition telephony system has considerably reduced the volume of calls being manually handled by the switchboard team, as residents now have access to a quicker and more efficient service.”
Here’s the fuller story…In November 2009, the supposedly cash-strapped council implemented a new telephone system at a cost of…£5.4million. This bought them 4,000 new handsets and covered 6,000 extensions. It also included the dreaded “automated voice-recognition software”, the gadgetry that drives people so mad that the person eventually answering the call puts down the phone after suffering a torrent of abuse.
The system would be bad enough in Royal Berkshire, but in Tower Hamlets, which is home to rich variety of English accents, it is almost unworkable. The council even admits it failed to test the software with local residents.
Try it for yourself: dial the switchboard on 020 764 5000 and ask for, well, let’s say the ‘press office’ (and why not, as a taxpayer you’ll surely want to know why that department spends more than £1.5million a year producing the weekly propaganda sheet, East End Life).
I tried saying “press office” three times. On the first, I was directed to a Patrick Ahmed in Children’s Schools and Families PFI department; the second I got a Terry Evans in HR; and in the third, I was put through to a Bev Thomas, but in which department she works I don’t know because there was no answer (it was 5.10pm after all).
Each time, I had to go back to the automated voice system, just waiting silently to speak to a human. But now they’re going.
The head of communications at Tower Hamlets is Takki Sulaiman. He’s a former Labour councillor in Haringey, where he was renowned for affectedly clutching his waistcoat Churchillian-style as he spoke. He now earns £100,000. I know he also reads this blog.
So, Takki, can you please explain why you should stay and the switchboard staff should go? And can you explain why it’s appropriate to “save” £208,000 by sacking eight decent people (after spending £5.4million on a faulty system) but at the same time continue to waste millions on communications and a vanity publication called East End Life?
I tried calling you, but the system kept putting me through to the recycling department.