Cllr Edward Smith is the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group on Enfield Council.
Some five years ago, faced with reductions in government grant, Labour-controlled Enfield Council embarked on an ambitious project called Enfield 2017 to digitalise its communications with residents. Other councils decided instead to follow Wandworth’s example and outsource many of their functions to the private sector, also with mixed results.
So, if a resident in Enfield had a query about their council tax, a planning application or the condition of their road, etc, they would need to communicate with the council online or via the call-centre, who would forward their request to the appropriate serve area by email. In future, a resident would not generally be able to communicate directly with an officer about their problem by phone.
The plan was to reduce staff numbers by 600 staff or some 17 per cent of the head count. The council didn’t have the in-house expertise to carry out a transformation of this size and so they employed consultants to do it for them. It was quickly discovered that the council needed a new and expensive telephone system to enable phone calls to be managed effectively. The council also used hundreds of different computer applications, many of them in need of replacement or requiring major alterations to enable them to operate under the new regime.
For example a new self-serve digital application for homelessness applicants was produced that would have baffled a computer expert let alone a person in danger of being made homeless.
Another consequence of the transformation programme was the decision to re-organise the council’s staffing structure completely, so that some staff from the old Finance, Housing and Environment departments were transferred to hubs of widely varying sizes, often combining a mixture of staff from different service areas.
This resulted in considerable staff demoralisation and confusion over who was responsible for what. The consultants who implemented Enfield 2017 left the council the day after the project went operational and were replaced by other consultants who also subsequently left a few months later.
The investment cost in new equipment, software and consultants’ costs was of the order of £21.6m with anticipated total savings by the end of the project in 2018/19 of £29.1m. It is likely that the cost of the programme will eventually be considerably greater given the substantial investment in new IT required over the coming years.
In conclusion, the council did achieve substantial reductions in staff numbers but at the price of a collapse in the level of customer service provided to residents. Residents could not understand of course why they couldn’t speak to an officer if they had an urgent query. They often had to spend hours trying to navigate the council’s website or waiting to be connected to the call-centre.
The elderly and vulnerable were of course the worst affected because often they didn’t have access to personal computers or were unable to use them. The council struggled to balance the need to encourage residents to move over to a self-service system and provide an alternative route for those unable to manage this.
Things are gradually improving. Enfield has a new chief executive who recognises that mistakes have been made and has taken steps to prioritise the council’s focus on customer services. A new appointment at senior level have been employed to do this and efforts have been made to improve the council’s in-house expertise and reduce its reliance on consultants. Time will tell, but regaining the confidence of Enfield’s residents is likely to be a slow process.