Councillor Duffin introduced the report and
thanked officers in the directorate for their hard work throughout
the year. He drew the Committee’s attention to the Local Full
Fibre Network (LFFN) which had received a £2million grant
from central government and had introduced 85 sites covering 75km
of fibre cables in rural areas throughout the borough, including
Stanford-le-Hope and Corringham. He stated that 89% of Freedom of
Information requests had been resolved within 20 days, and although
the team were above the Council’s target, they were working
to achieve 100%. He added that 98,000 Thurrock residents were
subscribed to the e-newsletter, with an approximate open rate of
65%. He stated that the new Digital and Customer Strategy had been
agreed by the Committee and Cabinet, and he felt this would help
improve transparency within the Council and help residents engage
with the Council in a more efficient manner. Councillor Duffin
explained that he wished to introduce a new portal for customers to
contact the Council, which would mean residents would be able to
track their enquiry and would be able to copy multiple people into
the enquiry. He felt that this process automation would mean a more
efficient Council, but would be a longer-term project. He
summarised and stated that the Digital and Customer Strategy would
not exclude people who still wished to contact the Council through
non-digital channels, and would give officers more time to deal
with non-digital enquiries.
Councillor Carter queried the 65% open rate of the e-newsletter and asked if the open rate fluctuated from month to month, and if this had increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Councillor Duffin stated that he would take this query away and would respond after the Committee. He added that the Digital and Customer Strategy also allowed for the implementation of new ideas such as a star-rating or qualitative feedback after an enquiry had been handled. He felt that this would provide data on which departments were handling enquiries well and could be used as best-practice examples, and which departments needed some work. He stated that reports on this data could be brought back to the Committee. Councillor Arnold expressed concerns regarding residents who wished to contact the Council via non-digital channels. He asked what Thurrock were doing differently compared to other local authorities and if benchmarking data was being collected. Councillor Duffin replied that the contact centre would remain, which would allow residents to contact the Council via non-digital channels. He stated that a piece of work was currently ongoing regarding the final offering of the Digital Strategy which would look at best practice examples from other local authorities, and would consider all processes within the Council, and this would help improve services for residents.
Councillor Kent queried the Local Full Fibre Network (LFFN) rollout and stated that currently only 48% of Thurrock residents had access to fibre broadband. He queried the timescales for full-fibre rollout across the borough. Councillor Duffin explained that there was no timescale for full-fibre rollout as the Council continued to look for and target government grants. Councillor Kent asked why the front doors to the Civic Offices were locked in the evenings when Committee meetings were taking place. He felt that the building should be more easily accessible to residents who wished to engage with Committee meetings. The Chair echoed Councillor Kent’s comments and felt the building should be open in the evenings. Councillor Duffin commented that a wider discussion needed to take place regarding the Council offices in the evening, to ensure that members of the public could access Committee meetings, but remained safe. He added that he would take this away and discuss with officers. Councillor Kent then queried why there was no working hearing loop within the Council Chambers, to which Councillor Duffin replied he would discuss with officers and reply after the Committee. Councillor Kent moved on and asked how the HR team were motivating staff members during the Council’s current financial difficulties. Councillor Duffin explained that internal communications with staff had increased since the commissioners had started their work, including a Q&A page on the intranet which outlined the current facts and was updated regularly. Councillor Kent felt that in recent years relations with media outlets had been poor, but felt pleased to see that an effort was being made to improve this in recent months. He sought reassurance that this effort would continue in future. Councillor Duffin explained that in recent months regular Cabinet media briefings had been organised, and urged editors and media outlets to attend these sessions to better understand Cabinet reports and policies. Councillor Kent summarised and highlighted the section of the report related to electoral services and asked when free ID documents would be rolled out within Thurrock, to ensure the borough met new government regulations being introduced before the elections in 2023. Councillor Duffin stated that the Council were currently wating on the government to release more information regarding the free ID documents, but an all-Member briefing would be organised for the New Year to discuss this with Councillors.
The Chair felt concerned regarding the enquiry ticketing system proposal, as he felt that Councillors should be able to help residents rather than referring them to an online contact form. He felt that a ticketing system might reduce the amount of human interaction residents could have with the Council and engagement with Council officers. Councillor Duffin felt that the current system of numerous inboxes for different departments was not efficient, and this could be improved by one contact form which had the ability to copy relevant people in. He stated that with this system residents could also monitor the progress of their enquiry and ensure quicker responses. Councillor Thandi sought reassurance that face-to-face contact would still be an option for residents. Councillor Duffin explained that the Council would push technology as the way of working, but a face-to-face option would be available, although would not be the primary communications channel. Councillor Carter asked how the Council were working to improve democratic engagement with Council committee meetings. Councillor Duffin explained that many residents were engaging with Council committee meetings digitally, through YouTube or the Council’s webcast channel. He added his focus as Portfolio Holder was to increase the number of people registered to vote, as this would help improve democratic engagement.
Councillor Holloway asked for more detail regarding the IT solutions being provided at the new Integrated Medical Centres. Councillor Duffin commented that he would take this away and reply after the meeting. Councillor Holloway then highlighted page 20 of the agenda, which stated that Thurrock had an ambitious agenda and asked how this would be impacted by the Council’s financial situation. Councillor Duffin felt that it was too early to fully understand how the Council’s financial situation would affect individual projects, but discussions remained ongoing. Councillor Holloway queried how the proposed contact form and enquiry system would handle complex issues that required input from different departments. She felt concerned that the proposed reduction in officer numbers would affect the level of service that residents received when contacting the Council. Councillor Duffin responded that the old email system with numerous inboxes could be replaced with the ticketing system, but would not replace the face-to-face service. He stated that the new system would make it easy for residents to fill out the contact form, as it would provide one point of entry for residents which would be sent directly to the relevant department. He stated that this was an ongoing piece of work to ensure that an enquiry could move between different departments and provide residents with a quick response. He felt that the ticketing system would also make the system more efficient for officers as the enquiry would be sent directly to the relevant department.
The Chair asked if a report could be brought back before the Committee regarding the proposed ticketing system. Councillor Duffin stated that this was a long-term piece of work, but when the proposal had been further developed it could be brought back before the Committee.
RESOLVED: That the Committee:
1. Noted the report and asked the Cabinet Member any related questions.