Government Efficiency? Calling 118 Directory services when you can get the same service for free

Government departments wasted at least £60,000 over the past three years making 59,874 calls to 118 Directory Enquiry numbers, when you can get the same service online for free. I know it’s not much, but it does seem fairly ridiculous for civil servants to be using an expensive service (over a pound a time) when you can get the same thing for free. The BBC’s ‘You and Yours’ consumer programme found this out through a series of FOI request – the full table of results are below (published with their permission). The research was done by reporter Adrian Bradley @adebradley). I appeared on the show to discuss with presenter Winifred Robinson (@wrobinson101) why this might be happening…..(it’ll be on the BBC iPlayer shortly). Some civil servants weren’t just calling to get numbers – they obviously also chose the very expensive option of having their calls put through by the 118 service. In one case in the Passport Office this meant a single call cost over £50. Although these are small amounts of money, in the Age of Austerity it does seem amazing that such expenditure can happen at all. The civil service has been subjected to non-stop efficiency drives and cost cutting since at least the ‘Gershon Review’ of 2004 (under New Labour) and even more intensively since the Coalition Government came to power in 2010. As might be expected the Government organisations who would most need to use directory inquiries were the Passport Office, HM revenue & Customs, and the Department of Work and Pensions. All three have a big ‘customer facing’ element to what they do and are mostly likely to be checking for details of individuals or businesses. What is less obvious is why they needed to use 118 services at all. This is especially obvious when the Home Office doesn’t them at all and yet the Passport Office, which is part of the HO but used to be a separate agency, is the second biggest spender. My guess was that – at least in some cases – people working on computer systems for tax, benefits, employment or passports might not have internet access or access to dedicated phone look services so had to use 118 services. But I may be being too generous, as other departments don’t seem to have the same problems. I also pointed out that some senior civil servants were not exactly “digital natives” – I’ve known people who have secretaries print out their emails and then write replies in manuscript on them! I can easily imagine them using 118 rather than an online service! The other problem I pointed out is that often these sort of expenditures wouldn’t show up on the local budgets of different bits of the organisations involved, so no-one locally had any incentive to control them Finally – the most notable thing for a veteran Whitehall Watcher was the diversity of practices across departments. For the past 5 years the Government and especially the Cabinet Office minister responsible for the civil service, Francis Maude, has been on a campaign to ‘join-up’ back office services and practices. And yet here we are at the end of the Parliament and clearly this one relatively simple area of back-office services is anything but joined-up.

Departmental Spending on 118 Calls (Source: BBC – You and Yours – Adrian Bradley)

118 calls

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