The Green Party is pleased to speak in this debate, because this is a very bad situation. The report on the operation of the Communications Centres Service Centre is very damning.
It is good that the Government commissioned an independent review. I congratulate it on that, and I hope it will fully implement the findings of the review, which does not pull any punches. One of the problems – which the review panel perhaps does not deal with as much as it should – is the implication that people in the call centres are seen as people at the bottom of the heap.
Unfortunately, that runs through our society. If one looks at the treatment of call-centre staff, one sees that there is a lot of rebellion going on in call centres across the country in different big agencies, because their pay is very poor. The pay rate is basically the minimum wage up to $14 per hour. I am not talking about this particular call centre, because the report does not specify wages rates, but it does state that the junior level – the new entrants into the police call centre – are at comparable rates to staff in other call centres, so there must be very low wage rates.
The dissatisfaction, the lack of morale, the absenteeism, and the high turnover rate mentioned in the report indicate that the wages are low, and that a whole lot of other things are wrong with the way the call centre operates. There would not be a 17 percent turnover rate, as referred to in the report, if there was not that dissatisfaction among call-centre staff.
It is not because they are bad people. The report actually states that the staff is a dedicated staff. The system has access to good information technology. There are various suggestions for improvement to that, but the problems are more in the basic conditions such as, I suggest, the wages, the training, and the whole organisation of the place.
The picture painted in the report is of an agency moving from crisis to crisis, with very little managerial direction or proper training, and no real systems for looking at the errors in the system and ironing them out. And the performance is clearly not adequate.
The target of having 90 percent of calls answered within 10 seconds is not being met, according to the review body. There did not seem to be any clear direction of how to meet that target, and quite a lot of calls actually take ages to be answered. The report says that between 3 and 6 percent of calls are not answered within 75 seconds of being made, which is pretty disastrous for an emergency system. If someone is lying on the floor bleeding to death or is being beaten up by somebody, or if someone’s place is being invaded, 75 seconds is a long time.
If that time goes by and still nothing has happened, it is causes massive upset and trauma, all around. What happens to those calls that are not answered within 75 seconds? The Telecom system bounces them to some other call centre, and that system itself is not working very well, according to the report.
But one of the problems that has come through, and that is not necessarily addressed in detail in this report, is that if calls are bounced allover the country and are answered by people in another location – let us say the call is coming from Nelson and after being bounced around ends up being answered by someone from Whangarei who does not know the streets in Nelson – there is all sorts of confusion. I think that over the months there have been reports of that happening.
Sure, information technology systems can improve that, and the report talks about new Global Positioning System mapping systems, and all the rest of those systems, which are good. We have a company, Navman New Zealand, that has a whole new system whereby details of streets all around the country can be brought up on screens at the touch of the right buttons. No doubt, technology like that has the potential to improve call centres significantly, but it is very distressing that no real performance standards are being operated in this present system.
In terms of the problem of overload of the system, I tell members that in the past there have been suggestions, which are being partially implemented bit by bit, to have an alternative line for non-urgent calls. One of the problems is that around the country the only number in people’s minds is 111 when they are in some sort of crisis – and it might not be a high-grade crisis; it might not be life-threatening or really frightening but it might be a crisis able to be resolved in a few hours rather than immediately. So having a back-up emergency system number in people’s minds is quite important.
It is stated in the report that an alternative number – O800 311 311 – is reserved for non-urgent reporting, and its usage will be coming in at some point in the future. But, clearly, there should be a whole campaign either to use that number or to fix a simpler number in people’s minds, so that they can say: “Well, it’s not really life-threatening but I really want a response. I am not near a phone book or anything else, but I can call the non-urgent number.” That may take a bit of pressure off the 111 system.We already know that the 555 system for people on the roads is working quite well, so we perhaps need another system brought in as well.
I have talked about the problems of the lack of training that comes through in the report, and about the probable under-payment of call centre staff. I think the whole point with service centres, particularly with this one as it is an emergency centre, is that they actually have to have surplus staff rather than a shortage of staff.
Today, that rubs a lot of management people up the wrong way. They get their bonuses and rewards by cutting staff and by cutting corners whereas, with something like this, centres actually have to have surplus staff. That is to say, for a lot of the time there has to be people sitting around doing nothing – which is anathema to management – so that when the peak really hits the staff is available. Sure, that can be fine-tuned so that there is not too much of a surplus in staffing, by reassigning stuff and bouncing it to other centres, and by doing that properly, but we do need to move towards a system of having a few surplus staff.
The report states the extra staff requirement, and in a survey done by a subsidiary body to those people making the report they suggest 21 staff. That is not a lot of extra staff to serve the needs of the nation, and to deal with people in crisis.
Mistakes cause loss of life, as we have seen in the recent Piha case and such cases are only the ones that reach the top in the media. For every case that reaches the media in that way, there are generally hundreds of other cases of people who have felt real problems of getting to a hospital in time, of their injuries getting worse, etc., because of the lack of proper standards in the emergency phone agency.
So the Green Party supports the Government in looking at these recommendations – and there are a huge number of them in this report – to improve the staff, to improve the management, and to improve the levels of payment for call centre staff. A recommendation is to treat those people seriously – to convey the attitude, which I think the public has, that they are valued.