Its digital plans were discussed during a corporate support committee meeting last night (Tuesday September 28) but councillors are still adamant that face-to-face appointments remain available.
The strategy includes a brand new website which went live in July. Council officers from the digital team said the website receives 860,000 visits a year and said ‘more and more residents have been using services online’ during the pandemic.
Officers said: “Residents have been telling us that, in this digital age, having a good website is just as important to them as having council buildings, if not more.”
A ‘webchat’ project was accelerated during the pandemic when face-to-face appointments were not possible. It is now available for residents to use both during office hours and out of hours when a bot will answer their questions.
Customer services have had 3,799 webchats in 2020/21 and the digital team have had around 1,300 conversations through webchat in the last six months.
Now, 25 council buildings have been connected to new, ultra-fast, gigabit capable fibre internet – or ‘very fast’ internet – according to the digital team.
Despite the changes, members of the committee wanted to ensure that people could speak to the council on the phone or in-person when needed.
Alison Cooper (Con, Rustington East) said: “I have no doubt the improvements will be of huge benefit to residents and save money, but some cannot access services via telephone and digital means – this does not follow our policy of equality in some cases.
“Communication, especially on complicated issues like housing, needs to be in person.”
She pointed out that Arun has a high elderly population and areas of high deprivation and asked what would happen if phone or internet services went down.
This view was shared by Mike Clayden (Con, Angmering and Findon) who said: “We must always make sure we keep the ability for people to see us face-to-face and we need human beings on the telephones.”
Council officers reassured the committee that services can still be accessed over the phone and face-to-face appointments can be booked online. They added that accessibility issues identified with the website had decreased.
This was followed by an update from the council’s customer services team who continue to provide a ‘first point of contact’. The team received more than 174,000 calls and nearly 6,000 emails between 2020 and 2021.
The council’s ’cloud first’ policy was also discussed, which will soon see remote servers used to manage services such as housing.
Officers said that turning servers off during evenings and weekends could reduce costs.
Committee chair Paul Dendle (Con, Arundel and Walberton) said this would also allow solar power to be used for other purposes while reducing the need for air conditioning to keep servers cool.
But Jamie Bennett (LDem, Rustington West) asked how secure the council’s data would be in the future as ‘pulling the plugs out of the wall’ wouldn’t be an option.
He said: “Worst case, if we get hacked, you can pull the cables out of the wall and that saves any data. Obviously this won’t happen with cloud.
“What is the backup as the council holds very sensitive information?”
Council officers reassured Mr Bennett that copies of data would be made, with firewalls and turning servers off being the last line of defence against hackers.