Rugby Borough Council's chief executive grilled over 'embarrassing' phone system problems

“Our reputation is trashed every day and we need to put it right”
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Fuming councillors fired broadsides at Rugby Borough Council’s senior officials over “embarrassing” delays to fixing customer service phone lines.

The borough’s scrutiny committee – the panel of elected councillors that oversees the work of the council – did not hold back having been told that a new system that was meant to be operational by the end of the financial year in March has not even been sourced yet.

The backlash crossed party lines with the Labour chair of the committee Councillor Ish Mistry (New Bilton) saying the council’s reputation is being “trashed every day” on social media by people who struggle to get through.

Rugby Town Hall.Rugby Town Hall.
Rugby Town Hall.

Councillor Wayne Rabin (Con, Newbold & Brownsover) was among those to say he was “embarrassed” and his colleague

Councillor Heather Timms (Con, Revel & Binley Woods) declared herself “totally ashamed”, vowing to direct unhappy residents straight to chief executive Mannie Ketley having become exasperated with the situation.

Responding to queries submitted ahead of the meeting, Ms Ketley said council officers – the employed professionals – had visited other local authorities and system providers to look for a better phone system.

“The feedback from the officers was that there was no particular product that met the requirements identified through officers and members, for example a system that allowed customers to understand their place in the queue,” she said.

“While those products exist in other industries, it was not something that was readily available in the sector from that feedback.”

She highlighted that the chief officer for communities, homes, digital and communications Mike Connell had left his post and that work had been paused until replacement Thomas Griffiths starts his role but that “one his early priorities will be to progress to the replacement of the telephony system".

Vice-chair Councillor Isabelle McKenzie (Lib Dem, Rokeby & Overslade) sought assurance that the matter would be “top of the agenda” due to the “considerable frustration” of residents.

“I was quite concerned that we had looked at so many systems and the upshot was that we couldn’t find something,” she said.

“It has to be possible to find something that hits enough of the objectives to make it worth it because the system we have now is not fit for purpose.”

Ms Ketley agreed and said those sentiments had been the basis of recent conversations with a review of the specifications a priority due to “less than optimal” provision being in place now.

It was far from enough for Cllr Rabin who declared himself “absolutely astounded” that the new system remains “nowhere near being introduced”.

Referring back to a meeting in September 2023, he said: “We were all led to believe through a presentation from Mike Connell that a system had been chosen, a process was in place and it would only be a few months before being introduced.

“I use a system working for the Cabinet Office, and central government departments when I have been working for them. There are numerous systems, it does not have to be specifically related to local authority.

“I have had numerous conversations with residents who have the wrong impression that staff are working from home. They are not, we know that. They are complaining vehemently, and our 700 complaints registered is because they have no desire to go on raising a complaint with us, what they do is go straight to social media.

“I am sure I could pick up more than 1,000 over the past few months that have been made publicly over our customer service system. It has to be a priority, I am astounded, really, really frustrated and annoyed.”

Ms Ketley indicated the new system was unlikely to come forward in time for council meetings scheduled for March, after which the council moves into purdah, a spell before the local elections when authorities generally refrain from making new announcements.

Later, Cllr Mistry referred to “not pleasant” Facebook posts on the subject.

“There is so much of it, our reputation is trashed every day and we need to put it right and get this system up and running,” he added.

Cllr Rabin suggested the options should be brought back to the scrutiny panel for input from elected members, something chief officer for legal and governance Aftab Razzaq was keen to resist.

“The operational decisions for this council are very much the responsibility of officers and it is important that those powers continue to fall to officers,” he said.

“I would be concerned if members were getting involved in those operational decisions.”

Cllr Rabin replied: “I accept that, Aftab. However, surely the purpose of the scrutiny committee is to ensure that we scrutinise the decisions of those officers.

“Plainly, we have heard of an absolute failure. We are the committee responsible for ensuring the public voice is heard.

“I am embarrassed. I will be embarrassed when I next speak to a resident, which undoubtedly will be tomorrow or the next day, as will other councillors.

"It is embarrassing, we were promised something and it hasn’t been delivered.”