Councils homeshore to help unemployed

Homeshoring doesn't just battle offshoring to India, it also has the potential to get disenfranchised people back into the work force, according to pilot projects being run by a pair of local authority technology partners.

Accelerate Nottingham and Connecting Bristol and- technology programmes supporting their respective councils - are using the idea of home and flexible working to create employment in call centres for disenfranchised members of their communities, they told attendees of the Mobile and Flexible Working in the Public Sector conference in London yesterday.

He said statistics have shown that there are a million call centre employees in the UK. "If we could shift ten per cent of those jobs to homeshoring, that's a lot of people getting engaged in work," Goodwin said. "It's a holistic view to how flexible working can be a part of a wider agenda."

It's a simple idea, but not easy to implement. In Nottingham, the Broxtowe Estate is plagued by high unemployment and teenage pregnancy rates, but has a strong sense of community, Goodwin said - the latter of which is key to making the project a success.

The pilot easily found 12 call centre workers, but finding a private sector contract wasn't so simple. While there was a lot of private interest in the programme - not least because of lower infrastructure costs and no recruitment charges - Goodwin said "somebody had to jump first." In this case, it was the Boots Advantage programme.

A pilot has been running for the past six months, and so far it's been a success, with no employee turnover. "Performance is just as good as in person call centres, in some places, better," said Goodwin. "It's not corporate social responsibility, it has mainstream business value," he stressed.

And, the flexibility of the workers lets them respond to peaks in demand. Because they aren't in the office and require little infrastructure - just a thin-client device and standard broadband - employing such workers is cheaper than setting up an in-house call centre, and it works as a fail-over in case some disaster hits the central offices and calls can't be taken there.

But because the private sector does have a bottom line to watch, Goodwin said such a programme can not depend on private sector contracts alone. He added: "If it was left to the market, these people would not have got jobs."

Now, according to Stephen Hilton from Connecting Bristol, his local council is about to pilot a similar setup.

In the Knowle West area, 20 people will either work from home or in a local community centre in a similar way as the Nottingham project. For security reasons, some companies seem to prefer the community centre setup, Hilton said, but noted that there's no real difference in security from a technical standpoint - it's more a cultural issue. "People need to learn to manage output, not people," he added.

The Bristol project would not only help disenfranchised local people get back into the workforce, but it will also let the council efficiently expand their contact centre, without needing extra office space. It will also diversify the council's offices, to help boost business continuity in case of problems at the main contact centre.

"I'm confident we can make it work," Hilton said. "And if it works here, why can't it work everywhere?"

The two technology partnerships are associated with the DC10+ network, which has helped fund the pilots.