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Integrating public libraries and council customer service centres: the South Taranaki library plus experience.

Integrating public libraries and service council centres can be contentious. When a council has a main office, seven libraries and four service centres serving a population of only 28,000 people in a large area it also has major service and cost implications. Discussed are the concept, implementation and progress of Customer First at South Taranaki District Council in the North Island of New Zealand and the effect it has had on its public library service since 2002. Customer First was a project to improve South Taranaki District Council's customer service and the Library Plus initiative was one of three major parts of the program. It has proven to be effective in delivering library and other council services and has increased the profile and reputation of the library service

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The South Taranaki District in the North Island of New Zealand covers a large area, which spreads from Okato in the north to Waitotara in the south. It comprises six recognised towns, a number of villages and is relatively sparsely populated, with 28,000 people. Libraries are maintained in the towns of Hawera, Eltham, Opunake, Manaia, Patea, Waverley and the village of Kaponga.

In February 2002 the South Taranaki District Council (STDC) launched a multifaceted project under the brand of Customer First. There were three main initiatives required to meet the needs of the new legislative environment and cement the relationship between the legislation, council officers, elected members and most importantly the people of the South Taranaki District. The need was seen to deliver the most efficient customer service for the available funding.

The three main objectives were to

1 Refocus the four service centres. This was designed to reduce duplication, effort and confusion and increase standardisation of basic administrative functions.

2 Improve customer services across the board. It was important to ensure all frontline facilities actually met the customer service charter and that accolades came from the customers, rather than the organisation.

3 Increase capability in the new community development unit, from three to six staff.

1 Refocus service centres--Library Plus The first initiative was to combine the service centres and libraries in the towns of Eltham, Opunake and Patea as these facilities were in separate buildings in the three towns. This meant two trips for customers wishing to make an enquiry or pay a bill and then having to go to, in some cases, the other end of town to use the library.

Manaia was operating out of one building but the council and library services were not combined. Kaponga and Waverley were already operating under a combined agency model. The Hawera Council office was the administrative centre of STDC and the Hawera library had recently been upgraded and operated as the main district library.

This initiative meant a cost saving in staffing and building operations while enhancing the levels of service at all Library Plus outlets. Library Plus now offers a comprehensive one stop service for all council services. All staff in every facility are multiskilled and able to do these tasks in a diligent and welcoming way.

2 Improve customer service--contact centre

The creation of a single council contact centre was a key element in the effort to raise customer service responses. The previous system did not manage complaints well. Often there was no record of a complaint and the complainant certainly had no idea of what was happening regarding their complaint. Nor was there any uniformity of process, or reporting of, complaint management.

The new centralised system uses a toll free 0800 number making access free to all and means that the complaint is recorded and goes straight to the person who can action a response. The major function of the contact centre is the management of the customer request management system.

Customers can also make a request or complaint in any of the Library Plus outlets across the district, and they are all managed on the same system. This, with a robust followup facility, means that STDC now guarantees a followup call to every complainant and will take further action if it is warranted, and if the customer is not satisfied with the outcome.

3 Enhance community development resources

The third initiative was to develop a model of community development, which would see council community development officers facilitate individuals and groups to take the lead in developing the economic, social, cultural and environmental aspects of their local towns in a planned and sustainable way. The savings made by the amalgamation of the libraries and the service centres was to enable extra community development officer positions to cover widely spread and diverse towns and villages.

Library Plus--the implementation

As a strategic way forward, the Customer First proposal to amalgamate the service centres and libraries cemented the library in each community. There would be an additional fulltime staff member per library to help manage the extra work involved. The administration areas of the service centres would be consolidated in the main office in Hawera.

The librarian of each facility would be the manager of the facility and of all staff. In other situations where service centres and libraries were working from the same building or as a combined service, the librarian often had no responsibility for the service centre functions. This creates division amongst staff and also conflict and poor service because staff are not able to deal with across the board enquiries. Therefore, all staff were to be trained to multitask in both library and council services. It was decided that, where possible, staff in each facility would train each other.

Services to be moved to the libraries included rates, dogs, cemeteries and swimming pool administration. Property files were probably going to Hawera. The administration tasks such as minute taking, word processing and phone calls would also be based in the Hawera office.

The launch of Customer First

Customer First was launched to all council staff in February 2002. An outline of the reasons and background of the project was given. Organisational and staff changes were announced, and the staff were given two weeks to forward submissions on the project to the executive management team. The project timeline was three months.

Although rumours had abounded prior to this meeting the reality was hard for many staff because of redundancies and major changes in job descriptions. There was shock, disbelief and library staff were upset and concerned about their own changes and also those of their colleagues in the council. The staff at the service centres were very reluctant to move into the libraries.

The district librarian and the group manager for community services and development visited each library facility to discuss the project and explain the Library Plus decisions to the staff. The staff from the two libraries already working as agencies reassured other staff that it was not as difficult as they thought. It just added information of a different type.

The New Plymouth District Council already had a similar approach in place at Waitara and the district librarian arranged with Jane Waite (Waitara librarian) to take the librarians to Waitara to see how the concept worked and talk with Jane and her staff. The visits to Waitara library and service centre emphasised the benefits of one desk and multiskilling

The brand name Library Plus was chosen to signify that while they were still libraries, they now were able to provide council facilities such as payment for rates and dogs licences, building complaints and in six of the libraries, providing tourist information as well.

A crash course in project management

Each library assimilating the council services required its workspace to be renovated to allow for the service centre staff person.

Timing of the project was very tight and the work was to be completed by June, which allowed three months to complete it. The work was contracted out and staff managed to continue to provide service right through all the muddle and noise of building renovations.

Managing three concurrent building projects in such a timeframe was difficult. Add working with an architect, builders and the council property maintenance officer on three different sites to the equation, and it was a major learning curve for the district librarian and the library staff. Many decisions had to be made on the spot and quickly. Due to this, and the speed of the work, some things were missed or done differently to how staff thought things were going to happen.

The deadline was met and Egmont library, Eltham library, Kaponga, Waverley, Patea and Manaia all became Library Plus facilities on 1 June 2002.

Staff resources

Although four service centre staff were to move into the libraries to increase staff numbers, the results were quite different. There were resignations from council staff and library staff. These staff did not wish to work in the changed workplace. While it was disappointing to lose their wealth of knowledge, it gave the library service the chance to implement changes.

A new role was created for a district cataloguing and acquisitions librarian. New Library Plus staff were employed who had fresh ideas and an enthusiasm to work in the Library Plus roles. Also, because the Library Plus facilities were to open longer hours, more part time staff were required to cover the public hours. Nine new staff joined Library Plus in total.

Job descriptions also evolved as the year passed. Multiskilling in all of the tasks enabled a generic Library Plus job description to be put in place for the librarians and the Library Plus staff. As well, salaries rose after job evaluations were completed.

Training

Training started with library staff going to the service centre staff to be given council training while the renovations were being undertaken in their buildings. The council staff were trained in the library when they were moved there. The cross-training by staff worked better on some sites than it did on others and results were uneven. While some staff were very willing to share all their knowledge, there were others who felt threatened and were therefore reluctant to share or to take on new tasks.

Personal development

South Taranaki District Council had put a people development program in place in the year prior to Customer First. This included a series of workshops for all staff aimed at improving skills in communication, change management, conflict resolution and negotiation. This program had given staff the tools to express their fears of change and deal with the new expectations required of them. It was also strongly based on customer service, both internally and externally. The program definitely helped staff to cope with the changes that Customer First brought.

Issues that arose

Lack of procedures/documentation

The management styles at the old service centres had differed in each area. Many routines had not been documented. This created problems due to the ad hoc arrangements some of the managers had with community groups, which had often not been written down.

Unallocated functions

Four libraries had swimming pools to manage, which was unexpected. Eltham had three pools in its area to oversee. The customer services librarians found themselves dealing with occupational safety and health rules and regulations for swimming pools, and also new water testing regulations.

Out of date records

The cemetery records were found to be very out of date and required inputting to a computerised data file. This proved to be very time consuming for Library Plus staff but has now provided a much more accurate resource, which is also available on the council's website www.stdc.co.nz

Property files

Property files remained at the service centres and this required staff at Egmont and Eltham to leave their buildings to retrieve the files when requested.

The 0800 telephone number

The introduction of an 0800 number which would be answered by the contact centre in the Hawera office was the most controversial topic for the librarians, who felt very strongly that they were losing personal contact with library users.

There were valid reasons for the change, such as complaints being made to service centres and not going through the right channels. There was no tracking of when, and if, work was carried out. All calls through the contact centre would now be entered on the new customer service response software program. Callers wanting their local library would be put straight through to the library.

Solutions

Procedures and documentation

Library Plus staff now all work to the same procedures and documentation. There are clear guidelines for community groups and staff to follow.

Unallocated functions

The pools manager consulted with Library Plus staff and held a meeting at the end of summer for Library Plus staff and the pool staff. Many concerns were discussed and this resulted in a new management system being implemented for summer 2003/04.

Out of date records

Data loading of the cemetery records is almost complete. This is now a valuable resource which is used by many people to look up their ancestors via the council website.

Property files

Property files at Eltham have been an issue as the files have been in great demand and staff time away from the library to retrieve the files has been a problem. The Eltham Community Board has now asked that council look at extending the Eltham Library Plus building to accommodate files and make more room for library activities. At Opunake the files are still at the service centre, a five minute walk from the Egmont Library Plus.

The 0800 telephone number

The staff have become used to this. They are still not happy but users in the main are.

A five year update

Staff

South Taranaki Library Plus has enthusiastic, confident, multiskilled staff. The opening hours have been extended at every library and there has been increased foot traffic through the doors. Library Plus has a higher profile in the community simply through the provision of all the services, which has brought some ratepayers into their libraries for the first time.

Library Plus staff have each spent at least one day training at the contact centre. Each contact centre staff member has worked at one of the Library Plus facilities. This has given everyone a much better appreciation of the work each group undertakes.

Customer surveys

South Taranaki Council's customer surveys prove that a better service is being provided, with a 95 per cent customer satisfaction in the 2006 survey. The customer service request system has improved the response to all requests and complaints and has now achieved a 100 per cent rate of answering requests within the given time target.

Swimming pools

Five years on and the swimming pools are no longer a responsibility for Library Plus staff. The properties and facilities group of the council has been managing this area for the past two years.

Cemeteries

Five years has seen the cemetery records updated and clarified and many of the procedures have been streamlined and updated onto a new computer program. These duties are still carried out by the Library Plus staff who have learnt many new skills when dealing with bereaved customers, funeral directors and cemetery contractors, genealogists and family historians.

Property files

In July 2004 a 45 square metre extension to the Eltham Library Plus was opened. The extension provided a file room specifically for the property files as well as a sunny reading and reference area for the public.

In 2006 the Opunake Library Plus manager and staff reorganised a storage area on a mezzanine floor, added shelving and moved all the property files into the Opunake Library Plus building. This move has produced a more efficient retrieval system for both staff and customers.

Library Plus staff comments

Here are some comments, both positive and negative, from staff involved with the project. They reflect how the staff felt at the time as well as five years later.
 Prior to the changes taking place, management
 circulated the book Who moved my cheese? by
 Spencer Johnson. It helped put into perspective
 what is important, what is not, and how to move
 on. Who moved my cheese should be read by
 anyone affected by change.

 At first I really did feel that my library skills
 were being diminished and that council work
 was taking over. A year later, I have to say that
 things are better. I am comfortable with my
 position now and can concentrate on all the new
 projects for the library as well as service centre
 duties.

 In terms of librarians worrying about losing their
 skills, I think working under Customer First
 expands our knowledge base and gives us the
 opportunity to introduce a wider range of people
 to the library environment.

 Library work in some instance gets pushed aside
 for the council service priorities. Tidying and
 cleaning shelves often gets left ... until it just has
 to be done.

 We felt we were dumped into the multiskilling
 scenario and some must have felt that they were
 swimming against the tide for quite a while. So
 on the training side initially I think it could have
 been better.

 I think the people who made the decision to
 integrate the services didn't understand the large
 effect it would have on staff.

 Combining services has benefited the public,
 improved the way council handles frontline
 encounters and provided a 'softer face' for
 STDC

 Council has sometimes let the Library Plus down
 --with poor communication for instance--but in
 many ways we have encouraged improvements
 by expecting to provide a higher level of service
 than they'd been used to from the service
 centres. The complexity and diversity of council
 work continues to increase. Each rating year
 sees changes to forms and procedures.

 Most staff benefit from the additional tasks--the
 day is more varied, as are the people we deal
 with, making it more interesting. It also broadens
 our skills if we want to get into the job market.

 The council service issues that arise can be very
 time consuming, often unexpected and varied
 and by nature assume priority for example
 today a dog had fallen down a cliff, rates issues,
 no hand towels in public toilets, pensioner
 housing enquiries, property files etc and so on...

 Having council services available in the Library
 Plus means more people have been exposed to
 the library, increasing the breadth of people
 potentially using our library services.

 Our library skills have not suffered. I think staff
 can choose to remain passionate library
 specialists. However, I do think that is far easier
 for Hawera staff to see themselves as library
 'experts', especially in terms of tackling major
 one off projects.


Note Hawera Library Plus, because it is next to the council office, does not cover the full range of council services.
 On the positive side the work is varied,
 stimulating, busy, convivial, friendly, fun and
 community conscious in a holistic sense ... We
 get to know our community and can be
 supportive on many different levels to many
 people.

 The concept of Customer First could be
 considered to represent a dumbing down of
 public libraries. It is not.


Conclusion

After five years the Library Plus concept is well embedded in the community and public acceptance has been wholehearted. The biggest issues faced are often communication issues between other council departments and the frontline Library Plus staff. For example, a recent major change in rubbish collection initiated by the engineering department created a large customer response with phone calls to the contact centre and visits to the libraries.

There has been a number of staff changes but this is normal for the time period involved. Job descriptions have been refined, and two of the smallest branches are now managed by their nearest larger library. This has enabled a more effective use of staff as those in the small libraries now work in the bigger libraries on a regular basis and thus gain more skills.

The contact centre works well in conjunction with Library Plus and there have been no issues with the telephones or the 0800 number. Cross-skill training between the contact centre and the Library Plus staff continues, and a pool of casual staff able to work in either environment is now available. The community development officers work closely with the Library Plus managers and staff in each community and this keeps everyone up to date with what is happening in each area.

The library focused activities have continued to grow, with several new initiatives being developed and children's programs expanded to each library site. The South Taranaki District Library is well regarded by its peers in New Zealand and is looked to as an example of what a rural library service can achieve through putting the community--and the customer-first.

Editor's note There has been very little published worldwide about the advantages and disadvantages of combined public library/council customer services centres. Any items--short or long--about your experience would be welcome, to alan.bundy@auslib.com.au

Lynne Walker District Librarian South Taranaki District Council New Zealand Received January 2007

Lynne Walker is the district librarian for the South Taranaki District Council. She has worked in public libraries for 20 years. After 14 years at South Waikato District Council, which included a year's library exchange in 1994 to Watford England, Lynne rose from Putaruru branch librarian to become the district library manager. She moved to South Taranaki in 2001. Lynne encourages innovation and considers good service is essential in public libraries. Address: South Taranaki District Council Private Bag 902 Hawera New Zealand tel +64 0800 111 323 fax +64 6 278 9407 lynne.walker@stdc.govt.nz
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Author:Walker, Lynne
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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