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When planning counts: managing the 2011 Census helpline

Source: Public Sector Executive Jan/Feb 2012

bss managed and implemented the helpline for the 2011 Census. During its 10 week operation the helpline successfully handled nearly one million phone calls from the public. Dani Muir, sales and marketing director at bss, explains how the not-for-profit organisation worked closely with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) to manage the helpline and how the organisation successfully recruited and trained over 900 people for this ambitious project.

A census is conducted every ten years to provide a snapshot of the country’s current population. This critical information allows central and local governments to plan the delivery of public services such as schools and transport.

For the 2011 Census, 25 million households were sent questionnaires and a dedicated helpline was made available to provide support to those who required assistance in completing the form.

A consortium led by Lockheed Martin UK provided support for the operational systems needed for the 2011 Census and bss, the UK’s only not-for-profit contact centre provider, was its partner, tasked with setting up and managing the helpline.


The 2011 Census helpline was available from 4 March to 15 May. During this timeframe there could be no room for error as respondents to the 2011 Census only had this window of opportunity to contact the helpline.

Additional help was made available online and after 6 April census collectors knocked on people’s doors to offer assistance and collect outstanding questionnaires.

For such a complex project, effective project management and meticulous planning was key. Of course ensuring that every aspect of the operation was cost effective was also of paramount importance. bss identified that it needed to address the following challenges:

• Find a suitable facility to house the helpline in Manchester to offer the best recruitment opportunities, transport links etc
• Recruit and train over 900 advisors to provide effective assistance
• Put in place robust security protocols to safeguard callers’ information

Rehearsed for success

In October 2009 the 2011 Census partners took part in a live rehearsal in parts of the country including the Isle of Anglesey, Lancaster, London Borough of Newham and Birmingham. The rehearsal was based on the same support systems and timescales and proved to be a success – as with any trial run, it highlighted what worked well and anything that needed to be fine-tuned.

Finding a home

bss secured a dedicated facility with the help of a commercial property consultant and it met the criteria for security, cost and convenience. The building had the capacity to hold in excess of 500 advisors at any one time, was close to the city centre, had good public transport links and was available on a short lease to ensure it was cost effective.

Recruitment, training and motivation

The planning for the recruitment, training and development of over 900 advisors started in 2008. A dedicated recruitment manager was appointed to manage the stringent recruitment programme, carefully tracking the progress of each candidate through the recruitment process. As the Census helpline only ran for a limited period of time, the jobs were temporary.

Recruitment agencies, local press, online adverts, advertising vans and a huge poster on the side of the building were used to publicise the vacancies in the city. The helpline was located close to general and student residential areas, which was a great help in attracting candidates. Given the economic climate, bss was inundated with job applicants, who varied from those who were unemployed, to students and retired people looking for part-time work.

Computer Based Training (CBT) sessions were conducted over a two week period. bss designed the training modules and the sessions included everything from security protocols to responding to complex queries based on over 100 different scenarios.

The CBT sessions were then followed by test calls, which allowed the staff a break from the computer to practice answering queries over the phone. Of course not everyone learns and gains skills at the same pace, so where necessary, extra training was provided to members of staff before the go live date.

Motivating staff on temporary contracts can be particularly challenging. Financial incentives were regularly offered to teams with the highest performance in a number of areas, such as prompt logging in to take calls, quality of service, lowest absence. All staff received a bonus at the end of their contracts based on individual performance.

Quizzes were conducted to create a lively buzz in the workplace, which enhanced team morale and ensured everyone was engaged and motivated. As members of staff were not allowed to remove any printed material from the secure helpline area for security reasons, e-books were supplied so that staff could read during their breaks.

Feedback from callers was also sought to ensure the service met their expectations. Where possible this was passed on to the individual advisors, and they were given a printed certificate including the feedback so that they could cite it in their CV.

Robust security protocols

Security was of paramount importance – it was important to ensure callers’ details were secure and the people being employed passed the necessary security clearance. bss worked with Logica, a partner in the consortium, to implement the Information Security Management System standard ISO 27001 – which made it one of the first organisations in the UK to be ISO 27001 compliant. This ensured that callers’ contact information would be safeguarded using some of the world’s most robust security protocols.

bss ensured that every employee working on the helpline, including its managers, was security cleared. This entailed a Baseline Personal Security Standard (BPSS) check which included identity check, eligibility to work in the UK, past three years’ employment of education verification and a criminal record check.


The quality assurance systems that underpinned every aspect of the service ensured that Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) were successfully met throughout the project.

The technical infrastructure was in place to handle fluctuating call volumes and bss was able to increase staffing by around 200 advisors at very short notice, which meant that call peaks and troughs could be accommodated.

What worked particularly well was the fact that representatives from the ONS and NISRA were very frequently on site at the helpline. During live operations, performance was monitored in real-time and reported back to the ONS and NISRA on an almost hourly basis.

This meant that any changes to the service could be made quickly.

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