Service with a smile
The one-stop approach to delivering government services to the public has been gaining ground for some years and many agencies have gone as far as setting up shops for the purpose - from information points to high street units.
The ethos adopted in a number of the 'best of breed' is miles away from the shabby waiting rooms, high glass screens, security guards and long queues which, it has to be said, still prevail in many local government departments. Providing a service where the starting point is the experience of the customer has done much to transform service delivery.
So what are the architectural and design features in the best shops? A shop that is welcoming and creates minimal barriers between staff and customers will generally be the result of months of careful planning, negotiation with unions and concerns raised by management for staff safety. However, it is entirely possible to design shops that take these diffuse concerns into account.
Accessed through easy-to-open or automatic doors, the reception desk should be the first point of contact for the public as they enter the building.
Assistance from staff, accompanied by large and simple signage, will do much to allay anxiety. The reception point should have sufficient space in front to allow comfortable access by wheelchairs and pushchairs. The desk should be high enough to prevent opportunistic challenges to staff, as well as having a low area to enable transactions with the physically impaired. Due to the volume of business conducted at this point, space is usually required for a telephone, fax and photocopier. Install a Minicom and loop system (and ensure tests are carried out by someone with a hearing impairment).
The overall appearance of the shop should create a welcoming feel.
Poor acoustics present real problems for both staff and customers as noise levels make it difficult to handle enquiries effectively and provide advice. Choice of floor colouring, colour and texture can guide the visually impaired.
Managing queues may be important if the shop deals with cash transactions. Suitable space is required to cater for the levels of traffic anticipated at peak periods.
Waiting areas also need careful consideration. Chairs should be a comfortable height and cushioned effectively for those less physically able. The waiting area should be designed with safety of children in mind, with a few fixed toys. Leaflet racks, space for exhibitions and photographs of interest provide a focus for those who have to wait for a period of time. A toilet with disability access and baby changing facilities is important.
Cash payments present a challenge for the security of the shop and a number have retained glass screens for security reasons or have vacuum tube systems to remove cash from counters to a secure, remote cash office after each transaction.
The overall layout often poses problems. Ideally, staff should be able to see their colleagues from different points within the shop - between reception and advice desks and into interview rooms. This should ensure any incidents can be dealt with quickly.
The role of the adviser is the key feature that marks out the one-stop shop and minimal barriers between them and the public are important.
Slimline monitors on advisers' desks are ideal in this respect. However, desks need to be able to restrict a customer reaching over.
Respecting the need for confidentiality requires sound-proofed interview rooms. But to balance up safety considerations, there should be separate staff and customer entrances to ensure a clear exit for the adviser.
All of these matters need to be addressed at the earliest possible moment. Ideally, the design should consider including the following:
video conferencing facility; PC with Internet facility for the public; small meeting area; public telephone;
training rooms; staff room; and photo-booth.
There continues to be some resistance to this type of open and friendly shop design. Ironically, staff who work in these shops seem far more relaxed about possible dealings with difficult members of the public than are their colleagues in other offices, protected behind screens.
Jo Herlihy is a development officer at Nottingham County Council. Tel 0115 977 3765