Kent County Council – embarking on an #epicfail?

Is KCC making a big (and costly) mistake?

As I noted in an earlier blog post, Kent County Council are about to install RFID self-service units in libraries across the county.  The first batch of installations are due to take place in April with Dover, Deal and Sandwich first in line for the technology.  The council claims that introducing this technology will save money in the long run.  Of course, the system itself won’t save the council any money at all.  It will, in fact, cost more.  The only savings that Kent will make from installing this system is through the redundancies they will be making in the mistaken belief that they will need less staff to ensure that the roll-out of the equipment is successful.  Although, one suspects that part of their consideration is the future closure of a number of libraries across the county (more on that later).

Kent County Council seem to be banking on the fact that the equipment they are buying in will be cheaper, more efficient and relieve the pressure on staff (this ensuring they can offload a few without having an impact).  However, a recent survey should give them cause for alarm.  Conducted by Mick Fortune, the annual survey (see here for more details about the survey) into the current status of RFID in the UK library market produced some interesting (and disturbing results).  Feedback from the 2011 survey included the following remarks:

“2nd year of debate with our supplier re handhelds. No connectivity to LMS although we were sold product on understanding that LMS and handheld units were compatible.  Also some software doesn’t work on Windows 7 PCs – we have just upgraded our equipment to Win 7 so software unusable.”

“Have been very unimpressed by the equipment and the support offered. The machines look good but are very prone to failure.”

“We had very high demands on a rapid installation which all attempts were made to carry out. However we received little training at the time of various installs, and support since the installation has been extremely poor, in terms of speed of response, adequacy of response, communication, reference numbers, engineer visits (timing, lack of communication or notification), software upgrade/update information, …”

“Too early to give a definite response, and very difficult to measure because so many other variables have also changed, but there are indications that we overestimated the savings to be made on circulation functions.”

“Cause reliability issues with LMS.  High ongoing running costs”

“I wasn’t involved in the selection but there seems to have been unrealistic expectations of staff headcount reductions to offset against the capital expenditure”

“staff time not reduced”

“Only semi-functional system has not bred confidence amongst staff or public, take up low and slow, unable to deliver maximum / intended benefits.”

I think the most pertinent comments from Kent’s perspective are those suggesting that the cost reductions anticipated by the introduction of the system were exaggerated and the fact that staff time has been greatly impacted by their introduction (not a good sign if you are using the equipment as an excuse to get rid of staff).

Now, the council may well argue that I am being opposed to technology and opposed to developing a 21st century library service.  This is, of course, nonsense.  By all means the council should be looking at how to bring the service up to date.  However, this does not mean that the council should make decisions based on short term outcomes.  As I have argued before, now is not the right time for self-service in public libraries.  The technology simply isn’t ready yet (although it is getting there).  Decision making like this will have costly implications for the library service and for tax payers in the county.  Not wise in the current climate.  The best thing the council could have done was wait another year and then introduce the equipment, when the standards are all in place and the equipment is more efficient (and more cost effective).

But then there is the suspicion that this is all immaterial as the council will undoubtedly be closing libraries across the county sometime in 2012.  There are already rumours at County Hall of a list of libraries that are earmarked for closure.  It would certainly appear that the most likely candidates for closure will be those libraries that will not be receiving self-service equipment, and those that are only staffed by one assistant.

I have raised my concerns with Councillor Mike Hill about the introduction of these units at this time and the decision to make staff redundant to enable their introduction, but as yet I have had no response.  I sincerely hope that Kent have carefully considered all the implications of introducing RFID and have not simply seen it as a cheaper alternative than employing staff (which it appears that they have done).  If they have not, it will very likely result in poor customer satisfaction and, as with all services whether private or public, poor customer satisfaction is likely to lead to a decline in usage of the service.  And we know what a decline in usage will lead to.  Watch this space for 2012.  Library closures are coming to Kent.

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5 thoughts on “Kent County Council – embarking on an #epicfail?

  1. Interesting read. We have been “self-service” since September, when our new library in Worksop opened. It certainly does not make less work for staff like is often claimed.
    We still have to shelve the returned stock, check shelves for reserved books and answer enquiries. We have gone from an average 400-500 issues a day to 700-1000 a day. This is all with the same number of staff!!

  2. I worked in a library in Gloucestershire and i was replaced by RFID machines last year, and had to work with the machines for some time before i left. the customers hated them – most like the social contact – and they were forever breaking. they also cost a fortune.

  3. Our libraries installed RFID 2 years ago and cut jobs through ‘natural wastage’. Many customers dislike the machines and insist on being served at the enquiries desk. The comments quoted from the survey are spot on – our handhelds not do work, and therefore were a waste of money. It feels as though the feedback from the actual staff who have to work with them, maintain them and coax the machines into working properly (just my personal experience) are the ones not being listened to about the impact of RFID on the library service.

  4. A very quick comment with no citations am afraid, but it is not hard to imagine in the future these systems being replaced by a mobile ‘phone camera using image recognition of the spines of books on shelves, in combination maybe with OCR and QR codes, doing the same as RFID and more — readers would be able to check their own book out with their mobile. Currently the principle has been demonstrated in university labs.

  5. The concept that self service in a supermarket is translatable to a library is sheet idiocy. Enquiries are integral and often outnumber simple loans. Put it this way – if a business hasn’t done it, it’s because it’s not financially viable, so by looking at, say, Waterstones, and the fact that they have NOT installed self service machines from a supermarket simply shows that bookshops and libraries are still dealing in referrals, knowledge, and customer service, NOT thousands of people just picking a book up and buying/loaning it out.
    I feel sorry for the staff that will get sacked, sorry for the staff that will deal with the onslaught of problems these machines will bring, and sorry for those that will undoubtedly feel the need to quit over it all.
    Epic Fail indeed.

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