Public sector IT managers' association Socitm says councils can save much more cash through more efficient handling of web customer enquiries.

Data collected from 200 councils for Socitm's Customer Access Improvement Service briefing highlighted the difference across participating councils in the average cost of servicing enquiries through different contact channels.

The research reveals typical costs are £8.62 per visit for face-to-face meetings, £2.83 per call by phone, and 15p per "visit" via a council website. These costs have remained pretty much constant since 2009, said Socitm.

As well as simply trying to move enquiries to online channels, councils must also make sure online transactions can be fully completed first time, Socitm said.

The research shows that in 2011, average "web visit failure" was more than 20 percent with another 20 percent failing to find part of what they were looking for. For the council sector as a whole the total cost of web failure is estimated at £21 million per month or £252 million for the year.

While web failure is falling when compared with 2010 figures, the improvement, at 3.35 percent, is modest. And the range of web failure is significant, with the best council averaging just over 11 percent and the worst at nearly 35 percent.

"The key to reducing the cost of handling customer enquiries is to focus on reducing volumes of phone and face-to-face contacts", said Martin Greenwood of research arm Socitm Insight. "But this can only be done by councils committed to a sustained, corporate-wide approach to the issue."

Greenwood said a key starting point is to collect customer access data across all channels and all main services to identify priorities.

In March, Socitm proposed a new model for council website development "involving radical change to governance and management practice". The call came after Socitm research into the performance of council websites, which revealed that only 23 councils out of a total of 433 (five percent) achieved a top rating of four stars for their websites.