Councils could make "major savings" by fully centralising their customer management and making digital customer contact the number one option, according to council IT managers' association Socitm.

A Socitm report said all front office customer contact, whether face-to-face, by phone, through the website or other means, should be brought under central management. This would enable customer contact to be run on common standards, with customer contact analysis leading to improvement and savings in the cost of delivery.

"The result will be better service for the customer and better value for the taxpayer," Socitm said.

The "Better served: customer access, efficiency and channel shift" report said traditionally the planning, social services and other local authority departments have managed their own customers.

But Socitm said few councils are currently able to produce comprehensive customer enquiry data to help improve their services.

The report also estimated that councils could save large amounts of cash by slashing the number of face-to-face customer contacts, by instead using digital contact platforms. In one scenario given in the report, a council could save £1.6m a year by halving face-to-face customer contacts.

The Better Served report outlined three main sources of savings:

-Greater efficiency in handling contacts, where a greater proportion of contacts are resolved quickly, and at the initial contact by introducing professional customer service approaches and common standards

-Reduction in "avoidable contacts" - for instance, situations where the customer has to contact the council unnecessarily in connection with an enquiry, perhaps because no information was available, or it was of poor quality, or a service was not delivered as expected

-Shifting of enquiries from relatively high cost-to-serve channels (phone, mail and face-to-face) to a lower cost-to-serve channel (usually, but not always, the web).

The report includes case scenarios from Birmingham, Tameside, Surrey and Rhondda Cynon Taf councils.

"This report gives real insight in how frontline delivery can be reshaped to protect service quality and reduce costs", said Socitm president Jos Creese.

Earlier this year, a Socitm survey said cuts to IT budgets and staff in local government were much lower than expected in the current financial year.

But the Socitm "IT Trends 2010/11" report predicted that the number of IT staff employed in the sector would still fall by 1,000 this year. There were also skill shortages in areas such as business analysis and business process re-engineering.