Event Write up

Could a robot run a council?
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At a time when councils are facing unprecedented financial pressures, the development of new robotics technology has the potential to help, according to participants in a roundtable debate convened by the NLGN and business process outsourcing firm Arvato.

The event, which brought together local government officers, elected members, and thought leaders on the subject, saw delegates discuss how Councils could use this technology to reduce or even remove the need for staff to carry out tasks such as:

  • Back office processing
  • Dealing with basic public enquiries
  • Complex diagnostics and data analytics

However, delegates agreed that these opportunities can only be harnessed if the approach taken is proactive rather than reactive, and the impact on the local government workforce is considered.

 Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a technology that uses sets of rules created by humans to make decisions. It is set apart from previous waves of automated technology because it has the ability to learn from human users, making it more efficient and better value. It has the potential to free up council staff time for more face-to-face tasks, or allow the redistribution of staff to areas where there is more pressing need, such as health and social care.

 While this technology is still very new, some councils have rapidly embraced it. Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council’s revenues department saw RPA technology applied by Arvato across a number of processes, including inputting Council Tax direct debits and processing discount applications. They found that it led to significant savings – inputting times reduced by 80%, and the cost to the council per transaction cut from £1 to 20p.

John Wybrant, Key Account Director for the Public Sector at Arvato said:

“Local government is under greater pressure than ever to do more with less. Local authority leaders are looking at a continued budget squeeze and left with increasingly difficult decisions about how to deliver the services people need.

“While the use of robotics technology could bring significant savings to local government, it has also taken employees away from repetitive, mundane, back-office tasks and enabled them to focus on more strategic work or citizen facing activities.” 

There are however concerns about how this technology could impact the local council workforce. If tasks previously done by council staff can now be done with technology, reskilling and training will need to be considered for these employees.

Abigail Gilbert, NLGN researcher said:

“Changes in technology have affected the nature of work for centuries. As with all prior technological revolutions, robotics presents us with both challenges and opportunities.

“By automating routine tasks, Robotics Process Automation presents councils with an opportunity to deliver efficiencies, freeing their workforce to be more creative, collaborative and autonomous. However, it also presents challenges surrounding public opinion, and developing strategies for reskilling the workforce.”

Publication Date: 28 February 2017
Authored by: Abigail Gilbert