NLGN Blog

Robots may not be ready to run a council, but they’re already helping
John Wybrant, Key Account Director, Public Sector, at business process outsourcing partner Arvato, 28 February, 2017

Disruptive, cognitive technology will be a major driver of change in our economy over the next decade, as Artificial Intelligence becomes more accessible to UK organisations, very quickly. This has wide-ranging ramifications for the productivity of the UK workforce and it would be naïve to think that the public sector will not share in the benefits, and the challenges, this brings.

Local government has already shown a commitment to adopting digital in recent years. Presented with the digital by default agenda, councils have made government services accessible via digital channels, with some impressive results. The participants at NLGN’s recent roundtable on robotics shared encouraging plans to take this further. We heard about projects to implement 24/7 webchat services for citizens, and ambitions to use virtual customer service assistants to handle basic FAQs more efficiently. Our own research suggests that public sector organisations are looking into the potential of robotics. In a survey of 134 local and central government decision makers, commissioned last summer, more than half of respondents said their organisations have explored the use of automation, and 21 per cent expect the technology to be trialled within their department or authority over the next year.

This is perhaps unsurprising given that local government is under greater pressure than ever to do more with less. The scale of the financial challenges facing local authorities, means there are few efficiencies still to be found in doing the same things faster, better, and cheaper. Instead genuine, radical transformation is required.

It is in this context that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has the potential to find lasting efficiencies that can channel local budgets into the face-to-face activity most demanded by residents. Put simply, RPA uses computer software technology to automate high-volume, repetitive tasks that previously required a human to perform. It has reached a level of maturity where it has become mainstream in the private sector and we are starting to see it deployed in the public sector.

Recognising this, we’ve implemented leading edge automation software from Blue Prism at Sefton Council in Merseyside. Our project successfully replicated a range of core transactional processes with 100 per cent accuracy and major gains in speed. The time required to input Council Tax direct debit payments, for example, has been reduced by 80 per cent, with cost per transaction cut from £1 to 20 pence.

In addition, the software has allowed the Council to redirect employees to focus on more complex tasks or much needed front-line citizen services. Employee satisfaction has also increased as a result of removing the mundane tasks from employee’s day-to-day routine.

Of course, this change also comes with challenges, particularly in terms of the impact on the workforce as the technology is applied more widely in the economy. This is a societal challenge which can only be addressed by all stakeholders working together to find solutions, and highlights why events that bring together officers, elected members and interested parties are – such as the NLGN roundtable we were proud to support – are so important.

Visit Arvato’s website to download a case study with more information on Sefton Council’s use of RPA.