New tech era for town halls

Civic centres may appear to be behind the technology curve compared with the private sector, but they could soon be pioneers of leading-edge systems that until recently were relegated to the realms of science fiction

While some local authorities are still grappling with digitisation and the introduction of web-based services, others could be early adopters of new technology that will automate many everyday dealings between councils and their customers.

Developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and voice recognition have put us on the brink of a new era, says Ian Robson, business development manager for local and regional government at Pythagoras.

“It is the next obvious epoch of this journey and it is here now. This is exciting because this is the future. The potential is there and the opportunity is there to be seized. It is now possible to speak to a machine without the caller realising there is not a human being on the other end of the line,” he says.

This technology is already being introduced in the private sector where businesses are under unrelenting competitive pressure to reduce costs, improve services and increase profit margins.

Similarly, local authorities face unprecedented budget cuts, amounting to billions of pounds, while under pressure to maintain the quality of services they provide.

Although successful companies have long embraced new technology to transform their business, local government has been relatively tardy, partly for financial reasons and also because of the complexity and politics of the decision-making process.

As a result, councils have struggled to match the standards the private sector has set in providing quick and simple ways of buying and using services – such as shopping and banking – online.

Four decades ago, council staff communicated with customers by letter or in person, but since then there has been huge progress, first with the widespread use of telephone services through to the current push for digital transformation and e-government.

But Mr Robson says digitisation has not been fully embraced by many councils and behind the veneer of new technology some still rely heavily on shuffling around physical paper work.

He is sympathetic towards them because of the conflicting financial and political pressures they face, and points out that an online catalogue retailer or internet bank offer only a fraction of the services a large local authority provides.

“A bank might only do five things, but in contrast the public sector has to provide a myriad of services and a unitary authority could easily have 800 lines of services, from waste collection to care for the elderly,” he explains.

One of the challenges for councils is to offer their citizens the same levels of service they have become used to from the private sector, in particular when on the move through their smartphones.

“If you want to book a cinema ticket or a flight, you do it via an app. When people need to contact the council, they want to do the same, not wait until they get home,” says Mr Robson.

Against the backdrop of heavy spending cuts, the business case for investing in automation is clear, allowing precious financial and manpower resources to be diverted to where they are most needed.

Almost a decade ago, reducing avoidable contact became a key target set by national government to encourage councils to get things right first time and move more processes online, saving costs and reducing human error.

Mr Robson says that principle can now be taken to the next level through what he calls “automated contact resolution”, using AI to deal with customers, either through voice recognition for phone calls or the next generation of chatbots that can carry out a conversation online.

He says: “Now the real question is how many calls can be successfully answered by a machine or computer rather than by staff? That’s where the savings are going to come from.”

So-called bot technology is best suited to the high-volume, low-complexity calls that require relatively little skill to resolve, such as requesting forms and reporting incidents. Advances in computing also mean this type of system can be hosted via the cloud instead of the large and costly servers required in the past.

Developments in AI and cognitive learning now mean that machines can figure out how to resolve problems by “listening in” to calls between a customer and a member of staff.

Not only will it lead to better service quality, by increasing speed, reducing human error and duplication, resulting savings will allow financial resources and manpower to be diverted to other services.

Julian Stone, chief executive of Pythagoras, says: “It’s wrong to think that everything a local authority does can be done in this way. Some things like adult or children’s care need a degree of investigation, empathy and experience.

It is now possible to speak to a machine without the caller realising there is not a human being on the other end of the line

“Why employ people to do something repetitive, fairly simple and easily resolved when they could instead be using the soft skills that computers don’t have in order to resolve more complicated issues?”

Rob Musekiwa, digital transformation director at the City of Wolverhampton Council, comments: “Recent statistics reveal that 63 per cent of local authorities say their top area of planned savings is through the automation of processes, and more efficient and targeted use of limited resources. A further 8 per cent of authorities identify additional savings can be made through cutting IT spending. This supports Mr Robson’s principle of automated contact resolution being the next step in digital transformation.”

Some of this new technology was showcased at the Microsoft Future Decoded event in London in early November and Mr Robson believes it heralds a revolution in the way we interact with computers, essentially making the keyboard obsolete.

He warns those still thinking about digitisation risk lagging behind and need to leapfrog to the next generation of technology. “Once this was something you saw on sci-fi shows such as Star Trek, but it has become reality and local government should seize the opportunity to use it in the here and now,” Mr Robson concludes.

Pythagoras is a Microsoft Gold Partner, delivering business-critical IT solutions and services across the Microsoft Cloud, supporting their customers with strategic, digital and technical business needs.

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