After years of austerity, councils are under increasing pressure to deliver more with less.

They’re struggling to find ways of meeting citizens’ demands with contracting workforces and budgets that have been pared to the bone.

Automation has proven it can streamline and reduce the cost of essential back-office processes. But can councils use automation for more complex tasks? Are they ready to embrace it? And, if they are, what’s preventing them from moving forward?

What’s the current automation situation and where do councils go from here?

We put these questions to our local government and automation experts at a roundtable that we sponsored at the 2020 LGC Summit. During the discussion, we explored the role automation can play, as part of a digital transformation, in increasing efficiency, reducing costs and improving both the experience and outcomes for citizens.

The roundtable was hosted by Chris Melia, Customer Experience Director, Local Government Services, at Capita. He was joined by Dr Grainne Watson, Centre of Excellence Director at Capita Technology Services, and David Anderson, Chief Product Officer at Capita One.

Chris opened proceedings by asking the panel where automation was making the most significant impact on service delivery. They identified three areas: time, productivity and effectiveness, and, most importantly, citizen experience.

Grainne said automation was an effective tool for handling highly structured, high volume, repetitive back-office tasks.

“When tasks are conducted manually, knowledge, including compliance rules, is dispersed among team members,” she explained. “All that potentially fragmented knowledge can be ‘taught’ to an automated system. So, when a citizen needs help or advice, council employees are better equipped to provide an accurate, compliant response.”

David emphasised the importance of councils being “sensitive” to the needs of vulnerable and digitally excluded citizens. He cited examples of automation being used to make essential services more accessible to vulnerable citizens, such as the elderly and people with no access to the internet, who prefer to communicate by phone.

Everybody’s talking about automation

Chris asked the panels for their views on the gap between the amount of time and words spent talking about automation and its relatively low take-up.

David pointed out that innovations tend to take root in industries or sectors where economies of scale and budget availability mitigate the risk of investing in new technologies.

“For councils, the decision-making process is complicated by factors, political, social and practical, unique to the public sector. Identifying the degree to which citizen interaction can, and should be automated, is of paramount importance,” he said.

“Confidence is key. When councils are confident that automation is a less costly, low risk, high gain proposition, they’ll begin to pick up speed on their automation journey.”

Grainne added: “The first generation of automation was sold on the promise of benefits and ROI which was - and is - hard to prove without evidence. For many, smaller, cash-strapped councils, data volumes are too low to make automation an obviously cost effective proposition.”

Making the business case

Grainne highlighted the barrier to progress posed by a general lack of understanding of automation and its benefits.

In addition, misunderstandings, such as the widely held belief that automation is achieved at the cost of people’s jobs, can prove a significant hurdle.

“Automation reduces cost because it takes people out of the equation but that doesn’t have to mean they lose their jobs,” she explained. “Automating time consuming administration and back-office actually allows councils to make better use of staff time because they’re free to focus on the more complex, and personally satisfying, challenge of helping, and delivering better outcomes, for vulnerable citizens.”

Visualising automation in action

An attendee talked about the difficulties he’d experienced in finding relevant examples of successful automation that can be understood by local government.

Grainne explained that most organisations, regardless of industry, will encounter many of the same problems.

“That’s one of the reasons we’ve been open about Capita’s experience of bringing 65,000 people together on an automation journey in which success depends on every member of staff being educated, engaged and motivated,” she said. “We’ve created use cases for everything we did, top up and bottom down, that show how we solved problems we know from experience the customer will encounter.”

Education and the democratisation of automation

Grainne shared one of the most valuable lessons Capita has learned during its automation journey, which is the importance of education in engaging every employee in the process. The first step in that education is an online training session that’s compulsory for every one of its 65,000 people.

“You don’t have to wait until you’re committed to implementing automation to get educated. The more you know, the more confident you’ll feel investing in automation,” she said.

“And, for cash-strapped councils, the good news is that vendors are ‘democratising’ automation by providing a wide range of online technical and business education for free.”

Start small?

As with any journey, where you start is important.

“Start from a place where you feel confident,” advised David. “It’s down to you and your stakeholders whether you start small or on an organisation-wide, strategic implementation.”

He advised breaking projects down into stages with milestones or deliverables that enable you to demonstrate success and continual improvement.

“Showing the ‘where, why, when and how’ automation has made a difference will allay fears and instil confidence. As people become more comfortable, you’ll gradually turn them into automation advocates.”

Or collaborate?

Collaboration offers a credible and cost-effective alternative to councils going it alone. Each of the 408 councils in the UK provide around 40 core services. By collaborating, they could create shared hubs or centres to develop and deliver selected services to citizens across different regions.

Happy to share

An audience member shared his experience of creating an app in-house that, he said, met a real need and is now available to councils and other organisations nationwide.

He posed three related questions: why aren’t councils developing their own apps; why suppliers aren’t approaching councils with ready-made, customisable and cost-effective apps and, finally, given that councils have similar needs, why waste time and money on endless reinvention?

David responded by detailing Capita’s success in creating products in short timescales.

“Automation is increasingly part of our product and service development DNA. We encourage customers to look for operational areas or functions which would be improved by automation,” he said

Grainne said that Capita is already producing automated solutions that are being used by 30 to 40 councils.

“We encourage councils to collaborate. Whether that’s by creating an automation hub or asking their suppliers for automated solutions and apps that they can all use is down to them. Capita’s focus is always on offering the customer the best fix and maximum value for money. In other words, more bang for their automation buck,” she added.

Chris said Capita is responding to councils’ need for certainty by offering automated solutions and apps with a recognisable purpose that can be integrated into their existing IT systems.

Achieving a single, unified view

Achieving the “single citizen view” has been a talking point for many years. Chris asked the panel for their views on using automation to create a single, unified view by identifying and merging information held about a citizen across all local government systems, departments or agencies.

Grainne said that bots - created by robotic process automation will do what a person does far more quickly and accurately. “Think of bots as a pair of hands that can lift, shift and cleanse any data. You teach them the rules, logic and processes, they go off and do all the work.”

Can we trust the robots?

Chris asked the panel for their views on convincing citizens to trust automation.

“Don’t allow algorithms to dictate the process,” advised Grainne. “Algorithms are only instructions created by an organisation, or group of people, for solving a problem or completing a task. Look at the recent A level results controversy. In that case, the organisations involved created an over-simplified algorithm which did exactly what it was designed to do but failed to deliver the best and fairest outcomes for schools and students.”

A member of the audience said there was already evidence of AI systems replicating human and societal biases. He believed that AI systems were inherently flawed because they were built on the same opinions and biases that distort human decision-making.

The panel agreed that any system built by humans would be susceptible to being influenced by personal bias. However, organisations were now not only more aware of the risks than in the early days of AI but increasingly vigilant about identifying and eliminating bias conscious and unconscious from the development process. While there’s still a long way to go, organisations are already creating AI systems capable of making fairer decisions by identifying and eliminating subjective views and interpretations from the process.

The future

From discussions at the webinar, it’s clear automation will help councils to save money while delivering a better experience and improving service outcomes for every citizen, including the most vulnerable. By liberating employees from time-consuming tasks, automation will enable them to devote more time to delivering frontline services, more personalised help and better outcomes for citizens.

There’s a lot of work to be done, especially in terms of education. In addition, councils have other difficult decisions to make, not least whether they should go it alone or collaborate with other councils.

Thinking about your organisation?