The forecasted increase in demand on services such as adult social care is well documented, and equally well documented is the challenge of ever shrinking budgets every authority is having to face. There has been a huge focus on cuts and creative ways to make operational efficiencies, however just looking at the maths, this approach simply won’t be enough. Key to the future of local government survival is stemming demand which requires fundamental change, and some of the answers can be found in rather unobvious places.
This article predicts the fundamental shift in local government I expect to see over the coming months and beyond as authorities look for more and more creative ways to tackle these challenges, and the approaches I expect to see in managing demand using the latest technology.
Front office services
Today’s services are still characterised by a relatively large proportion of the workforce in direct contact with the public, albeit smaller than historic levels. Although we’re seeing a reasonably good use of digital technologies including good content, a decent number of online transactions with reasonable levels of automation, fairly widespread use of IVR (Interactive Voice Response), digital payment points etc., there’s clearly the potential to do much more.
The trend of investment in greater digital automation shows no sign of abating, which will inevitably see less public facing officers and, in most cases, a better customer experience. However, there are some noticeable trends.
Firstly, we are seeing the majority of unitaries and counties either moving away from, or at least planning to move away from, the niche digital platforms which have served authorities well, towards Microsoft Dynamics. The key reason I repeatedly hear is that the potential of these legacy platforms has been maximised and that more is needed from their core digital platform (more on this later).
The second, very noticeable trend, is that we are seeing a significant ‘dipping of toes’ into the robotics space with many authorities now running Robotic Process Automation (RPA) pilots, or at least starting to explore where they could drive value (again more on this later). This will continue to expand into AI and intelligent chatbots that will have intelligent automated conversations, as opposed FAQs or human-driven webchats.
The other digital initiative, which I expect to start to see properly adopted this year, is voice-to-text driven by AI and robotics, which will start to enable some phone conversations to be automated way beyond current IVR systems.
However, the biggest change which I think authorities won’t be able to afford to ignore is investment in ‘digital intelligence’. Without it, demand will start to become like trying to drive in a blizzard, and authorities will lose control fast. I predict that there will be four core themes to digital intelligence.
1. A True single record
This begins with developing a complete, true, single customer record that knows not just who the customer is across multiple back office systems and their linkages to other people and properties, but more importantly, has an understanding of what channel the customer responds to best e.g. WhatsApp, SMS, email, etc., as well as the messaging construct, that gets the optimal response. Most authorities have tried to create a single view of the customer, but to stem the different types of demand, you need to know how to connect with residents, businesses, and even visitors. You need to know the most effective route and messaging to communicate with them.
2. Predictive analytics
Having clean and aligned data sets enables and improves predictive analytics. For example, can we accurately predict not only how many people will be coming into residential care but who they are and when they are likely to require support? Can we predict homelessness and, through data, understand exactly what the root causes of this demand are, like we did with Barking & Dagenham? They can accurately predict the number of people who will present themselves as homeless and identify root causes, and with this, they can be agile and re-model service provision to tackle the root problem – because of this, they’re one of the few authorities in the country reducing homelessness. By looking at all data sets and writing algorithms to work out the root cause, you can start to make a significant difference – starting with clean and aligned datasets gives you a significant advantage.
3. Combining data, insights and smart devices
The third theme is combining data insight with relatively commonplace smart devices from the iPad to the maturing range of products that combines use of voice and touch such as the Echo Show. A classic use case is social care – for example at one large county council we looked at, residential care was costing over £50m a year. If you could delay just 10% of those people coming into residential care every year, it would save over £5m a year using insight and smart devices, not to mention make peoples’ lives better.
This, however, starts with the fundamental need to know who the people are and do something with them well before they become too frail to learn the technology. If you can use data to identify if they’re going to the library less, the doctor more, etc., you can predict the future and start to introduce smart technology into their homes. Everyday devices like the Echo Show, for example, can be used to wake people up at the right time, learn their routines, automatically create alerts, etc. If the person is living in isolation, it can connect them to others or access a range of media such as reading books, allow them to select what meal is delivered by meals on wheels, etc. This can then be extended to those suffering from dementia by visually showing what pill the person is meant to be taking and through voice or touch, get the user to confirm they have taken their pill. The key is getting in early enough, but the potential prize is something that can’t be ignored.
4. Digital marketing
The final core theme here is digital marketing which nobody is really tackling in a one-to-one personalised manner at the moment. Imagine you could cut 10-20% of your landfill costs by simply persuading every resident to think more conscientiously about their recycling habits through the channel they are most likely to read, in a language that they are most likely to respond to. It’s certainly more financially compelling than the sorts of savings we’ve talked about from digitising pothole reporting! Another use of digital marketing is tackling a problem I have seen as a highlighted budget pressure in virtually every MTFS I have read – the recruitment of foster carers. Local authorities rely heavily on the private sector to find carers simply because the private sector is brilliant at marketing and finding people – but it comes at a cost. If you could place 20% – 40% of the currently externally placed children in most authorities, it would save the council £m’s a year. These are big numbers.
All of this requires an in-depth understanding of customers, what the root causes of problems are, which communication channels and delivery people best respond to and how they can help. That means a proper single view of a customer that ties together data sources. I believe councils will struggle to survive if they don’t get this right.
Many of the interventions mentioned above will clearly have a positive impact on the so-called ‘middle office’. The other biggest fundamental change I can see happening will be the extensive use of robotics. The beauty of robotics is that you don’t need an army of expensive consultants as anyone with decent business analysis skills can get the hang of robotics fairly quickly (just make sure you have a decent quality assurance function!). The main limiting factor is peoples’ creativity.
Surrey, as an example, has a very neat model where they have trained up their apprentices to build bots, so every process they are building is costing very little making the business case straight forward (the equation is fairly simple, as each bot can process the work of a minimum of five people and as a rule of thumb as they operate 24/7).
Most authorities I speak to have robotics included in their digital strategies, even if they (often openly) don’t quite know specifically how they will be used. Wiltshire aside, who have invested heavily in 20 virtual workers (Thoughtonomy bots), authorities are yet to do anything really big. Most are doing pilots of one or two processes here or there, but I think this will change over the next 12 months and usage will really accelerate.
Anything which is repetitive, rule-based, boring, manual and linear from a process point of view can benefit from robotics, so the potential is huge – I can’t think of many services where this couldn’t be applied (even if to only part of a process). There are plenty of examples now starting to spring up across the sector from direct debit automation, blue badge processing to automatically re-keying data from social care systems into health systems etc., etc.
As with the front and middle office, the back office will be massively aided by the use of robotics which is the heart-land of many of the traditional use-cases such as the starters-movers-leavers process, password resets, ERP bulk processing, etc.
The other fundamental shifts in local government from a digital perspective are firstly, the rollout of productivity tools (mainly Office365 with the odd authority adopting Google) which most authorities have already started. This has the potential to revolutionise working practices with collaboration tools such as Teams and Yammer, to significantly reduce the demand on office space, reduce the wasted time, cost and environmental impact of much of the travel that officers do, as well as help tackle other challenges like recruitment where the majority of the job can be done remotely (e.g. benefit claim processing). This change has been happening for a while now, but has accelerated this year due to the deadline of January 2020 fast approaching when everyone needs to migrate to Windows 10.
The second major change is the well-publicised move to the cloud. This typically has a great business case from releasing physical assets, avoiding the cycle of four- to five-year capital asset refresh programmes, applications rationalisation, to simple things like a significantly reduced electricity bill, hardware maintenance contracts, fire suppression units and so on.
The part about cloud I am really excited about is what this means for digital intelligence in the future as you find a large proportion of your IT estate in the cloud with access to the hugely powerful data mining tools and computing power. However, cloud should come with a big warning sticker. Do it wrong, as a couple of authorities have, and you just end up with an uncontrollable bill – there is definitely a right and wrong approach to both migration to, and the management of, the cloud!
So, in summary, while the pressure on local authorities shows no sign of relenting, innovative digital technologies and new digital solutions are keeping pace with the challenges and opening up a whole suite of new opportunities at the same time.