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.
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 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.
I am sympathetic towards them because of the conflicting financial and political pressures they face, and I need to point 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.
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.
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. That principle can now be taken to the next level through what I term “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.
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.