Rise of the robots

Debra Maxwell, CEO of CRM Solutions at Arvato UK & Ireland, argues that automation holds the key to creating the efficiencies and savings that councils need to help protect frontline services in the years ahead.

From San Francisco's new automated coffee shop, Café X, to driverless car trials on the streets of London, disruptive, autonomous technology is no longer just a tech analyst's prediction; it's already having a real impact on a wide range of sectors.

The reality is that the adoption of automation technology is going to accelerate quickly given the opportunities to drive new efficiencies and cost savings. And despite frequent - unfair - criticism for being behind the curve when it comes to embracing new digital technology, the public sector is already starting to get involved.

Enfield Council, for example, recently became the first local authority to use AI assistance with the introduction of IPSoft's Amelia, and there are a number of councils also looking to introduce Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Indeed, in a survey of 134 local and central government decision makers, carried out by Arvato in collaboration with iGov last summer, over half of the respondents said that their organisations had started to explore using the technology.

This interest is perhaps unsurprising given the mounting pressure councils are now under to do more with less. A recent Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) report found that more than 40 per cent of local authorities are set to make significant cuts to frontline services over the next 12 months, which will have an impact on the public.

However, councils are no strangers to introducing new technologies to address this challenge. The Digital by Default agenda, for example, has had a significant impact across frontline services by progressively changing the way citizens interact with their local authorities. But a similar approach is now required in the back-office, where radical transformation is needed. It is here that councils are discovering that RPA can make a real difference.

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Transforming the back-office

To put it simply, RPA technology uses software that interacts with systems in the same way that humans do. It follows rule-based business processes to replicate repetitive, labour-intensive tasks where speed and accuracy are key.

A recent project we implemented with a local authority in the North West - the first of its kind in the UK - has provided evidence that the technology could deliver a real step forward for local government. The programme delivered a range of back-office processes in the council's revenues department autonomously, with 100 per cent accuracy and time and cost savings of up to 80 per cent.

The opportunity is not limited to revenues processes. The ability of RPA to produce savings by automating repetitive processes makes it a good fit for any department - from HR to finance and accounting - burdened with high proportions of administrative work. This is a growing problem for councils up and down the country. According to our research, 70 per cent of senior decision makers experienced rising work volumes in their departments in the 12 months to September 2016, with 60 per cent also reporting a reduction in the size of their team.

Inevitably, any application of robotics will lead to concerns about the technology's impact on jobs. However, it's clear from the work we've done that RPA can have a positive impact here too. In addition to cost savings, there is a growing need to free-up employees' capacity to focus on more strategically valuable services, such as boosting revenues collections and tackling fraud. Through our implementation, we've found that the software can allow councils to redirect their staff to do this. Overall job satisfaction has also increased as a result of removing the mundane tasks from employees' day-to-day routine.

Of course, the widespread adoption of robotics will present challenges across the whole of the UK workforce, local government included. However, with the right approach to sharing learning and pooling experience, the public sector can benefit from a technology that can help protect frontline services and is only going to become more prolific in coming years.