Automation and the rebirth of local government services

Oliver Cook, RPA consultant at human+, looks at the way government is adopting robotics and automation, and the opportunities and improvements the technology will provide

Many facets of user-facing local government face the same basic problem when it comes to engaging with society – volume. When email took off, people’s ability to get in contact with their council whenever they felt like expanded hugely. Instead of a small team being able to deal with written communications, compliments and complaints, more and more people had to be hired simply to deal with the vast amount of data flowing into the CS team.

Some councils like Aylesbury are already taking action. In terms of introducing automation, a popular choice is to implement chatbots to tackle the volume issue.

The results? Response times fell from weeks to minutes, and user satisfaction saw a huge boost. With the savings in time and money, these same councils have been able to divert funding into healthcare services, fixing roads, and supporting community outreach initiatives. In short, by implementing RPA in customer service, government organisations have been able to afford to make overall improvements to government services. Demonstrating how implementing RPA in customer service has the power to improve far more than response times for citizens.

But the ONS says automation is a negative?
This is just one of the many benefits of automation in general, whether that be in software or physical form. Why is it then, that the most common headlines around RPA to this day are still: ‘X million jobs at risk from automation’? I believe that the answer is two-fold. Firstly, there’s an ongoing misconception about the role automation will play in the future job market. And secondly, our interpretation of the value of work is outdated.

We know that technology has been ‘taking’ jobs from humans since the industrial revolution of the 18th century. What is often left out of reports like that recently released by the ONS is the identification of new jobs emerging to replace those that have been lost. Studies also fail to recognise that technological advancements such as RPA do not aim to replace workers per se. Instead, RPA’s goal is to make the work those employees do more valuable and less repetitive, avoiding employee dissatisfaction and freeing them up to improve client experience in other areas.

It’s all about evolution
On one hand, if you work in social media management or search engine optimisation, your job didn’t exist 20 years ago. On the other, with the introduction of a new workforce in the form of automated robots and RPA software, there has to be a human hand on the tiller to ensure that their digital colleagues (which lack human sensitivity and empathy) are kept on the right track. So while the evolution of the job market is nothing new, the same automation which reporters often seize on as a threat to employment is really a ripe opportunity for hitherto unknown roles.

Undoubtedly, governments shouldn’t be blaséé about bots. The UK, for example, has lessons to be learnt from the 70s and 80s, when the country transitioned from an economy that was predominantly manufacturing-based to one centered on service industries. Re-education and up-skilling then, was patchily successful, with high unemployment and political upheaval. There is no reason why the same should happen in the 21st century. Especially when the retention of staff will be key for government organisations that want to remain streamlined and accessible.

More automation, better governance
It’s also worth looking at the quality of the roles up for replacement by automation. Doing so might cause us to look at the very concept of work itself and how we judge the value of tasks. There is a philosophy in business that all work has value, so all work brings some level of satisfaction to those who carry it out. In practice, this is often not the case. People feel disillusioned with their job for many reasons, but studies have shown that the most common factors are doing work which is highly repeatable, high volume, and is somewhat of a distraction from what they were originally employed to do. Work, in short, which is a prime target for being handled by automation software.

There’s also a huge potential benefit for the wider government organisation. As an employer, you almost certainly have lofty aspirations for the potential of your department, board or council in developing and maintaining relationships with the citizens you’re serving. There will be projects which you believe can drive a step-change in how you provide services to the public. The most common stumbling block for these projects is lack of time and resource for your staff. Too often people are caught up in just going through the same high-volume processes, and it’s these people who have the human empathy, experience and intuition to drive true transformation in a government organisation.

With the tactical implementation of RPA initiatives, those at the top can enjoy not only a reduction in error rate and reduced time to serve, but also the best of their human workforce who have more time, and more inspiration, to help local government plan for success in the long term. In turn, the reduced response times and increased investment in government initiatives has the power to improve the experience of citizens and their perception of government as a whole.

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