Just imagine how much easier life would be if, when something went wrong with one of the services provided by your local council, you could simply turn to a personal digital assistant (chatbots) in your home and it would contact the right people for you to sort things out.
So if, for example, you were expecting your household waste to be collected at 10am but the bin men failed to arrive, you could tell your personal assistant about the situation and ask when they were now due. The assistant would, in turn, alert the lorry driver who could come back with an answer almost immediately.
This is the vision of Rocco Labellarte, assistant director of IT at the UK’s Enfield London Borough Council, who believes that such a scenario may not actually be as far into the future as you might think. He explains the rationale:
We have lots of people that phone us up and walk into one of our centres to pay council tax, and the like, as they struggle with digital. But if they could do all that by talking to a device at home, their personal assistant at home with no keyboard or screen that connects to a digital ecosystem at the back-end and handles their request, it would do so much to remove the digital divide.
The aim, he says, is to showcase a prototype of the system towards the end of June, although he acknowledges that this timescale may be a bit ambitious, particularly as not all of the technology is available yet. Among the technology that Labellarte is referring to here is voice-activated artificial intelligence (AI)-based chatbots, as most currently communicate via the medium of text. He says:
Some suppliers have got voice-activated solutions, but they’re quite simple in what they can do. Over the next six to 18 months, however, all the big players are going to do the voice-activated piece, which is when it will really explode.
The art of the possible
The Council itself started working with (text-based) chatbots in June last year when it began an 18 to 24-month project “to understand the art of the possible” with US-based AI vendor, IPSoft. The goal was to customise and train a cognitive agent called Amelia to handle basic customer service queries.
At this stage, the organisation has already “codified” 35 out of 600 plus processes relating to planning permission and is currently testing a production version of Amelia both internally and among a select group of citizens. Labellarte points out:
In local government, you have three key areas: high volume and low complexity transactions such as forms; high complexity and low volumes such as social care, and in the middle you’ve got medium complexity and medium volumes such as planning permission and council tax collection. That central area is low risk and it’s the ideal place for AI to work, at least on this stage of the journey.
The aim is to start using the chatbot for handling certain planning permission queries in a low-key way in the near future to see how it responds in a live environment. But Enfield is also debating whether to hold a local referendum before the formal launch in June to understand whether citizens would prefer to know whether their query is being handled by Amelia or a live agent.
Based on the outcome, the decision would then be made whether to “blend her in” with human agents to whom she will hand off more complex queries, or actively promote her as a positive asset. At least some popular fears over the introduction of such technology are likely to have been dispelled by the fact that it is not expected to lead to any job cuts, at this point anyway. Labellarte explains:
AI has the potential to take out repetitive admin processes that are too complex and nuanced for regular automation, freeing people up to do more sophisticated and gratifying work. There could be job losses eventually, but another option is to provide better quality services where they’re required.
We have an ageing demographic and an increasing population so demand for our services is rising. We’re not going to get any more money and most of it has to go into social care, infrastructure and transport so it’s at the back office we need to deliver improvements - which means it’s all about automation.
This automation includes undertaking a two-year-long digital transformation project, which started in 2015 and focused on digitising front line services in a bid to cut costs. The initiative involved creating a modular orchestration engine based on Microsoft’s cloud-based Dynamics 365 customer relationship management platform to enable third party line-of-business applications from across the Council to plug into it - and it is to this customer service environment to which Amelia, and her human colleagues, will act as a front end.
Enfield is already talking to two-dozen other local authorities about adopting its technology, with the aim of creating a revenue-generating business to boost its coffers on top of the money saved as a result of internal efficiency gains.
But while Labellarte says that the AI project started as an IT-led initiative, one of the secrets to success, he believes, is creating cross-functional teams with a mix of tech and business process expertise. He explains the rationale:
You need three things, so people who understand the system, that is IPSoft and us in terms of the dictionary of terms. You need the business planning team, who map out processes, work out the kinds of questions people will ask in what order and what kind of words they use. And then you have to work with residents and people doing the testing to feed back into the project.
While working on planning permission processes, the core team of key business process and tech people comprised eight people, while three people from the planning permission function worked on the initiative for six weeks. Testing, meanwhile, simply involves roping in “as many people as possible”.
But another important consideration is not to handle AI as if it were a system in isolation, but rather to treat is as part of the wider “ecosystem”. Labellarte concludes:
When you have more than 600 processes touching on multiple applications, it’s easy to underestimate the time it will take to get it right. But to get it to work, you have to be able to plug everything into the system and build on that. So AI may become the face of the Council, but behind the scenes is a whole body of things that have to work together.
Enfield is the only council in the UK to have introduced an AI-based chatbot in a bid to supplement the work of its call centre staff and take some of the pressure off in the face of rising demand and dwindling resources. It has been on a steep learning curve as there is no pre-existing manual for this kind of work, which ironically requires a lot of human intervention before Amelia, and others like her, can come into their own.
But the Council’s vision for the future is novel and innovative, and one that other UK and international local authorities could do worse than to follow – if it looks right for them, that is.