So your main funding body tells you not to expect any more from.
You could panic. Maybe you should panic.
Or you could look at ways to survive.
The above is an increasingly familiar scenario in local government, as only too many diginomica/government public sector IT leaders will know.
But they may also be cheered by the positive example of a body that says it’s battling through here - Buckinghamshire’s Aylesbury Vale District Council, which says it’s turned to artificial intelligence (AI) to find a way out.
Specifically, Aylesbury Vale claims to be the first council in the world to develop and launch a ‘skill’ in Amazon Echo’s Alexa to access its services, working with suppliers including Amazon itself to ensure the skill fit in the Alexa skill set family. (In the world of Alexa, a ‘skill’ is a way third parties can build capabilities to create a more customised Alexa experience.)
The council’s Chief Executive Officer, Andrew Grant, told diginomica/government that the service, launched last September, is the first fruit of an overall Connected Knowledge Digital Programme which will which use AI to deal with repeat enquiries on its email and webchat channels.
The strategy was developed to better meet council residents’ demands, as well as meet increasing expectations of a 24/7 digital-first experience for residents. Its conception was initiated following the announcement that local councils would no longer receive government grants, which led us l to consider how we could keep operating costs at a manageable level by investing in AI-powered systems for the residents’ services team.
Early results are impressive:
By using AI we’ve found that response times have reduced by up to 50%, from 15 minutes per enquiry to 6 to 8 minutes.
The system was also architected with the Digital Genius functionality of Salesforce Service Cloud (Aylesbury says it is the only public sector client of this service worldwide, so far). And Grant says use of Alexa has directly resulted in an increase in staff time and thus the capacity for customer service agents to spend with customers on more detailed cases while reducing the overall cost of helping Council Tax payers.
An early, and full, commitment to cloud
It’s important to note that Aylesbury’s way of dealing with the cuts isn’t just about Alexa, indeed far from it and is a much more complex beast, with a timeline that goes back to 2010 with a strategic decision to move to the cloud 2010, says Grant, when it adopted a strategy to be ‘infrastructure-less within five’ years.
Aylesbury Vale got on the Amazon Web Services Cloud in 2013, two years earlier than planned, and indeed Grant says cloud is the basis, really, of everything that’s been achieved since:
The cloud first strategy we put in place seven years ago has led to the migration of the bulk of our services into the cloud. Email and line-of-business applications were prioritised first, and the services and applications which were left over were moved into Amazon Web Services. And every time we look at a new system or an old IT system comes up for renewal, we look first at finding a suitable cloud version.
Being on the cloud so early and completely he adds, means it was relatively straightforward to bring on more online services to keep costs under control, like the self-service functionality for residents it unveiled in 2015, a comprehensive webchat service in 2016 (and which now deals with 1,500 enquiries a month), and now the AI front-end in 2017.
Aylesbury’s response to the deep permafrost of austerity is being delivered by a partnership with a number of key suppliers, it stresses. These include 8x8, which provides Aylesbury Vale’s digital and unified communications:
Call quality is very important to us to serve our residents and offer first-call resolution to their issues. When tested against several leading providers, we found 8x8 to deliver the highest voice quality across multiple client platforms and network impairment.
Another key partner is Arcus Global, which helped Grant’s team launched something called My Account, where residents can store their council interaction data, self-serve at their convenience and which offers a way Grant could start to let citizens work with their benefits, taxi drivers could book an MOT, order a special bin collection or report a missed collection.
My Account is a direct channel to our customers for the future, and is now being used by just under 50,000 residents — nearly 70% of all households in Aylesbury Vale. We’re still seeing an average of around 100 new sign-ups every day.
But the statistic that will probably be of most interest to other local authority strategists is the next one: how much money has all this actually saved? It’s worth the wait, as it’s an impressive £8m over eight years, Grant confirms.
Efficiency is how, he adds. A contact centre agent can handle five simultaneous webchats at a time instead of the one they could manage with phone — at a cost of only15p per chat versus £2.25 per call, quoting public sector IT leadership group Socitm estimates.
Web chat has reduced our overall phone traffic by 20% and in our high-volume areas such as waste or benefits, that reduction is more like than 40%.
Scanning for new projects
Grant is glad of what cloud and AI are doing for his bottom line, but he is adamant that the main point of all this is better service for the public.
One lady called us to say that she was deaf and could now communicate with us independently, without having to ask her husband to do it. That’s incredibly liberating.
And so Aylesbury Vale presses on with innovation, with £130,000 of budget for the next phase, with Grant adding,
We plan to invest further in Alexa and to further explore our current AI capabilities. Beyond this, we are scanning the horizon and open to new ideas and projects.