Why Artificial Intelligence has the power to transform the work of local authorities

Toby Parkins

Toby was an agile practitioner talking to a product owner from a global corporation at a barbecue when the Headforwards concept began to develop. Having started out on the internet in the early 90s, Toby founded UKNetWeb, a web development company and knew that he could deliver a better outsource software company. Toby and Craig co-founded Headforwards in 2011. Toby is also the founder of Agile on the Beach, President of Cornwall Chamber of Commerce and a Director of Software Cornwall.

Local authorities in the UK are on the verge of a revolution in their use of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

A recent national survey has revealed one in six councils are anticipating savings between £750,000 and £1m through the introduction of AI technology in 2020. Councils are rapidly moving towards a strategic approach on how to maximise the benefits of AI and are starting to implement tools like chatbots and automated processing of documents.

The potential for local authorities to free up resources and staff time from repetitive administrative tasks is enormous. AI does not replace the need for human involvement. Instead, it enables people to perform complex or time-consuming tasks more quickly, more accurately and more cost-effectively. For local authorities, this opens new opportunities to radically change the way they operate and how they deliver services to residents.

AI is a key technology for the public sector

The UK ranks as one of the top three countries in the world for AI technology expertise. The government also believes that the UK is the most well-prepared country in Western Europe for the future deployment of AI in the delivery of public services.

All this is happening against a background where the demands being made on local authorities are tougher than ever. Councils are expected to deliver substantial improvements to services at a time when funding is being squeezed. As a result, the potential for technologies like AI to help deliver ‘more for less’ is generating a great deal of interest.

Here are some of the key benefits that AI can deliver to local authorities:

AI can improve the overall efficiency of the operation

Councils have a highly diverse range of services that they need to manage, from education to recycling, from housing to social care. AI technologies can help to make sense of all this complexity, improve the speed of delivery and allow council staff to focus on added-value activities, such as new, improved services.

Blackpool Council has successfully tested a project that uses AI to detect problems with local roads. The technology identifies potholes and other damage by scanning satellite images of the area. The results are then sent to the highways team for action. In its first year, the project aided the repair of over 5,000 potholes and delivered £1 million in savings compared to previous methods.

AI can enable more effective use of data

AI has arrived at a time when councils are storing and processing more data than ever before and want to ensure they get maximum value from the data that they hold. AI can be a powerful tool for making sense of this vast amount of data, leading to better strategic planning. As part of this, new approaches to data warehousing are allowing AI systems to rapidly access the exact data that they need, rather than it being trapped in separate departmental ‘silos’.

Merton Council has used AI to make sense of a wealth of energy usage data in a drive to reduce energy consumption in support of its climate emergency commitments. Using consumption data for council-run schools, the AI system quickly flagged unnecessary energy use outside normal operating hours, with a potential cost saving of £25,000. This approach is now being rolled out to the entire council estate.

AI can guide decision making

AI can improve decision making, by enabling full use of all the information available to the council and using advanced analytics to uncover new insights from the data. As part of this, it can also lead to more objective decisions, by removing any subjective bias that may occur when humans are analysing the data. As a result, local strategies can be developed which more accurately align with local needs.

Hackney Council has trialled an Early Help Predictive System that uses AI to identify families that may benefit from extra support from the government. Its goal is to provide support to families that need it as early as possible, and also to prevent the need for high-cost and high-risk services later on. The AI analyses data such as debt, unemployment, housing, anti-social behaviour, domestic violence, and school attendance to create a profile of need for families.

AI can improve the customer experience

AI is not only a means of improving efficiency, it can also be used to improve customer experience. As Natural Language Processing continues to advance, local authorities are increasingly looking to combine human service with AI to build chatbots that have the ability to carry out a number of functions, such as taking council tax payments, providing updates on service requests and registering for new services. By improving the customer experience, AI can improve customer satisfaction and strengthen the relationship between local authorities and the people they serve.

Aylesbury Vale District Council has incorporated AI into its customer service operation. The AI system uses information learned from previous council residents' conversations to improve response time to queries around services such as council tax, benefit and bin collection. Council services team members now respond to enquiries within three to five minutes, compared to eight minutes before the system was implemented.

AI can relieve pressure points in the system

By automating certain processes, AI can also help alleviate some of the pressure points that occur in council systems when there are peak levels in demand. For example, chatbots can be available to deal with inquiries and information requests 24/7, delivering better responsiveness to the public without the need for increased staffing.

Milton Keynes Council is working on an AI system that will speed up the processing of planning applications. They have designed an AI customer-facing interface to answer general planning inquiries, including the status of applications, key planning dates, conservation area details and other queries. Their goal is to use systems like these to free up time for more added-value activities, such as planning for growth and community engagement.

Making it happen

So far, nearly a quarter of councils (24%) already have an AI strategy in place. (source: Agile Datum, March 2020) Most councils expect to have a chatbot strategy (90%) and artificial intelligence strategy (91%) in place within 12-18 months.

With all the technology developments now taking place, there has never been a better time for local authorities to explore the potential of AI.

At Headforwards, we are excited to be working with local authorities around the UK at this time of rapid change, helping them to make the most of technology to transform their service delivery.

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