Local Authorities (LA) face a shared problem: they manage a wide range of services and receive a high volume of visits and calls to reception and contact centres from which common questions are frequently asked by residents (users), as well as freedom of information enquirers. The information made available on LA websites often does not answer follow up questions that people may ask, or requires drilling down into data sets to provide meaningful answers. Often users are aware of the general area they need information about, but require support locating this and fall back to the face-to-face or telephone services with a frontline staff member. In areas with a culturally diverse population, these questions can be asked in a range of languages resulting in costly interpreter fees. Walsall Council alone spends around £105,731 per annum on interpreters for contact queries. The Office of National Statistics predicts growing migration to the UK, leading to an even higher demand on LA services, rising costs and pressure on already stretched front line services.
Fundamentally, the requirements of residents have evolved as technology advances and LA’s are failing to fully harness the power of digital technology to reduce ‘avoidable contact’. In this case, the problem is caused by a lack of accessible data that is equally available in a format for users to interact with regardless of what language they speak. It makes good sense to work towards minimising the proportion of contact that is of little or no value to the user; to ensure that time, effort and money are not wasted on unnecessary communications.
As technology become more complex, it is increasingly difficult for LA’s to understand where to invest to save and meet the needs of an ethnically diverse and growing population. Through a collaborative programme involving 3 Black Country LA’s we intend to investigate how best data sets can be made accessible to all, with a specific focus on multi-lingualism, to improve customer service capability and reduce avoidable contact. The project aims to discover how emerging technologies can best be harnessed to support residents to access information to increase user independence and decrease costs. We are aware that LA’s are increasingly releasing open data; however believe a gap in innovation exists to solve problems in particularly caused by non-English speaking users. We would like to better understand user needs, explore how smart use of technology can meet these, and produce a common solution that can be reused nationwide.
We are planning to use various research methods to gather data. These will include data collection (building a clear picture of the volume and causes of avoidable contact), cost mapping (e.g. interpreters, call time, administration), service process mapping, user focus groups, surveys and once the solution has gone further, some A/B testing to test solutions against each other if appropriate. For benefits research, we will gather financial and qualitative information from partners to extrapolate national savings and benefits.
During the Discovery we aim to produce a framework by which Council’s can:
- Better assess and understand resident and non-English speaking resident needs and what they expect from the Council.
- Determine what information can be made available to the public to reduce avoidable contact.
- Understand resident views on technology and how they want to engage with it.
- Identify technology that is most effective in helping resident’s access information equally and independently.
- Access a common solution that can be shared nationwide.
The project is based on a 5 – part hypothesis:
1: The process for residents accessing / reporting information is repetitive, time-consuming and confusing.
2: This process is further complicated for non – English speaking residents due to a lack of multi-lingual staff and information.
3: LA’s are having to process the same information multiple times.
4: Increasing access to open data saves LA’s time and money.
5: Smart technology such as internet enabled voice assistants and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will result in increased interaction with open data.
1: LA’s have datasets that do not contain personal information, which could be made available to the public.
2: Datasets should be made simpler to access and navigate, in a format that requires little input from users.
3: A multi-lingual approach is required to ensure equality of ease and access for all residents.
- The approach somewhat mirrors the public’s embrace of consumer tech in the form of mobile devices or even “virtual assistants.”
Less than 5% of LA’s are currently using AI for their operations and the ‘vast majority’ have no plans to explore in the future (Transformation Network Report 2019). Some LA’s have launched Open Data via websites, which we believe are unlikely to meet all user needs because they do not accommodate individual language requirements. In order to better meet users’ diverse and ever evolving needs, alternative ways of making data more accessible will need to be investigated.
Consultation by Walsall Council found that:
- The main reception receives on average 800 visitors per day with 40% of visitors preferring face-to-face interaction over the Council website. Each visitor waits on average 20 minutes to see a member of the team, which took a further 40 minutes to resolve. The nature of the visit was often straightforward and could have been easily answered through open data. Using staff costs alone we can estimate a daily average cost of £4,864 administration time on ‘avoidable contact’.
- Each month the main switchboard receives on average 8096 5 minute or less calls at an average monthly staff cost of £83,023. The nature of the enquiries suggests that such contact could easily be avoided by making information available to the public.
- The Council receives 1,774 requests per year for interpreter support via reception / contact centre costing around £105,731.92.
- The Council receives 1325 Freedom of Information requests per annum, which take on average 21 days to resolve involving multiple staff / departments.
Our neighbouring LA Partners have reported similar data, which clearly demonstrates that significant savings can be made in time and money for both resident and LA. Reducing administrative burden and costly interpreter fees is an immediate beneficial way open data and artificial intelligence can transform local government. It also lowers one more barrier to information collected by LA’s allowing for more engagement with the community – a central aim for LA’s across the country, regardless of size.
It has been well publicised that LA’s all over the country have been facing the same problem: higher than ever service demands vs acute financial pressures. At the same time LA’s face an increased demand on services by an ethnically diverse and growing population rising by 8.1% in a 10 year period. Census data identifies London as the region with the lowest percentages of population from the White British Group (44.9%), followed by the West Midlands (79.2%), and South East (84%).
The project has the potential to help reduce the costs across all service providers, as the produced solution will be reusable across the country. We estimate an on average 40% reduction in costs due to having to respond to less queries per user. The project will have wider reaching benefits as users experience greater customer satisfaction, with easy and equitable access to trusted information, and greater social and digital inclusion.
Black Country LA partners have well established and proven processes and systems in place for successful collaborative working. A service level agreement will govern the activities of the partnership with a robust project management plan in place detailing roles and responsibilities, and setting out common vision, objectives and milestones that partners can work on collectively. The project will largely be run in an agile fashion, however a project-working group with partners and subcontractors, and with clear terms of reference, will meet monthly to oversee performance and to ensure project goals are met. At an operational level the project sprints will be run in tandem, with Councils collaborating on a bi-weekly basis at a scrum of scrums meeting, run over Teams using web conferencing and chat facilities. We will have SMART objectives for each of the projects sprints that align to the project success criteria to measure if objectives have been met.
Document management and version control will be maintained via Office 365 (Planner, Sharepoint and One Drive). Briefing updates will take place via partners for Senior Management and relevant department team meetings with regular feedback intervals. There will be joint drafting of the business/benefits case; user research report and conclusion.
We presume that to deliver the project we will require the following skills: user research, data analysis, agile project management and delivery. We have secured internal resource, including an experienced project manager; however we anticipate that further support will be required to ensure the project reaches its maximum potential. This might include:
Training and Development: Our Project Team have already attend Local Digital Fund GDS Training, and we are aware the current list of courses currently ends in September 2019. However, should new courses be announced we would like to access them, to ensure our staff have the most up to date and relevant knowledge and skills to apply to your project and maximise its success.
Support accessing the Digital Marketplace: We intend to use our expert Procurement and Legal Department to procure Supplier / Researcher to help us deliver the project, however assistance in the form of marketing the opportunity via the Digital Marketplace would be beneficial as it would enable us to reach a wider audience and ensure we procure the best person for the job. An advanced course of user research and service design for existing staff teams would also be beneficial.
We would also like to be able to benefit from the ability to send marketing and communications through MHCLG social media and bulletin channels and support to engage other Councils to feed into the project.