Many councils believe investment in digital technology and the digital transformation process is prohibitively expensive. There’s a widespread misconception that starting this change, or following it to its logical conclusion, is beyond the means of most Local Authorities.
Consequently, those trying to provoke change have got to make a really clear and financially sound case for the development and integration of new digital technologies. You need to prove without a doubt that the technology will be cost-efficient in the long run and convince decision-makers within the council that it will both improve service and be economically viable.
More often than not, successful Council digital transformation depends on the ability of an individual or team to overcome the ingrained bias that digital technology is too expensive for Local Authorities.
This is less of an issue today, as Councils face the greatest budgetary pressures of the modern era and cost-cutting is forced upon them. Now, the challenge is convincing Local Authorities of the scale of savings and efficiencies that digital technologies like Chatbots and Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) can offer and that they’re an effective and necessary means of achieving tough budgetary targets.
Sometimes, we forget that it’s people that make things happen and that we won’t progress unless we focus on putting one foot in front of the other and moving forwards.
For Inform, a big takeaway from the last 30 years has been the understanding that desirable change isn’t something that happens to passive organisations, it’s something that’s driven by individuals and teams within that organisation.
The commitment and belief that drives organisational innovation are necessary because there’s often a considerable amount of resistance to change. Those parts of an organisation that believe in change have to convince or overcome those parts that are resistant to it and would otherwise prevent it.
Julian illustrates this point with an example from his time working at Croydon Council.
“Leading the Council’s Document Imaging team, I was responsible for determining what needed back scanning and removing two floors of files, freeing up space for at least 50-100 staff members in the process.
This was part of a large and successful Council digitalisation drive that resulted in considerable savings. However, I remember how certain parts of the Council were slow to embrace the new digital workflow and how, after three months, I had to remove all cartridges from printers to stop staff printing files and working from paper copies!
Some resistance to change is natural. In some instances, it’s advantageous. Occasionally, resistance to change may protect us from making poor decisions. However, it can also hold organisations back. Such resistance has to be proactively overcome if beneficial change is to occur and this depends on individuals focusing their energies and advocating for the type of Council digital transformation they want to see.
It’s easy to view digital transformation as a relatively modern process that is carried out and completed over several months or within a few years.
However, there’s also an argument to be made that digital transformation is an ongoing process that’s been gathering steam over the last couple of decades and for which there’s no real end in sight.
Understanding the scope and scale of the digital transformation process is key for several reasons. Chief amongst them is the fact that taking a broader view allows you to see the process for what it is – a long-term historical trend that will result in the radical restructuring of Local Authorities, enabling them to successfully serve digital society.
It also highlights how important it is to stay abreast of recent developments and the cost of failing to do so. If digital transformation is viewed as a long, step-by-step process that unwinds over decades, missing key developmental steps can have a seriously negative effect on your ability to continue the rest of the journey.
A failure to introduce new technologies leads to organisations falling behind and makes it exceedingly difficult and expensive for them to catch up. Ultimately, we’ve learnt that if you don’t maintain investment in technological development, you make adapting to change in the future increasingly difficult.
When we talk about technologies like Chatbots and IVR, people often have the idea that these technologies emerge fully-formed – that they’re integrated into an organisation, used for a few years and then replaced by the next big tech development.
In reality, technology grows and develops over years, regularly morphing into something new, exciting and unexpected and often proving far more valuable than you ever anticipated.
IVR is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
When Julian joined Inform in 2005, the company was focused on providing IVR technology and services. He describes how, to begin with, ‘our teams would listen to the voice files, transcribe them and send them through to the councils who would manually retrieve them and scan/index them and add to the workflow.’ While this was time-consuming, it was still an improvement on previous methods. Over time, Councils introduced digital forms, reducing the amount of transcription required. Today, Inform offers an IVR service where 80-90% of the transcription is automated and transcription receipt is almost real-time.
With IVR, developments were slow, steady and gradual. The technology matured into something far more powerful and valuable than the design originally conceived of.
Chatbots show the same potential. At the heart of this exciting technology are complex AI operations. Many ‘bots make use of machine learning, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Sentiment Analysis technology. While these tools are still in a developmental stage, AI is clearly the future of digital technology in both the public and private sphere.
This means that, while Chatbots have a clear value to Councils right now, they also contain within them the seeds of the next steps in the digital transformation process. As we develop our AI capabilities, Chatbots will evolve and acquire new abilities, becoming increasingly useful and allowing for greater savings and improved performance.
One of the biggest changes to take place over the last 30 years is the way in which the traditional call centre has become less central, less necessary and less financially viable. Julian calculates that Croydon Council’s call centre staffing is around 50% lower than it was when he worked there. Back office teams at both Croydon and Southwark Council would have also shrunk by a similar amount.
This is primarily down to Councils facing dual pressures. On one side, budget cuts mean that Councils can no longer afford to operate inefficient and costly services. On the other, new digital technologies are demonstrating that improved customer service can be provided at a reduced cost.
Over the years, one of the toughest challenges Julian has faced is convincing Councils that they need to move away from the mindset that human agents are key to quality customer service. He argues that ‘trust in digital solutions has been limited and, even now, some Councils still prefer agent service delivery.’
Fortunately, that’s changing. Julian describes how in most presentations he attends, ‘the participants arrive with tablets and various digital tools – it shows that Councils are upscaling their technology and making service delivery more and more mobile.’
He also argues that other businesses and industries have helped demonstrate how digital transformation is necessary, valuable and workable. ‘Banks have led the way and are rightly used as the best example of self-service and apps for access, verification and engagement without agent assistance.’
While resistance to change may have been more commonplace a few years ago, the current situation that many Councils find themselves in compounded further by the impact of COVID-19 and home working has forced the realisation that traditional call centres simply aren’t viable. As a result, a growing number are embracing the possibilities of digital transformation and using the process to both meet budget constraints and pivot towards a different and innovative type of digital service provision.
In local government, the past 30 years has been defined by both the gradual digitalisation of services and moments of widespread disruption and sharp, severe and jarring change. Over the last few years, the pace of innovation and the speed at which new technologies are developed and introduced into the workplace has increased dramatically.
In such a fast-paced tech environment, leveraging the experience and expertise accumulated over the last three decades becomes increasingly important. With game-changing technologies like AI set to revolutionise local government and service provision, organisations will need to look back on what they’ve learnt, then apply the lessons to the future.
Fortunately, you’re not alone. Here at Inform, we’re available to provide unique insights and guidance, as well as state-of-the-art technology and innovative solutions to your customer service issues.