The challenges that we face at Newham are the same challenges faced by every local authority in the UK — how to deliver great services with limited money and resources.
The rapid growth in the use of technologies such as smart phones, tablets, social media and internet accessibility has presented Local Authorities with a unique opportunity to completely redesign how services are delivered and consumed.
In addition to these devices, we have also seen great strides taken in developing AI (artificial intelligence), RPA (robotic process automation) chatbots (“chat” functions using machine learning to mimic human responses) and augmented reality.
Developments such as Apple’s “Siri” and Microsoft’s “Cortana” as intelligent assistants or Amazon’s “Alexa” devices make the future of Digital Services very exciting. It seems quite possible that within five years, we could well be asking (by voice) “Alexa, what is the process for getting a parking permit in Newham?” Alexa would respond with the information, we could then ask “Alexa, please access my bank account and pay the required amount”. This is no longer science fiction, the quality and effectiveness of the AI is increasing every day.
When we couple these technological strides forward with residents increased expectation to access goods and services electronically, it becomes clear that the Council requires a clear and progressive roadmap to building a true digital service offer. One that can grow and mature overtime as the technology becomes more stable and accessible and allows us to remain ahead of the technology curve.
So, to move forward, the Residents view on how they access and consume council services is paramount to this offer. Our Digital Services will be designed with their direct input. There is little value in offering Digital Services nobody uses.
Historically, the residents and citizens have not always found it easy to engage with their local council. The fact that Newham has a multi-ethnic demographic, with multiple languages and cultures, complicates the issue.
Like everywhere else. We are also battling with homelessness. Tackling the homelessness issue was our first project. We estimate between 15 000 and 16 000 people were coming to the housing office, for various reasons. Possibly, they were being made homeless, or were under the threat of that, or just investigating whether they could move into the borough.
We needed to find ways to automate what was currently being done, and worked with leading public-sector technology specialist, Rainmaker Solutions, who are used to making hard transformations happen, and were prepared to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in with our team. The solution, tested extensively with the residents of Newham, has been very well received and has now moved into public beta.
The aim was to build a digital solution that guides an individual through a Q&A, with three elements to it. There’s the initial landing point which asks some basic questions. This leads the user through a decision tree process that leads them to the appropriate place. That could be a housing officer, or a private landlord to see what properties are available. It could even take them to Rightmove or a similar site.
The application gives users the guidance and advice that they need. It also creates a record on the officer’s side enabling the situation to be managed. Documents can be attached to the record, and be backed up in the application used to manage housing and homelessness, so nothing is being duplicated and the records are complete. We have added functionality that makes the process seamless, stops time being wasted, and decreases significantly the number of face-to-face meetings needed. This is more cost-effective for the Council and far more efficient for the resident.
In time, more information can be added to the system to give individuals instant answers to queries. Adding qualification rules, for example, would immediately tell them whether or not they qualify for a council house — and if not, what their options are.
The hard work is done. We have the basic, working engine. We can adapt the questions and contents to suit different needs, and iterate, and roll it out across a range of online services. The Q&A function gives us the start of a “chatbot” that residents will be able to engage with online — saving their time and the Council, money.
Newham Council is working to develop both digital services and an internal digital culture. One that questions the status quo and looks to reimagine the way we deliver our services — homelessness is just the beginning of our journey. Watch this space!
Simon Putnam is interim Head of Digital Services at Newham Council
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