Now is the time for councils to be bold in using the technology, writes Naz Juna, local government lead for SS&C Blue Prism
As it faces new battles, local government is now grasping the importance of automation as a powerful weapon in its armoury.
Many in the sector are now familiar with the technology’s ability to free staff from mundane but time consuming work, raise productivity and make the relevant processes more reliable. But some are also seeing a deeper potential in how it can help councils respond a series of threatening challenges from the after-effects of the pandemic, the effects of Brexit on the labour pool, the surge in inflation, rising demand for services and the expectation of more austerity.
Automation can equip organisations with the agility to confront these issues, providing as many pairs of hands as needed to get the mundane work done and giving their people the time to deal with the more complex issues.
Cumbria County Council has been among the pioneers in harnessing the technology. Its intelligent automation lead David Cunliffe outlined its work so far at the recent UKAuthority Automation & Bots4Good conference, highlighting the achievements using SS&C Blue Prism technology.
The council began its automation initiatives working with a third party provider in 2019. Cunliffe cited two successful projects as examples of what can be achieved.
Blue Badges and invoices processing examples
One was to automate the validation of Blue Badge applications, which has traditionally involved the receipt of an email with multiple files attached as proof of identity and eligibility, and which could take some time to check and attach to a case management system. The automation reduced this “by orders of magnitude”, removing a backlog of several days in its first day in place – and has now been running successfully for around 18 months.
The other was in dealing with invoice slips, which amount to around 1,500 per week for purchases by the council and its schools. It was a manual process that involved a central team scanning all of the invoices, but this was replaced with a new web form that generated an email with documents attached for audit. This has removed the need for printing and scanning, saving over 1,000kg of paper in just three months, and saving the staff the hours they would spend in attaching stickers to the printouts – which in turn has given them time to focus on dealing with any complex transactions.
Cumbria took a further step in the spring of 2021 by setting up an internal team to replace the external provider in managing the development and support of new automations. Cunliffe said the emphasis in recruitment was on project rather than technical experience.
“My background was in programming traditional web applications, but we also have a teacher, a highways department person and someone from training,” he said. “The common factor is that they are all used to project work and engaging in that with people.
“The methodology we follow is about communication and working with subject matter experts, which is a common thread.”
The team also began to draw on lessons from the Blue Prism University – the company’s learning resource and community forum for developing skills in robotic process automation (RPA) – and establish relationships with other departments within the council, including HR and the library service.
This had enabled it to implement 14 automations by the time of the conference. Cunliffe said the momentum has slowed due to an impending reorganisation in which the council will be split and combined with Cumbria’s districts into two unitaries, but that the team feels it is well placed to begin automating processes previously outside its remit – such as in housing and revenues and benefits – when the new bodies come into operation in April 2023.
“We have been able to take on smaller automations than the initial ones and working on files for the reorganisation project,” Cunliffe said, adding: “That has led us on to work on other areas of the project with documentation to communicate with staff on actions in near future.”
Other organisations also reported on automations using SS&C Blue Prism technology at the conference. Darren Atkins, now chief technology officer for intelligent automation at the Royal London Free NHS Foundation Trust, described a string of initiatives there and at North London Partners Shared Services, for which he said the Blue Prism Cloud had been of great importance. It is becoming a prime element in the trust’s progress in building an ecosystem of best-of-breed technology.
Scott Attreed, applications delivery manager for Norfolk County Council, also highlighted the Blue Prism Cloud as a key feature in its automation programme, handling API integrations and working successfully with other technologies such as Microsoft Power Platform and Sorocco Work Graph Platform.
SS&C Blue Prism can point to other examples of councils using its technology to deploy digital workers: they have saved 2,600 hours in a year processing invoices at Caerphilly; saved 3,000 hours in social care referrals at Suffolk; and Edinburgh is expecting to save £5 million over five years from 35 automations.
Such initiatives are increasingly important as local government is now at a point where automation is a proven technology with the potential for transformative change across a wide range of services, which will provide a valuable tool in facing up to its battles.
Our local authority customers have shown what can be achieved, and they are using the Blue Prism University to share their experience and achievements with others. It provides a great potential for the replication of successful automations.
Local government needs to show the imagination and appetite for risk that will help it exploit the technology to the full.
For more information on how to start your Automation journey with SS&C Blue Prism please contact Naz Juna on: [email protected] or call directly on: +44 786 381 0786. For a more detailed review please follow this link to find out more: https://www.blueprism.com/free-trial/
You can view the presentations by Naz Juna and David Cunliffe at Automation & Bots4Good below: