Industry voice: The local authority shares valuable transformation lessons from its first few months of using robotic process automation
Conwy County Borough Council is still in the early stages of its implementation of robotic process automation, but its principal technical solutions architect Will Valintine says it has already learned a series of valuable lessons to underpin its transformation ambitions.
The council made its move into using RPA during a time of significant change, signing up to use the NDL SX platform in March, just before the Covid-19 lockdown began. But it has made good progress in meeting the objectives for the technology.
“We were looking at our overall challenge in performing end to end digital processes and we realised we had some serious gaps in terms of key systems we were not able to interface with,” says Valintine.
“To cut a long story short, rather than invest eye watering sums of money in various APIs with vendors of various systems, we decided to invest once in an RPA platform, hone our skills on that, then we could re-use the investment across the authority.”
Other drivers were the desire to eliminate third party portals where possible to improve its website accessibility, and to support the data and document migrations from old to new systems.
Attraction to NDL
The team was attracted to NDL by its strong public sector focus, and procured the SX platform through G-Cloud on the back of a business case that included it in a package of measures and set out service priorities for the next three years.
It also managed to get through the training one week before the lockdown was announced and arranged for remote support from the company once it set in – a move that Valintine says has worked well.
As the council signed the deal, however, an unexpected but serious issue emerged. It had to migrate its social care data from a proprietary system to the Welsh Community Care Information System (WCCIS), an electronic record to be shared with the NHS. But the national deployment has been troubled and late in the day it became clear there was a large slew of documents the new system could not accommodate.
Neither system supplier was offering a solution with which the council was satisfied, so it had to develop a robotic process to extract all the documents from the old system, store them in its electronic document record management system, then provide a link into the WCCIS so the data could be cross-referenced.
The council ran into challenges in designing the process, notably that the old system struggled to handle the volume and required a fresh log-out and log-in for the export of each client caseload. This made it slower than expected from an automation, but also improved the reliability – test batches of up to 30,000 documents have been migrated with zero failures – and the team is on course to migrate documents from 130,000 clients, amounting to approximately 19.5 million documents, by March 2021.
It is also expecting to save £40,000 per year that would have been spent on keeping the client system going for access to historic records.
The second initiative is on school admissions and transfers. Valintine says this has been a headache for the education team for some time, as although applications are made digitally, they go to it as emails and have to be typed into the education management system – a mundane but time consuming process for staff.
In response, the e-forms have been updated to provide more consistency in how the information is presented – an important step for an automation – and the incoming data is held in an SQL database, from which the NDL SX platform monitors and updates the education management system.
There are plans for a number of other initiatives across the authority, specifically the council are investigating the potential of RPA to provide the integration of a mobile app with the WCCIS system for social workers.
Questions, trust and tips
Valintine says that, while Conwy is still at an early stage of using the platform, it has already taken in some valuable lessons. One is the importance of fully understanding the process to be automated. The crucial steps here are to spend time the people who have been handling the data input, asking questions about how and why they have taken specific steps, and gaining their trust to pick up the tips and tricks they have learned through doing the job.
“You can utilise for your own advantage what has already been applied from human ingenuity,” he says.
Similarly, the developers, whether in-house or from the platform supplier, should be given time to focus. Building a robust and repeatable process takes time, especially when it involves tricky integrations with different systems, and should not be rushed.
Along with this is the need to understand and clean incoming data, to ensure it comes with the consistency that makes it possible to develop a successful automation.
Valintine is also enthusiastic over the support provided by NDL as Conwy has got to grips with the platform and developed its automations.
“The NDL support days have been fantastic, providing an accelerated path for your own people. Not only do they give them technical skills, scripts and things to work on, but working with the NDL delivery team gets them into that ethos of how you can approach problems from an RPA perspective.
“But you do need to give your own guys time to focus on the task in hand. If it’s a complex piece of work it takes a lot of testing, so you have to build, test, review, test, review.”
Image from iStock, Olivier Le Moal