The time has come for the public sector to grasp the potential of the technology, writes Richard Boddington, head of local government and housing associations at Blue Prism
The public sector has been talking about transformation for several years, but the Covid-19 pandemic has cast a sharp light over its need to operate differently, and the fact that it cannot fix today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.
It needs to take a new approach in the way it carries out its operations, both internally for its own people and externally for the citizens it serves. Services should not be dependent on how many people are available but delivered with tools that will always be available and right for the job.
Intelligent automation (IA) can play a crucial role in making this possible. It provides a new digital capability to support a shift in how organisations function and act as a major enabler of widespread transformation.
It is emerging from robotic process automation (RPA), which is now increasingly used in the public sector to deal with processes that rely entirely on structured data. This has advanced with the development of online forms and the ability to build digital workers that recognise information in a consistent format and follow set processes.
IA brings in a cognitive element and other technologies such as character recognition and translation services to handle unstructured data, and can extend to machine learning in which the system learns from the processing to recognise details and meaning.
This makes it possible to take automation further into processes that demand capabilities seen as human, such as deciphering text, translating from foreign languages and recognising images. It effectively increases the intelligence of the digital worker, augmenting the work of people in an organisation, supporting a seismic shift in efficiency and productivity.
Organisations have been showing what is possible. City of Edinburgh Council has automated the registration of private landlords with data coming from the Scottish Government portal. This made it possible to clear a backlog that would have taken human staff several weeks in just 16 hours.
Futures Housing Group has automated its collection of direct debits, removing the need for one of its staff to spend half of their time every week on dealing with the transactions.
Suffolk County Council has run a series of automations, beginning with processes for public notice advertising that reduced the human effort involved from almost 900 to just 260 hours per year. As the programme has continued it has emphasised the re-use of components, making it possible to build the services more quickly.
Other projects have contributed to the fantastic effort in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. East Suffolk and North Essex Foundation NHS Trust used automation to support the testing process for Covid-19 antibodies. Caerphilly County Borough Council harnessed RPA in dealing with the surge in applications for free school meals.
IA can drive wholesale change. It is not about discreet departmental improvements but a whole new capability that cuts through the sediment in processes to support a much improved delivery of services.
Of course, the change will not happen overnight: the public sector, rightly, takes a measured approach in its adoption of new technologies. But the past year has shown that councils can adopt new solutions quickly, and this should be further exploited to start developing public services for the next decade and beyond.
A collaboration between Blue Prism and UKAuthority has produced a new white paper on the potential – Intelligent automation driving transformation – which investigates the core benefits of the technology, the scope for financial savings, implications for data sharing and privacy, and how automation is now evolving. It looks at building skills, gaining buy-in and traction, the scope for collaboration between organisations, and shows that the time has come for IA as a core feature of transformation.
It also provides several examples of implementations in local government and the health service, sharing the experience of the ambitions, the challenges, what contributes to a successful automation and the benefits achieved.
It is essential reading for the public sector because it provides the voice of peers – firsthand experience of those who have adopted IA. This is part of a trend that is growing significantly and provides a fantastic potential to deliver great value to the sector, for the benefit of the organisations, their employees and citizens.
Fill in the form to download the paper.
Image from iStock, Chan2545