Interview: Jenny Nelson, the city council’s programme manager for Digital Newcastle, talks about its chatbot development and a general emphasis on making services more user-friendly
An emphasis on everyday technology is a big factor in Newcastle City Council’s digital transformation. It marks a move towards making things easier for the public, in contrast to systems that it acknowledges have not always been user-friendly.
This is a big influence in the thinking of Jenny Nelson, manager of the Digital Newcastle programme, as she works with colleagues on the transformation. Talking with UKAuthority she also plays up the importance of in-house development and points to initiatives that convey an intent to get into the use of bots and artificial intelligence for everyday services.
“As a council we’ve had a tendency to have big, chunky legacy systems that don’t involve a good user experience at all,” she says. “So we made a conscious effort to move away from that and develop some capacity in house to build more user-centric solutions.
“The systems were not flexible, where you get what you’re given, especially for revenues and benefits and payments engine type functions. Rather than continue to force residents down those routes we wanted to think about how we might be able to build some things in-house and join some of those systems up to make it a more user-friendly experience, and how to design new services more in keeping with how people live their lives.”
Front end focus
Newcastle is about 18 months into its transformation, which Nelson says has been focused largely on the front end and how local people interact with the council. One of the projects has been to develop federated access with a single sign-on for the portals of different business systems, such as revenues and benefits, social care, planning and libraries.
There is also an element of application consolidation, although Nelson says this comes with difficulties in that old systems are deeply embedded in how employees work, some are subject to long term contracts, and in there is a need to be very clear about the business case to justify a change. She acknowledges it will take some time to complete the effort, but says the council is developing a number of small scale solutions and aims to build the momentum for a major shift.
“We have to get to maturity about how it all comes into play together and deliver transformation,” she says.
One of those solutions, which conveys a good deal of ambition, is for the use of chatbots in delivering a couple of core services.
The first, for applying for permits to use the waste and recycling centre, was launched last year and reflects the emphasis on user-friendly solutions in the choice of SMS text messages as the channel.
Impact and learning
“We chose that process because it was big enough to have some impact in terms of reducing calls and reducing paper, but small enough for us to learn how customers liked to use it and how they might want to use it in bigger service areas,” Nelson says.
“It was a decent test opportunity and we found customers responded really well. We’ve had no complaints, calls reduced from about 60 per month to three and saved the equivalent of about £25,000 per year in staff time.”
It also reduced the average time taken to obtain a permit from 14 days to 90 seconds, and helped to reduce the fraudulent use of photocopied permits to obtain access to the centre. In addition, it has helped to improve the collection of data on the use of the site.
The platform was developed with staff from the centre and digital public service consultancy FutureGov using the ‘double diamond’ design process – involving the stages of discover, define, develop and deliver – and the Microsoft Bot Framework within Office 365.
“As far as we’re aware nobody else was building the bot builder part of it. It has the level of AI to provide appropriate responses on permit seeking,” Nelsons says, adding: “We are aware of plug-in chatbots, but when we looked at the business case we felt that building our own would give us more scope and flexibility to build it where we needed and respond to user needs.”
The service was chosen partly because it could it provide a template for other permit seeking processes that can be developed in-house.
The digital team is now taking an alternative approach in a new project, developing a ‘virtual advisor’ chatbot for social care based again on the Microsoft framework but this time working as a website bot.
“At the moment about 20% of the calls to our social care helpline are about services the council does not deliver, such as in looking for someone to help with gardening, but we know there are people in voluntary sector who do,” Nelson says. “There is so much information out there it can be quite difficult to find with a raft of websites.
“So we’ve developed a signposting solution that allow people to navigate through a series of questions into which we’ve built a lot of natural language. In that area of social care the terms we use, like domiciliary care, nobody would use in normal conversation.
“We’ve worked with service users and plotted out user journeys, and again the feedback has been really positive. We found people wanted to do this out of hours. It’s a natural dialogue rather than a tickbox process, and we can signpost them to an adult social care assessment they can do online or to a third party.”
This was only launched earlier this month, but she says a number of dialogues are already available around requests for equipment, with more to come on domestic care, meals on wheels and other services. The team is also looking at transporting it into Facebook Messenger.
While acknowledging that there is a cohort of people who will continue to prefer telephone or face-to-face contact, she is enthusiastic about its prospects, and says the two projects have provided frameworks on which the council can build.
Easy on skills
“We can build other services without in-depths skills. We have one on SMS and one on Messenger and might go for other channels.
“We chose text at first because it’s about understanding the demographic – we could be pretty sure someone taking a van to a waste centre would have a phone, but not a smartphone – and when we became confident in that we looked at Messenger as well.
“With those two examples a lot of it was about getting the learning so we could scale them up in other areas. But what’s been really exciting is that customers have responded really well.”
She adds that there are possibilities in channels such as WhatsApp and in voice activated apps.
“We haven’t done anything in Alexa yet because we feel that demographically we would get a bigger return on text. I don’t think it would be complicated to build on Alexa when you have the right framework in place, but it’s about finding the right services for which it would be the best channel. Voice automation is something we’re keen to develop in the future.”
Smart place pilots
Newcastle’s transformation plans also involve elements of smart place technology, and it has been running pilots with sensors in housing for social care users, smart bins, smart streetlighting and intelligent traffic signals.
But overall there is an emphasis on the modernisation of more familiar services, and the approach of starting small, learning lessons, then taking these into the development of further services. This is supported by the development of in-house skills.
“We know there’s a lot more we need to do,” Nelson says. “We’ve been trying to get the foundations in place before building on them. We have to get to maturity about how it all comes into play together and deliver transformation.”