Industry voice: Public authorities need to begin exploring the potential of artificial intelligence, even if they are still grappling with digitisation and mobile, writes Ian Robson, business manager, Pythagoras
There is no uniformity in transformation. It works differently for different public authorities, each of which has their own priorities to which they need to respond, and they make the journey at the pace and by routes that reflect their internal workings and the demands of their customers.
For all of them technology provides an essential element, but by itself it is not the solution to every problem that they face. Instead it provides a catalyst for change, opening up new possibilities for the way that authorities manage their operations and deliver services.
These have to be considered in the context of economic and social pressures, the nature of the services and customer need. It leads to variations in how authorities working in specific sectors – such as local government or healthcare – deal with issues and processes that they have in common.
But their transformations have progressed within what could be termed a common framework, in which there are five epochs reflecting the advances of technology over recent decades. Every authority has evolved within this framework, but few have yet truly ventured into the fifth of those epochs.
It started with telephony
The first was the development of telephony as a means of communication, providing an alternative – often more convenient for the customer – to face-to-face contact. Initially it was highly dependent on efficient switchboard operators, then the deployment of effective customer relationship management systems to streamline the interactions between customers and service departments.
Next came the development of websites as the prime source of information. When built with some foresight and an understanding of what people needed they could be very effective; although too often in the early days they proved difficult to navigate and did not make it clear where to find that information. Most organisations have learned from mistakes and greatly improved their websites in recent years.
Then came the digitisation of services, with the scope for more online enquiries and transactions from requesting rubbish collections to ordering library books to paying council tax. Most authorities continue to work on their digital services, extending the range and refining the way they work.
Many are also now well into the fourth epoch of harnessing mobile technology, aiming to ensure that citizens can get the same experience from their mobile phones as from a desktop, laptop or tablet PC. They are acknowledging the importance of mobile-friendly websites and opening up systems for the development of mobile apps, aimed at giving users access to all services through their smartphones.
Now a handful are exploring the fifth epoch with the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. There is a growing interest in the potential of bots – software that runs automated tasks over the internet – systems that can learn from interactions with the public, and those that respond to speech with the ability to recognise individuals.
Speak to a machine
Since the second epoch digital transformation has demanded that people use computer or mobile phone keyboards to communicate with an organisation, but this is going to shift to a stage where they will expect to speak to a machine. Over time nobody will want to type.
It is very early days for the latest stage, but technology is evolving more quickly than ever and the public could begin to expect it as the norm within a couple of years. This is prompting some public authorities to actively explore how it can further transform their services.
Of the local authority representatives taking part in the recent UKA/Pythagoras debate on driving the return on investment in digital transformation, one said that his organisation is between the third and fourth epochs, while the other two are now into the fourth epoch and investigating how they might adapt to the fifth.
It indicated that authorities are moving at different paces, but they also identified a couple of underlying demands for the whole public sector. One is the need for an approach built around what people need rather than organisational structures, so they can make clear what needs to be done without knowing which organisation – public, private or third sector – or department they need to contact.
This is a big ambition, but the development of AI could be important in helping to assess what they need and lead them to the appropriate agency. Getting the right technology in place can help to get the right information to the right person at the right time.
The other is the need to recognise the boundaries of digitisation, that there will always be some services, especially dealing with children or in adult social care, that need human interactions.
Sixth to come
Looking forward, there is the possibility of a sixth epoch emerging soon, in which AI runs predictive analytics for specific services and individual customers. This could be used for allocating staff and other resources, preventive maintenance and – the one that would have most value – supporting elderly and vulnerable people in their homes. AI could be linked to sensors that spot when people are likely to get into difficulties, and enable the professionals to intervene before things go wrong.
In addition, however people see transformation now, the advance of technology will ensure it looks different in a year or two. Everybody in the discussion agreed that transformation will never be complete, but is a journey in which an authority has to respond to new challenges but can also find new digital resources.
Those that are most successful will be those that are best at spotting those challenges on the horizon and being ready to grasp how they can use technology.
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