A project to implement robotic process automation has vastly improved access to revenues and benefits services in North Tyneside.
(UPDATE 01/03/17 - 10,000 new housing benefit claims successfully handled by robot)
In fact, the customer experience is now so good that the council and its service delivery partner, ENGIE, won 'Best Application of Technology' at the UK Customer Satisfaction Awards 2016. The judges concluded that “work to develop the council’s digital presence has been enormously successful, resulting in a vast improvement in customer service”.
North Tyneside and ENGIE worked with eforms specialist, IEG4, to create the new benefit claim process. Robotic process automation (RPA) enables one piece of software to talk to another piece of software whilst continuing to use the human user interface. In this case a software robot has been created and trained to do the repetitive work and processing involved in processing a housing benefit claim.
Indeed, North Tyneside is seeing a significant productivity improvement in processing online applications – and it is easy to see why: the housing benefit robot works over 100 hours a week, whereas humans doing the same task work only 37. The robots also work without leave, sickness or ever making procedural errors.
Outwardly residents see a seamless service; there is no obvious sign that the benefit claim inputting is no longer carried out by a human. What is apparent, however, is a consistent process, efficient service delivery and swift reallocation of resources to deal with the actual decision making that does require human intervention.
At North Tyneside, the technology has been used to deliver rapid, low cost service transformation, resulting in more efficient processes, shorter response times for customers and improved services, such as an intelligent online benefit claim form which only presents relevant questions to the citizen.
Better services to customers:
Days to process new benefits claims reduced from 36 days in 2014 to just 25 days by September 2016.
83% of new claims for benefits are now made via online forms.
91.4% of customers report no difficulty using the eform.
Customer satisfaction overall continues to regularly exceed 85%.
According to Richard Abba, project lead at ENGIE, “RPA is essentially a virtual worker that has the ability to automate mundane tasks and help staff to be more productive; giving them more time to work on the ‘added value’ tasks and help their customers.
“The robot software enters the data case by case, just like a human operator would, and proceeds with the processing based on business rules. As it is following a process it will do everything it is asked to do, with no mistakes, so there is no possibility of human error or a process stage being accidently missed out. The robots are 100% accurate."
RPA is highly suited to complexity in business processes, Abba explains, “We can build far more conditionality, based on outcomes and individual circumstances, into complex processes using robotics than we would be able to through a traditional API route. This enables massive efficiencies to be built directly into the system.”
Moving forward, Engie and North Tyneside see great opportunities to revolutionise traditional back office processing, using a virtual workforce to perform the bulk of the processing and leaving the human workforce to concentrate on its customers.
Staff are also benefiting; with the mundane tasks removed their time is freed up to work on more value added tasks for the citizen, with more meaningful interactions.
Within that added value work, people have been trained up to write their own RPA procedures. Because RPA uses the human interface layer, it is easy for subject matter experts to be trained to configure robots to support their own workflow.
For example, the service recently designed its own robot to automate the annual workload of collating social housing stock rents and updating benefit details. The team is looking to build upon this success with a project to automate the process for managing council tax account credits.
Like all councils, North Tyneside is under financial pressure. “We've got an ever increasing workload for the council with ever reducing resources and it's going to be impossible to achieve that with our existing range of budgets,” says Ben Kaner, head of digital strategy at North Tyneside.
“Using RPA is one of the ways that will help us meet demand within our financial constraints by allowing us to speed up service to the customer whilst improving its quality and consistency - whilst not requiring us to spend three or four years integrating the back end of some quite difficult and old-fashioned systems.”
One of the most exciting things about RPA technology for public service delivery is that it enables existing assets to be repurposed and re-used more effectively – enabling them to be swiftly re-orchestrated in to a modern architecture and a modern service layer. This enables a council to offer much better services, more efficiently and more quickly.
With IEG4’s help, building and deploying the robot for claims processing took just a few months and led to North Tyneside and Engie not only winning the UK Customer Satisfaction Award but also being shortlisted for the 'transformational team of the year' in the 2016 UK IT Industry Awards.