How can councils innovate during budget cuts?

Handling a budget cut, particularly consecutive budget cuts, is probably the toughest hurdle that a council can face in the UK. Money makes the world go round, but when the money stops coming, the world somehow keeps spinning – fortunately, there are some innovative solutions for councils to tackle the budget blues.

 

Focussing on Efficiency

Some of the greatest success stories of handling cuts have been the councils that put their spotlight on efficiency. When something is running to the best of its ability it requires less maintenance, saving time and money of workers. There are plenty of examples of efficient councils managing to save hundreds of thousands of pounds over the course of budget cuts. Sharing services between departments, overhauling the calendar for inspections, and even looking into how printing is handled can reap rewards.

We recently interviewed Abigail Barton, Communications and Engagement Manager and Emma Jackson, Digital Programme Manager at Monmouthshire County Council. Abby spoke about how Monmouthshire County Council is in a unique position as the worst funded authority in Wales and how they've managed to innovate during budget cuts. Keep an eye out for this episode to learn how they’ve managed to achieve this at thebotcast.com.

“With the ever declining budgets, we need to investigate how robotic process automation could release staff from those mundane tasks.” – Abigail Barton, Communications and Engagement Manager at Monmouthshire County Council.

 

Investing in a Chatbot

It’s very tempting to have a reactive response to budget restraints and start cutting services, but it should also be noted that investing in a more efficient set of systems and technologies will save money in the long term. One of the best ways to do this is by investing in a chatbot.

Chatbots free up money and human work hours, particularly when fielding answers to FAQs that get asked hundreds of times a day. Rather than having a person answer the phone to repeatedly explain when bins and recycling are collected, utilise the abilities of a chatbot and you will then be rewarded with a council worker being able to focus on more pressing matters and more complex public questions.

“We’ve seen multiple benefits from using the chatbot and the reason we chose the chatbot over other automated services is that actually, with less and less staff, it’s really good for us that Monty is answering some of the simple questions to free up staff to deal with the more in-depth, detailed and complex queries.” – Abigail Barton, Communications and Engagement Manager at Monmouthshire County Council.

The old saying of ‘spend money to make money’ couldn’t be more apt when considering chatbots. Councils and local authorities that are pushed for time, money, and available staffing may regard the initial cost of chatbots negatively, but the cost savings can be huge over an extended period.

Be sure to look out for our interview with Emma Jackson, Digital Programme Manager and Abigail Barton, Communications and Engagement Manager at at Monmouthshire County Council which will be released 1st March 2019 (St Davids Day). We talked to them about the challenges that Monmouthshire County Council have faced and continue to face and how Monty, their brand new chatbot,  is helping to resolve these issues. We also explore their approach to digital transformation, how they see chatbots evolving and helping councils going forward plus much more. Subscribe to The Botcast to be notified when this goes live.

 

Accessibility for Non-Native Speakers

There are also subtler benefits of investing in chatbots. The UK is a thriving multicultural society and there are many residents that would benefit from a foreign language chatbot as English may not be their strongest language. When trying to navigate some of the complexities of British life in regards to council taxes and benefits, it only makes sense to offer the answers in some of the most common languages such as French, Polish, and Urdu. Not only will this make the council more accessible for the wider community, if people are able to fully understand the instructions there will be fewer mistakes made, leading to a reduction in time spent rectifying issues for council workers.

“It’s really important that Monty is Welsh speaking. We want everybody, regardless of their background or experience to be engaged with Monty and not be scared of digital channels. That’s why we launched with our community hubs.” - Abigail Barton, Communications and Engagement Manager at at Monmouthshire County Council

 

Receiving Payments

One of the many benefits of chatbots is that they can be modified to receive payments such as council tax or parking fines. Not only does this create a swifter, more efficient service for the user (and generate income for the council), it means a council worker now has the availability to work on other tasks, rather than answering the phone.

 

24-Hour Service

Furthermore, chatbots don’t need sleep. If a member of the public has a query outside of regular office hours, or perhaps remembers they need to pay their tax before going to bed, a chatbot can resolve these issues. Being able to support the community day or night is a prime example of investing in a service to benefit the council and wider user.

 

Utilising Space

Offices are always evolving, meaning there are often council-owned rooms and buildings that go unused or are not completely taken advantage of. There is no point holding on to (and paying for) a building that remains empty. These spaces can be rented out, sold, or even sub-let to generate income, save on waste, and fuel development. Pop-up shops can be installed in these areas, which are particularly beneficial if they are from a local business. The other benefit of pop-up shops is that they can be flexible, meaning if circumstances change they can move to another location or perhaps be open for a part of the year, not the full twelve months. Local businesses could also have a rotating occupancy of the pop-up space so the wider community (and council staff) have greater access to the services and products.

 

Set Up a Trading Company

Councils across the nation have been reaping the rewards of starting trading companies. The newly formed local authority trading companies (LATCs) are not completely owned by the council and operate as a separate operation. Developing LATCs provides the opportunity to start a service delivery model, where the work is done for the council itself, or a commercial trading company allowing trade with organisations and individuals. This is a great way to generate income, build upon local business, and it opens plenty of avenues for further development.

 

Experiment

Be inventive. Collaborate with different councils and local authorities, ask for input from every member of staff and even members of the public. See what has worked for other councils and adapt it to your situation.

Ultimately, the cards have been dealt and councils need to adopt, adapt, and improve. Those that are open to imaginative solutions and are looking to maintain a sustainable long-term outcome – perhaps at an initial investment cost – will be the ones that thrive and succeed.

We’re helping councils across the UK to innovate during budget cuts - don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at info@webuildbots.ai or Book a Demo or Free Customer Service Consultation. We’d be thrilled to talk you through how we’re helping councils revolutionise their customer services, increase efficiencies and save money using AI and chatbot technology during budget cuts.