The other challenge for us is the growth in Internet Of Things (IOT) and consumer technology using Internet Of Things. We’ve already got residents who are being supported to live at home using things like Amazon Alexa, using systems that integrate and link with sensors in their home that feed data back to some of our professionals. How do we marry all of that up with some of our requirements around technology in a corporate environment? How do we do that safely and securely and make use of this technology? Also, how do we ensure that we manage resident data safely and that it is done in a way that doesn’t cause problems for us down the line? That is becoming increasingly a feature of the conversations that we have every day.
LH: Yeah, absolutely. It’s about being where your constituents are. We were speaking to Monmouth County Council a couple of weeks ago about this on The Botcast and they had a very similar message. We started talking about how voice technology can play an important role with vulnerable members of society. Being able to voice activate a device gives people that independence to stay in their homes for longer and to keep that communication going.
AH: Yes! We’ve had some marvellous examples of that. There’s a woman with Multiple Sclerosis. Her mobility was becoming more and more challenging for her and he was potentially in a place where she would have to move out of her home into a more formal residential setting, which wasn’t what she wanted. By using voice activated technology like Alexa and linking that to some of the traditional call support mechanisms, meant that this was still accessible to her and she could still use it without being able to get to a button to push it or get to a phone to call it. It has helped her to remain in her own home longer. So, it’s out there, it’s happening. That was a really good outcome for her from an investment in relatively low-cost technology and thinking about it and how do you do it differently. I think there’s definitely a role to play, particularly with some of our more vulnerable residents.
Your partnership stores data of over, sort of, 600,000 citizens. How do you use that data to feed into your decision making and better engage with your constituents?
There’s a lot more we could do with this, to be honest. I think we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, if you like. We’ve got some stuff that we’re already doing which is work around risk stratification which is about looking at our data and trying to focus service delivery around particular groups of people who are at risk of coming into the more complex service delivery components. So, there’s a bit around that.
We’ve got a bit around data that we use to predict people who are at risk of coming into financial difficulty that looks at all of our financial transactions with that individual, so that we can potentially intervene and offer support at an early stage and prevent it becoming a non-payment or a civil issue around that. That’s particularly important where you’ve got small businesses who might be struggling in the borough, and we can go in and offer support when we look at some of the predictive data that we’ve got that might indicate that there’s a potential issue arising.
We’ve done quite a bit of work around open data and making sure that we push out data to our residents as much as we can because we’ve already had some really good examples of people asking us for particular data sets with a view to developing or marketing something that may be of benefit to our residents in the borough. We know there’s some real advantages around that. We’ve done quite a bit around bringing data together in shared views with some of our partners to get a more holistic view of residents and therefore make better informed decisions about that resident. SWe’ve got some really good and strong examples of where we’ve done that.
Obviously, some of the robotics work that we’re in, we’ve got in training at the moment, that will be making better use of that data hopefully to transform the processes and make things a bit better for our residents. Where I think we need to do more work is around the predictive stuff so that we can better tailor services in line with what residents are interested in. I don’t think we’ve done enough of that in the public sector and that’s something we could definitely do more of.
If you look at some of the key online retailers, who I won’t name, they’re really, really good at tailoring content to you as a customer or to what they know about you. It frightens me to death when I see some of the things that appear on my timeline on social media because I think how do you know that about me? It’s becoming such a big part of our world and I don’t think in public service we do enough around understanding our customers and then tailoring some of the content that we send to them. I think that’s particularly important around the public health agenda and the preventative agenda where we’ve got people who we could potentially target for things to improve their lifestyle or things that might be of interest to them that’ll improve the quality of their life. There’s loads more we can do around that and I think there’s some really important lessons to be learned from the private sector around that.
Quite a bit we do, but there are some challenges because the cyber security arena is becoming increasingly challenging for us in the public sector in that the risks are increasing. We’re having to put more resources into that area. And I think for us, because we’re asking residents to interact with us digitally and asking them to entrust us with their data, some of whom are the most vulnerable and, kind of, at risk people in society, then we have to have a model that does everything that it can to protect their data. That’s a challenge for us in terms of how we use that data and how we manage it because there’s so many opportunities, but it’s got to be done in the context of that challenging landscape.
LH: Yes, you’re absolutely right. There’s so much scope. What we do is we build chatbots and voice assistants and the remarketing and retargeting possibilities within a chatbot alone are incredible. Most people think that chatbots are just for FAQ’s and that kind of thing, but the analytical backend of it is huge.
By using sentiment analysis, trigger words and past purchase history - like you were talking about e-commerce, you can really target your market. That can be really beneficial if you translate it into the public sector and target services for your constituents and offer them solutions or alert them of days they might be interested in within the community that are super relevant to them. Obviously that holds so much opportunity but yes, the data capture and security side if things is paramount, especially with everything that’s happened this year with Facebook. It’s on people’s minds. It’s that balance, I think.
AH: I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said around chatbots. I mean, our contact centre staff do use web chat as well as part of it and they use analytic tools for telling when someone is struggling with the transaction. When they’ve been lingering around a place for a set period of time and it does that pop up and offers that support around that. That’s been really good for us because it’s enabled people to multi-serve and deal with calls and web chats at the same time, which is obviously better for our customers.
It’s also given us some fantastic insight information about how people are using our website, what they’re doing, what they’re interested in and we could do a lot more than we have done around helping to promote some of the things that are really important to us. We have something in Wigan called the Wigan Deal which is very much about a new relationship with our residents, it’s very asset and strengths based and it’s been very much our response to austerity. We’ve said to residents if you do the following things such as transact with us online or if you recycle more, that will help us to keep council tax down.
A big element of that is people doing things within their own community, volunteering, engaging in the community, being part of the community. There are so many opportunities to promote this and get people involved with this as part of when they’re doing their business with us. We could do a lot more with some of the tools that you’ve talked about in terms of knowing who these people are and what they’re doing and how they might help us.
The other thing that we’ve done, we've done something called Community Book. It’s a very unusual thing in that normally when authorities create, if you like, libraries of community services or things that, they might want to recommend to people as part of helping them with issues, we’ve managed that and we’ve wanted to control it. Because in that way then, we can make sure that there’s nothing on there that might be inappropriate content or whatever. In the past, that’s become seen as a local authority thing rather than a community thing. We developed our community, our register, our local library of activities. We handed that over to the community sector to develop and it’s very much owned by them. They’re the ones who manage the content and the look and feel of that. We’re an enabler rather than a direct provider of it. But in terms of pushing people and promoting that, there’s so much more we could do through some of those analytic tools that would help us improve and develop the content within that and make it much more relevant to the people who are using that tool. I think there are huge opportunities around that.
As assistant director of ICT Strategic Partnerships, what digital strategies do you see benefiting councils in the future and what technologies are you most excited about?
I’ve spoken a little bit about the work that we’re doing around robotics and I think that’s really interesting. We did a proof of concept last year and the outputs from that were really interesting. They were so positive that it enabled us to stand up a business case to set a member of staff specifically to work on the projects that we’d identified over the next 12 months - we estimated a return on investment in the first year of around £18,000. That would be the first year when we’d invested in this individual and then that would continue to deliver going forward.
This was from the first pilot. It was probably about £70k, I think, in the first year. So, £70k going forward is quite a lot and we’ve got about six or seven different projects that we’re going to do this year. So, some fantastic opportunities around that. More importantly though, not just about the financial savings, about the fact that it will make those transactions that are relatively simple more effective. I think that’s about good customer service and about meeting customer expectations quickly. That makes me quite excited and it will also mean that for those people who do require a more customised or have got a more complex requirement, we’ll be able to spend more time with those customers. So, that makes me happy.
I think Internet Of Things (IOT) will grow and I think we will see more and more people supported at home using technology, and that makes me really excited because that’s a growing market and there’s some amazing things happen.
So for me, I think those are the two big things that we’re excited about at the moment.
Digital transformation is a buzz phrase in the public sector right now. Can you tell us about Wigan and Bolton Council’s digital transformation strategy?
Our councils are both in different places around that and that recognises that each borough has its own unique identity, and lends you to prioritise things slightly differently depending on what your current issues are. Both boroughs are very much focused on three areas in terms of their digital transformation strategies.
Bolton is in its first instance of the strategy and Wigan is currently reflecting on its existing strategy and developing its next iteration of that. I think there’s a strong focus on the place itself. So, what are our responsibilities around the place, which is very much about connectivity, making sure that we maximise the opportunities to increase connectivity in the borough. Access to technology for our residents, so that’s about - what does 5G mean to us? How can we encourage investment in the borough? How can we make sure that we develop good high-quality broadband as a utility when we do housing development? When we build business locations in the borough? So, there’s a big strand around that.
Then, there's how do we support small to medium enterprises in the borough to grow and become more digital and build their presence using digital? And also, how do we encourage innovation hubs and digital businesses to base themselves in our boroughs? So, I think that’s a common thread in terms of digital transformation across both organisations and that won’t be unfamiliar to most public sector organisations in terms of our role as enabler. There’s loads of partners who can help us with that. Lloyds Bank do things, there’s loads of private sector partners who will help and support people with that. So, that’s a big part of our digital vision for the future.