How have Monmouthshire County Council approached their Digital Transformation Strategy?
Well, we have our digital strategy and it broadly covers seven themes because we want to improve the overall digital maturity of the council. Firstly, we need to build a digitally skilled and enabled workforce, so we need to make sure that we’re training and upskilling our staff.
Secondly, we’re looking at digital customer services. We need to have end-to-end customer services so we can respond to our customers, but for us it’s about channel choice and not necessarily channel shift. We also need to build digital capacity and automation but our businesses need to do their service redesign first before they start looking for a digital magical wand.
We’re looking at what processes don’t need a human response and therefore can be automated. We’re also interested in the technology, making sure that our residents are able to access our services via smart devices and our staff have the right tools to do the job. We’re looking at making sure our data and evidence is interlinked with all of our data sets - that we have open data. Linked to that we’re making sure that we have common digital platforms and standards, making sure that our information is integrated.
We’re focusing on the people and not just the tech.
Lastly, we need to make sure that we are protecting our data assets and security. We want to make sure that we have the right information with the right person at the right time. So overall, we’re focusing on the people and not just the tech. We see that digitisation is a way of freeing up staff to do the rewarding and interesting work, not the mundane. But we’re focused on keeping it so simple that our residents won’t choose to do it any other way. We realise that nobody trains you on Facebook or WhatsApp, you just do it.
Tell us about your new chatbot Monty.
The whole idea is that we really want everybody to love digital channels and not be scared or intimidated by them. That’s why we launched on St Dwynwen's Day - the Welsh equivalent to Valentine's Day. It’s really important that Monty is English and Welsh speaking and we want everybody, regardless of their background or experience, to be engaged with Monty and not be scared of using digital channels. That’s why we launched in our community hubs because there we have some people who are very familiar with digital technology, but also some people who might never have been on a computer or ever used a smartphone. We had tea and tech sessions where people could join us, they could learn to log on, engage with digital, love digital, and love Monty. And it went really well.
It’s really important that Monty is English and Welsh speaking and we want everybody, regardless of their background or experience to be engaged with Monty.
People love Monty - they love his name. The name was a really important part of it because we want people to really understand what Monty is and feel that they can access Monty. So, we met with people, we asked them what name they’d want - we had a naming competition, then we took to social media and people picked Monty - that’s how Monty came to life. We then launched Monty on the 25th of January (St Dwynwen's Day) and we’re now planning something for St David’s Day because we all love digital in Monmouthshire and we want the whole of Wales to love digital here too.
Monty can deal with the missed bin collections so their time’s freed up to find a homeless person a new home.
What key challenges did you face pre-bot and what challenges are you currently facing as a council?
I think for us, in terms of the opportunity more than the challenge was to make sure that we’re engaging with customers 24/7. I think that’s the benefit of a bot. People are used to instant responses to all channels now, so I think for us it was more of an opportunity than a challenge to make sure that we do innovate so that we are available for our customers when they want us.
I think an ongoing basis as a council we need to look at how we can optimise our different data sets so we’re using insight data to drive our decision making. So, that will be an ongoing challenge for us. Another ongoing challenge, as I mentioned previously, is around reduced staff and budgets around the council because there’s less and less money now within councils. On that basis, we need to continually improve and drive more efficiency which Monty will enable us to do. I think they’re the main drivers.
Can you dig a little bit deeper into how Monty’s helping combat these challenges?
We’re seeing Monty in helping with some of those general queries. We use the data and evidence from our website and our top pages that residents were accessing to help build up those question and answers that don’t need a human response, e.g. When’s my bin day? What are the school term dates? What’s for school lunch tomorrow? We were making sure that we were trying to get those things that people were going to our website for. Interestingly, one of the top things is bus timetables and we are just shocked at how many times the bot is being asked about buses. It’s available 24/7 for those that are going to use this kind of channel.
It emphasises the importance of accurate data information to our service areas. So, we’ve been engaging with them to make sure we’re feeding Monty with the right stuff and we’re seeing that it’s freeing up our contact centre staff because they’re able to reach out to those people on the phones rather than answering what time the bus from Chepstow to Monmouth going.
Why did you choose a chatbot over other automated services?
We haven’t picked Monty over other automated services. For us, it’s all around channel choice. We want customers to engage with us around the channel they prefer most. We still have the basic search functionality on our website, we still have email, we still have our app. For us, it’s all around channel choice.
We haven’t picked Monty over other channels. We’ve delivered Monty in an integrated way with all our other services to make sure we are there for our customers regardless of the channel they choose to engage with us through.
The idea of a chatbot came from our frontline staff who understood that more and more customers wanted to engage with us in an instant automated way.
I think the reason Monty specifically came about is that we had a customer experience programme called Evolve and it was basically a week-long planning process and insight generation where we looked at what solutions were going to make sure that Monmouthshire is continually innovating in the future and that’s where the idea of a chatbot was born. It came from our frontline staff who understood that more and more customers wanted to engage with us in an instant automated way to answer their most simple questions.
As a result of this, we’ve seen other benefits of the chatbot. I think the reason why we chose the chatbot over other automated services is that actually with less and less staff it’s really good for us that Monty’s actually answering some of the simple questions to free up staff to deal with the more in-depth detailed complex questions that people might need.
A good example that our community hub staff talk about, is that Monty can deal with the missed bin collections so their time’s freed up to find a homeless person a new home. So, with less and less staff, the more we can do to free up their time to really look after the people in most need and be there for them - Monty will really help.
With less and less staff it’s really good for us that Monty’s actually answering some of the simple questions to free up staff to deal with the more in-depth detailed complex questions that people might need.
What challenges do you foresee in the coming years and how do you think technology and the use of chatbots and AI could help with these?
We have an aging population and we think the use of voice activated assistants and sensor technology could help people stay healthy and happy at home longer. With the ever-declining budgets we need to investigate how robotic process automation could release staff from those mundane tasks.
As we run so many different services with different data systems, we need to be looking into the ability to link up disparate data sets so that we can analyse data and evidence when making those key business decisions on our services.
What are the main ways you see Monty impacting Monmouthshire County Council and its constituents?
I think for the constituents it’s the speed that we can respond to them. The more and more replies and answers Monty learns, the faster and faster we’re going to get at helping people get the answer they want as quickly as possible whenever they want it.
I think long term it’s going to really help, people with all kinds of needs engage with us in English or Welsh regardless of their background or regardless perhaps of their ability to read and write. It’s great that we can use more voice activated and instant responses to help people get the information they want.
People with all kinds of needs engage with us in English or Welsh regardless of their background or regardless perhaps of their ability to read and write.
Can you share any insights or findings since the launch?
For us, it emphasises what a diverse range of services Monmouthshire covers. The queries that have been coming in are very wide ranging, from what is the hygiene rating of a particular restaurant to what bus can I take to go from Chepstow to Cardiff. It’s interesting to see just how broad our service offer is.
I think one of the key things for me is we need to be better at talking our residents’ language. We put out things in statutory words and that doesn’t necessarily meet what they’re looking for. We’re working with our services to improve their information on our website so it’s easy for Monty to signpost. Also, the information may not be readily available in a format that you can programme into the bot, so there has been some data manipulation required. We need to be working better again with our services to make sure that’s fully available on our website in a way that can be reused.
I also think there’s a cultural change. You cannot just expect your customer service staff to be able to instantly take up the chatbot way of responding. There are training needs to enable staff to go from an old-style telephony style of response to a quick text style of response because it’s different. And as people are getting these responses typically on a smartphone, you can’t be putting chapter and verse or War and Peace on there. It’s got to be quick, smart and snappy as if you were responding to your friend on WhatsApp.
We’re hoping that the data that we’re able to glean from Monty will help us work out even more useful information that we’re able to put out there for our residents, because sometimes we just don’t know what they’re interested in because we cover 300 odd services. It’s not like we’re just a bank or just one service. There are so many things that people could be asking us.
How do you see chatbots evolving and improving councils over the coming years?
Well, we would like Monty to link into some of our key information systems so that if you ask Monty a question about your council tax balance or how your application for your house is progressing, then it can link into those data sets and provide the answer. As I said previously, we want to link into the voice activated assistants, such as Siri, Google Home, Alexa, so we can encourage those that typically don’t use webspace services to link in with us.
Then what we’d like to look into is how we can enhance Monty so that it’s not only just for our residents but for our internal support services. If one team had a query for our HR or payroll service, you could get that via Monty if it was a simple question rather than something that needed a complex decision-making process.