Artificial intelligence (AI) is not some future promise or threat; it’s with us now. And it’s set to change our approach to almost everything.
London Borough of Hillingdon Council took a bold step and became the first UK local authority to use voice automation and AI at scale, working in partnership with PwC and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Hillingdon’s goal was to use technology to become a human-centred and digitally-enabled council. The unique collaboration with PwC and AWS delivered an AI driven citizen contact system which brought improvements for citizens and, critically, also delivered significant efficiencies.
Moving beyond putting services online
The last decade has seen most councils adopt ‘channel shift’ strategies. These have included moving from in-person and telephone services to digital solutions for the more routine tasks. Councils have saved money, reduced in-person contact points and reduced their staff numbers. But too often this can leave citizens with bland interactions at best; and at worst, a sense of disconnection from the council. Citizens can feel that the service interaction has been designed for the convenience of a computer system; not to facilitate a personal connection with a vital public service.
Hillingdon was determined to adopt a different approach, they believed that smart use of digital could both release efficiencies and improve delivery of services to citizens. Following in depth research into the needs and preferences of the local community in 2022, PwC realised there was an opportunity not to shift away from the telephone – but to embrace it.
This would move away from an approach of solely online first, to one that would harness the potential of emerging technologies and see the council become a local government pioneer. This required both member and management discipline and foresight, pushing the boundaries and finding the right partners.
Hillingdon Council provides services to some 310,000 residents. And despite efforts to enhance the functionality of its online channel, call volumes still remained high, even for low-level enquiries, with the council needing to maintain some 70 full-time employees to staff its contact centre. This was unsustainable.
The council partnered with PwC to help it achieve its aims at pace. PwC were able to bring established partnerships with leading technology companies alongside the skills, experience and capability of its local public services team.
PwC’s initial work identified a range of efficiency improvements, such as enhancing the information provided online, removing unnecessary email communication channels, and providing a new web chat option. The popularity of voice calls, and the local demographics, allowed PwC to show that this was an important channel to retain and transform.
The council’s data showed that at least 35% of all Hillingdon’s customer contact was highly transactional and therefore suitable for automation using AI. The business case also identified that service take-up could reach 80% for some caller types. This included items such as paying rent, finding out the day for rubbish collection or reporting when a rubbish bin had not been collected.
It also factored in basic social care service support, such as requesting an adult social care assessment or reporting a change of circumstances. But the council needed to ensure vulnerable residents across the borough, and those who may struggle to use the automated line, would not be excluded.
To enable a greater level of personalisation and connection between the council and its citizens, PwC firstly looked to replace first-line voice contact with an automated voice service using AI. This is similar to those used in banking and financial services. PwC also recommended removing contact centre email channels; supporting automated calls with web chat capabilities; and improving web content to reduce overall voice call demand. All of these channels were then integrated into existing systems so caller data was available to personalise the experience and fulfil the underlying customer need at that first point of contact.
PwC worked with AWS to deliver the AI-based voice channel and web chat facility, using the cloud-based, cost-effective Amazon Connect platform. The AI system is able to speak 18 languages other than English, and translate in real time, which means the council is now more accessible to residents.
Amazon Connect is based on a usage model rather than on licence fees. This means costs would only be incurred when the service is used, and it can be scaled up and down, to satisfy demand. With automated calls costing significantly less than those handled by a contact centre operative, the new service will deliver much better value for money.
Hillingdon LBC Chief Executive,Tony Zaman, said: ‘PwC colleagues rapidly understood the importance and popularity of voice calls for Hillingdon citizens, yet it was not sustainable to continue operating as we were. Our outcome is a better service, at lower cost that is open 24/7!’
The impact was immediate. With PwC and Amazon’s support, in only a three month period, Hillingdon became the first UK local authority to have deployed an automated voice and web chat solution at scale. The cost per call using the automated solution is just 5% of the call cost when handled by human operatives. The solution immediately provided capacity of 25-30 full-time employees. The work delivered well over the expectation of a 5:1 ROI ratio over three years, delivering a cost saving of £5 for every pound spent.
Moreover, the council is now in a position to be able to handle well over 40% of all calls with its conversational AI system, and has future-proofed the system by developing the capability to build new service automations itself, in-house, reducing reliance on third party partners.
For citizens, this new approach now has fundamentally changed how they interact with their council. It has reduced call waiting times. For example, high call volumes can now be managed with ease, such as a change to a waste collection day, or when council tax bills are issued annually. The enhanced web chat feature can handle unlimited numbers of interactions, and is supporting the council to manage and respond to the 20,000 plus enquiries it receives relating to rent payment queries from its tenants annually. Importantly they can now phone the council 24 hours a day.
Thanks to a successful start, Hillingdon now has more confidence in its digital transformation with a better supported culture of innovation and a structured approach to continuous improvement.
The council has mobilised a customer experience hub made up of service designers, automation specialists, web technologists and customer experts. This team has taken the voice automation further, including additional services within its scope and transforming the telephony channel across the council.
What next for Hillingdon and learning for the sector
This exciting approach in Hillingdon, supported by PwC’s unique collaboration with AWS, has formed a blueprint for the use of emerging technologies to improve the relationship between the council and its communities. At the same time, the return on investment has delivered tangible efficiencies at pace and offers excellent value for money at a time when rising costs, demand for statutory services and fiscal constraint continues to define the sector.
This approach doesn’t require significant new technology or skills to be brought into the council and so is easier to mobilise and maintain than other approaches would be. Consequently, its also highly repeatable – both in terms of deploying into additional service areas but also for fast deployment into other councils.
Hillingdon are not resting on their laurels. Recognising that technology and resident expectations continue to evolve at pace, the council is exploring how further use of AI can increase the volume and complexity of contact that can be automated while maintaining that focus on personalisation and convenience.
‘The performance improvement we have gained from an approach based on AI means that the council is more accessible to residents, council staff can focus on more challenging and rewarding work and we have new skills that make us self-sufficient.’ Tony Zaman – Chief Executive, Hillingdon LBC
‘Hillingdon and PwC have shown the way to implement AI for councils. There’s no doubt that, over the coming decade, generative AI will become a crucial tool for councils to better inform and serve their communities.’ Barry Quirk – Former CEO of Kensington & Chelsea LBC, Lewisham LBC, and current Senior Advisor at PwC
To learn more and to find out how PwC can support digital transformation in your council, reach out to the Head of Local Public Services Consulting, James Bowman at email@example.com
This article is sponsored content for The MJ