The council used automation to rapidly process free school meal applications ©Getty Images
The council used automation to rapidly process free school meal applications ©Getty Images

How virtual workers are feeding school children

posted by Andrew Allen and Ceri Jones
16 August 2022

Autonomous software is helping one council deliver better services faster, cut admin and spend more time in the community.

Big things have small beginnings, as the saying goes, and this was certainly the case for Caerphilly County Borough Council on its eventful journey to introduce robotics into frontline services. A process that began with the automation of HR tasks via a ‘virtual worker’ is now being rolled out to support a wide range of public services, including the provision of meals to primary school children, school uniforms orders and social services.

Unlike private sector counterparts, many local authorities have been behind the curve on technology, partly due to the high level of risk involved in spending and delivering against public money. For Caerphilly, it was a pioneering approach that helped the procurement team save thousands of staff hours while increasing value and reliability for the community – but it didn’t start off this simply.

First, make an autonomous worker

The council broached robotics as a procurement solution three years ago, but was tentative, wanting to keep a close eye on limited resources and ensure money spent was for maximum public benefit. But there was also a lack of internal knowledge around automation software.

Head of procurement and digital services Liz Lucas was particularly keen to prove the concept before plunging in on a big spend. “We started off with a very small pilot, but we were really just dipping our toes in the water,” she recalls. To secure organisational buy-in, the council approved limited pilots in HR and social services, but Lucas says it took around 12 months to “really get to grips with the technology”. “It was about exploring the art of the possible. I was very conscious of not wanting to automate mess,” she adds.

One of the core technical hurdles was that while the supplier provided the robotics platform, the team would have to develop the virtual worker itself. They soon decided that going it alone would be unwise as they lacked the expertise to fully develop the tool and use it to its maximum potential.

As such Lucas decided to bring in a third-party operator, and being a strong proponent of local sourcing, she chose Caerphilly-based start-up Codebase 8 as a partner. Codebase 8, now part of the Davies Group, helped the council understand what they wanted from the system and to refine the development; the firm now operates the system and provides customer support.

Using a local SME had several benefits. “The project manager was an ex-local government officer, so he understood some of my pressures, and they turned a lot around for us quickly. We worked with them on a very open basis and when the pandemic hit, they were one of our go-to people that really supported us to continue to work.”

Improved access, processing speed and accuracy

The onset of Covid-19 was the stimulus to rapidly expand the scope of the project. In Wales, each council was given additional financial assistance to ensure primary school children would receive free meals during lockdowns (which has since been made a permanent provision).

Some councils chose to make cash payments directly to families, but Caerphilly opted to supply boxes of food staples. Naturally, this created an administrative challenge as thousands of eligible parents would have to complete a claim form which the council would need to verify in order to set up the service.

With the software already in place, the team simply created an online form for the public to complete, which virtual workers could log, verify and process within 24 hours. Lucas says: “Over a single weekend we undertook the work with the robots that would have taken us three to four months.”

It proved so successful that the council’s catering team won the Best Service Team: Catering Service award at the APSE Annual Service Awards for frontline council services. Concept proven, more service areas with repetitive tasks were considered for the virtual worker overhaul, starting off with the school uniform ordering system and all social services needs.

For social services, automating procurement and supply admin tasks has freed many deskbound staff, so they can spend more time “really make a difference to people’s lives”. For Lucas, this last point is especially important as it addresses several key obstacles around adoption of robotics and digitisation within the public sector.

Local authorities have largely been reluctant to invest in advanced technologies such as robotics and AI for fear they could threaten jobs or lose money. But not only has automation improved worker job satisfaction (with social services leaders able to reconnect with their vocations), it also improved speed and accuracy of processing, redefining what’s achievable by the same number of employees. “It has never been about us wanting to save X amount of jobs in any shape or form,” says Lucas. “This is about delivering better services to the public.”

Robotics pay off for public services  

Following this success, the system was rolled out to procurement’s e-invoicing, the benefits system and blue badge applications (with limitations). The council is now looking to automate its complaints procedure and freedom of information requests. Yet still, Caerphilly’s digital transformation has taken place entirely unbeknownst to the general public, who may have noticed the better access to information and support, recognised the significant reduction in response time, and enjoyed having 24/7 access to help on the website – but probably didn’t realise the work behind these changes.

Lucas described the project as exploring “the art of the possible”, and the payoffs speak for themselves. The council now has five virtual workers that have saved 3,120 working hours per year in one team alone, and 2,600 hours in another. Together they are currently processing 95,000 transactions a year, and it doesn’t stop there.

“We’re looking now to train more staff internally, but we will always need that deployment partner because they are cutting edge, and they have far more resources available to them than we have,” Lucas adds.

“I think what Covid has done for us is to transform our thinking and our appetite to try something new. It’s tremendously exciting to think of where we can take this in the future,” says Lucas. “For me, we haven’t cracked it. This isn’t the finished product. It’s still getting better.”

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