Willoughby Council in NSW is using robotics to improve residents’ experience, writes Mustafa Ghulam.
Council has been piloting the usage of Robotics Process Automation (RPA) to automate customer service request processes. This has generated operational efficiencies as well as improved customer experience. Council staff have named their new digital colleague ‘Dexter’.
RPA is the technology that allows computer software or a ‘robot’ to mimic actions of humans interacting within digital systems to execute a business process. It can perform tasks such as logging into different systems, opening emails and attachments and copying and pasting data across different systems.
How can RPA assist local councils?
Local councils traditionally operate in ‘rule based’ environments, and this makes RPA a good tool to specifically assist local councils and public sector in general.
Firstly, local councils typically have a large number of information management systems so RPA can reduce a lot of reparative administration tasks that often require moving data between different systems.
Secondly, RPA is a non-invasive and cost effective solution. Councils can implement the solution in a matter of weeks. This is important for local councils because of high paced work environments and limited budgets.
Thirdly, innovation and continuous improvements have become very important for the local government sector, and RPA supports that. For example, RPA encourages a pilot/proof of concept approach.
This approach is aligned to ‘Design Thinking’ prototyping/experimentation and voice of customer’ concepts as part of ‘Lean’ based continuous improvements. RPA if implemented correctly can create an end-to-end innovation and continuous improvement focus and culture. Business improvement tools can support simplification and standardisation of work processes, while RPA can support automation of processes.
What does not work?
The key to successful implementation of RPA is to know what works, but more importantly to also know what does not work.
Firstly, a McKinsey Global Institute Analysis in 2017 suggests that 60 per cent of occupations have 30 per cent of activities that could be automated. This presents a range of possibilities for local councils, however, there is also a risk that RPA could become a ‘cost cutting’ exercise. RPA’s sole focus should not be about reducing the staffing numbers, but instead focus should be about removing the non-value add tasks and replacing them with value add tasks. There will indeed be operational efficiencies as residual benefits.
Customer expectations of local councils have never been so high and it presents an opportunity to free up staff and focus on customer-centric activities. At Willoughby Council, staff are now using their saved time to focus on improving quality of interactions with customers and setting up customer feedback processes.
Secondly, an ad hoc approach with RPA does not work. Councils need to have a strong governance structure and consider a ‘Centre of Excellence’ type centralised model that could drive the RPA and continuously scan opportunities to scale up the solution.
RPA also needs to have strong strategic alignment and links to councils’ overall vision. An ad hoc, “new shiny object” approach will result in RPA quickly being fizzled out.
It is important to have a strong business case and return-on-investment established right at the start.
Thirdly, jumping to the solution thinking does not work, so there has to be a focus on identifying the problems and defining them. The desired benefits with RPA can only be achieved if sufficient time is spent on the right problems. As Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
Fourthly, it’s always about people. There has to be a relationship between RPA and its users so change management and staff buy-in at all levels is very important. A ‘push down’ approach to introduce a new automated tool will not work. Staff need to be able to understand value, intent, and roadmap.
Overall, one thing is certain, due to increased customer expectations, reduced funding sources, and technology driving most improvements, local councils will have to consider solutions such as RPA.
*Mustafa Ghulam is Head of Business Improvement and Customer Experience at Willoughby City Council .
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