Technological advances promise major opportunities to improve local government, but there are doubts about whether the sector is able to take advantage of them
- Greg Bunnage, ICT systems manager, Kent CC
- Andrew Cox, Head of service transformation, Watford BC
- Nick Golding, editor, LGC (roundtable chair)
- Emel Morris, chief information officer, Central Bedfordshire Council
- Ian Robson, business development manager, Pythagoras
- David Tidey, head of IT, Richmond upon Thames LBC and Wandsworth LBC
- Alison Waller, managing director, Tricuro
- Scott Warren, business development executive, Pythagoras
Not too long ago, David Tidey and his colleagues were approached with a thought-provoking offer: would they like to use a data analysis tool which made it possible to identify residents soon likely to struggle to pay their rent?
It was a proposition from a reliable source – a company partnered with the technology behemoth that is Microsoft – and one which could not fail to grab the attention.
“They claimed they could take our data and then predict who was going to go into rent arrears. And we thought that was really interesting,” says Mr Tidey, head of IT at Richmond upon Thames and Wandsworth LBCs.
It was a notable proposal, certainly, but one the likes of which is becoming more common as the march of artificial intelligence makes detailed analysis of large datasets ever more viable.
AI generates much excitement and interest. The dream of technology being able to intelligently carry out mundane tasks – and quickly spotting patterns invisible to humans, so allowing a speedy intervention – is a seductive one, and perhaps especially so within local government.
Yet Mr Tidey and his colleagues ultimately decided not to go ahead with that rent arrears tool.
“We weren’t quite sure why we would do with the information,” he says. “Knocking on someone’s door and saying I think you’re going to go into rent arrears next month is not a good conversation starter. We weren’t sure how we would action that.”
Mr Tidey offered the reflection at LGC’s latest roundtable. Held in association with Pythagoras, the debate focused on the potential of AI in local government. And in the story of the use – or not – of this rent arrears tool lay a much broader tale about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
The consensus was that technological development, including AI, can and will make a difference. But there was also consensus that local government may not yet be in a position to fully harness such benefits.
It was an argument summarised by Ian Robson, business development manager at Pythagoras. “There’s a lot of -excitement about AI and there’s a lot of obvious potential. If the machines do the mundane tasks, you quite patently -obviously can release more sensitive staff to do casework -engagement, to do things which require skills, empathy, things which machines are not good at,” he said.
“A lot of local authorities find themselves in a situation where they’re getting quite excited about things like bots and chat bots, but those can’t have any real benefit unless you’ve got well established processes behind them. Therefore you can have a situation where you’re using AI seemingly to facilitate requirements from the public, acknowledging that requirement, but if you don’t have the mechanism to deliver what has been asked for, or indeed what is required, you have a broken solution.”
The process issue rang true for many around the table. Emel Morris, chief information officer at Central Bedfordshire Council, characterised her organisation as “right of the start of the journey” on artificial intelligence. “We’re looking at opportunities and learning from others,” she said.
“But the point about process is really key for us and it’s a big piece of work that we’ve got under way at the moment. I don’t feel we can make the next step until we’ve gone through and reviewed and improved our processes.”
In Alison Waller, the panel had a participant who has already completed some of that sort of work. The managing director of social care provider Tricuro – a local authority trading company owned by Dorset Council and Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council – spoke of the groundwork around an electronic care planning system introduced two years ago.
“It [the system] captures data and tells us where people are at risk,” she said. “The challenge we’ve got now is to work with the development company and create that platform to be much more artificially intelligent, and to give us intelligence data which says: actually this person is at risk, but why are they at risk, and what is the prevention strategy.”
“We’re doing that. But we’ve spent a huge amount of time standardising data capture. Previously: ‘Had a drink of water’ could have had 20 different descriptions. So we had to say what’s the one description of this task or intervention, of what’s happening.”
It was necessary to “go back to basics” in some other ways too. “I made some assumptions that with training and rollout and usage, people would just crack on and pick this platform up,” Ms Waller admitted. “But I would say an average of 30% of the system was being used across all our of care homes.”
It brought the debate on to an important issue – even if local authorities implemented advanced technology tomorrow, would staff be willing to embrace its use?
Greg Bunnage feared not, reporting challenges in what he saw as a relatively simple move within his organisation from ‘traditional’ phones to Skype. “Sometimes technology is too far off what our businesses can actually take in and utilise,” said Mr Bunnage, ICT systems manager at Kent CC.
While Ms Morris reported a different experience when it came to supplying new technology for council employees – “we’ve just been through a programme of providing new devices for people to work with, and there was a real appetite for new technology, new kit and services; we underestimated the level of skill in the organisation” – she did emphasise the need for a careful introduction.
“I think you do get the suspicions, and changing the way people operate and the way they use technology is a significant challenge. It really is.
“Starting small, proving the point, and getting people to come on the journey with you – culturally for us in Bedfordshire that’s often the best way to embed a new approach. We start small, prove it works, demonstrate the outcomes, the positive benefits, and then let that grow with some guidance.”
She said the adult social care department had been particularly enthusiastic in adopting new devices now the advantages have been proven – to the extent that staff use their embrace of technology as a tool to attract recruits.
It was something Ms Waller suggested could helpfully be done more. “For us in social care, and in health, and in children’s services, one of the major issues we face is recruitment. I often talk at meetings and say if we could double our workforce, we could double the care delivery. There is so much demand out there, so how do we attract a younger workforce that will be committed to work in health and social care and children’s services?”
Part of the answer, she said, could be technology. “Through introducing systems, and different ways of working, that’s more exciting to people. We’ve got to get away from the traditional view of how things are delivered across a lot of services in order to attract the right people for the future. Because we’ve got a massive gap in terms of the demographics in this country. And we’ve got think more intelligently.”
Part of that could, she said, be highlighting that technology can enable more time with patients and clients and less time with paperwork. But she also hoped it might attract those who might not otherwise have considered a career in care.
“One approach could be attracting people who are attracted to technology. What we want to do is talk to those people who have considered care already, but we also want to attract a whole different workforce and help them see how care is changing.”
And as highlighted by Scott Warren, business development executive at Pythagoras, many of us are already living with advanced technology – including AI – as part of our non-work lives.
“You think about if you go on your phone, you’ve got a recommended app, you go on your smart TV and you’ve got recommended shows, you’ve got predictive text – it’s all an AI feature. So actually a first step could be understanding what you do have,” he said.
But as technology marches on, that understanding will need to develop further still – and is likely to have involve a careful consideration of ethics and governance. Certainly worries about quite how information is being safeguarded, and just what councils propose to do with it, seems likely to be a challenge that will have to be surmounted if AI is to achieve wider use.
These are worries that Andrew Cox said have had to be considered at Watford BC, which is seeking to use technology to support more efficient parking enforcement. “Rather than walking up and down the road to try to find cars that are parked that shouldn’t be,” he said, “we hopefully will be able to use sensor technology to identify where we think there are vehicles that are parked illegally and therefore we need to enforce.”
When private sector organisations were asked to present their possible solutions, some proposed GPS tracking. “We rejected that, because actually that gives you ability to track. And we don’t want to track people, we just want to know that vehicle in the space is allowed to be there; if it’s got a token or if it hasn’t got a token and so might not be allowed to be there.”
It was an example, he suggested, of how carefully councils need to think through possible consequences of collecting or using data in new ways. “We need to do that right at the beginning, because those are the questions I’m sure I’m going to get from residents.”
For now, it seems likely that most councils’ use of technology and artificial intelligence will be concentrated in this sort of realm of gathering new data or improving existing information.
As Mr Cox put it: “I think at the moment we’re much more on the side of getting better data and information, and using machines to give us that, rather than ‘make decisions based on machines’. I don’t think we’re there yet. From our point of view, that’s quite a long way down the line.”
Mr Tidey agreed. “I’m not sure we’re really there yet, with really true AI that’s learning,” he said. But the intended path of travel is clear, and he argued consideration of such issues – and the importance of an audit trail, even for machines – is worthwhile.
“If you’re using AI to actually make a decision about an individual, say a benefits claim, and then the individual says I want to challenge that, how do you know what the black box has done to make that decision? You need an audit trail.
“I think there are whole areas where AI is moving into the decision making that have got to be thought through very carefully.”
In bringing the event to a close, LGC editor and roundtable chair Nick Golding asked whether panellists felt “optimistic” about AI and the opportunities it presents in local government. And despite Mr Tidey’s caution about future challenges, he said he was in no doubt of the potential benefits.
“I think we have to be optimistic,” he said. It’s going to be a journey, and I suspect it won’t end up where we think it might end up. But it will be interesting.”
Ms Morris said she too was an optimist, both about AI in the councils represented around the table and for the technology more broadly.
“I think it will happen. At what pace and to what extent is really down to us as local authorities.”