How Caerphilly council plans to use virtual employees to improve local services

Caerphilly council says that it has become the first local authority in Wales to adopt a virtual 'employee' as part of a new automation strategy.

This project, which is provided by Thoughtonomy's robotic process automation (RPA) technology, supports the council's plans to deploy digital workers as it journeys into a wider modernisation strategy.

In collaboration with the UK-based AI software firm, Caerphilly council aims to use the virtual workers to digitise services across the council, including some aspects of back-end IT but as well as customer service for its residents.

"Prior to us arriving both of those areas were operated in what I would diplomatically describe as a more traditional sense than we would like," Richard Edmund, corporate director for education and corporate services at Caerphilly Council told Computerworld UK. "I think we've tried to get hold of those functions and begin the process of transforming them into areas of striving for business for the local authority, rather than just supporting it.”

The strategy will support the council's aim to improve customer satisfaction, while also providing current employees with flexibility.

"Our plans are not limited in any way," said Edmund. "The early part of this arrangement will see us transform some pretty significant functions, and that will give us the business case and the evidence to take that journey forward ... we've got a cabinet viewing in Caerphilly that are not interested in taking baby steps.

"They don't want to catch up with the rest, they want to take a giant leap forward. I think the kind of literature I've been reading would suggest that many sectors and businesses are looking at intelligent automation as a future mechanism for delivering services."

According to the council, the virtual employees will be made available 24 hours a day, giving human staff the ability to focus on more complex tasks yet in a more efficient and easier manner. The idea is that staff will remain in their jobs and work with the technology, rather than be replaced by it.

Read next: How an NHS Trust adopted 'virtual workers' to process GP referrals

Why Thoughtonomy?

The choice to deploy virtual workers was one made as part of the organisation's newly developed automation strategy. At the same time the council wanted to make "the customer the heart of everything that we do".

"This is a learning journey for us as an organisation, and as individuals," said Liz Lucas, head of customer and digital at Caerphilly Council. "It's something that hasn't been done locally around us so we needed somebody that we felt we could trust and take us up to speed, while giving us the ample support that Thoughtonomy certainly give us, so that's what really drew us to them."

"We wanted to work with the company in partnership to help us drive this new way of working within Caerphilly, and after going to the marketplace and speaking to a number of people, Thoughtonomy felt like the organisation that would be able to assist us," she said.

See also: Enfield Council brings in artificial intelligence to deliver local government services

The plan is that Caerphilly's partnership with the company will also help to transform areas across the organisation that had previously been overlooked, such as back-office functions, although it was not specified what these would be at this time.

"It's really about a more intelligent use of our resources and the ability to meet those in demand as and when they arise," Edumund added.

"One thing that I liked about the Thoughtonomy offer was the concept that we wouldn't need to repeatedly return to them asking for the next process, or for it to be automated, so working alongside them and transferring that knowledge internally, particularly across our customer and digital functions will allow us to do it ourselves.

"The virtual workers will know the business and can be trained in the process of automation to keep this building at a rate that we couldn't possibly do if we were reliant on an external provider to do that on our behalf," he said.

Next steps

Caerphilly has an ambition to spread its use of intelligent automation across several service areas. This will include a workshop with Thoughtonomy to analyse the different ways its automation technology can help to improve both the council's compliance and quality of business.

"That forms quite a strong part within our new digital strategy that we're developing," Lucas explained. "Training, staff capabilities and modernisation of our current workforce is one of the key elements that we need to address going forward."

Alongside this, the council hopes to embrace new methods of working that will improve its IT and customer services and, as a result, encourage other authorities to try new things.

"We're moving towards a brand new operating model as a council and surprisingly there's a transformation model running alongside all of this," Edmund said. "I genuinely feel that this technology and this approach could completely revolutionise the way that services are delivered in local government, particularly in Wales."


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