Back-office automation can meet the challenges faced by local authorities

Local authorities  need to automate their back-office processes to increase efficiency and help free-up vital resources, says Debra Maxwell.

A radical rethink on service delivery is required to help meet the challenges of budgetary challenges and welfare reform. Many authorities have already got the ball rolling, making online the default channel for citizens to make business rates and council tax payments, for example. However, while transformational change across front line services is vital, the same is also required in the back-office in order to make sure systems and processes are as efficient as they can possibly be. In the search for new approaches, councils need to strongly consider Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a central part of their solution.

Automated processing uses software to replicate a wide range of administrative processes where speed and accuracy are vital, and follows rule-based business processes and interacts with pre-existing systems in the same ways that humans do. These processes can range from signing people up to council tax direct debit payments and indexing documents, to manually uploading information and integrating documents across several disjointed back-office platforms.

Given the improvements automation delivers in terms of speed and accuracy, there’s little surprise the technology holds significant appeal within revenues collection, for example. We’ve found that by implementing RPA in our local government partnerships, processes such as direct-debit sign up can be completed eight times quicker with 100 per cent accuracy, delivering significant efficiencies while taking away the risk of human error.

Freeing-up resources for business-critical work

As well as its efficiency, the appeal of automated processing also lies in its ability to provide a virtual workforce to handle the administrative burden of mundane, transactional work. This is particularly significant due to the recent raft of welfare reforms, such as Universal Credit, which has resulted in the revenues and benefits function becoming increasingly resource-heavy.

As a result, we’re seeing teams being put under mounting pressure to redirect their time and effort to handle the growing number of complex enquiries from the public. Stretching resources in this manner can have a negative impact on the services citizens receive.  Introducing a virtual workforce can help free-up staff to deal with these business-critical issues.

Another example of where this technology can make a real difference is in maximising collections. Last October’s announcement that councils would be able to retain all the money earned through business rates by 2020 raised the bar significantly. Introducing automated processing across the back office function will help free up collections officers to investigate business rates and council tax fraud, which could lead to more funds being raised and then redirected into improving public services.

Given the potential for the technology to make a real difference across revenues, there is no reason to suggest this couldn’t be replicated across other council departments. Within benefits for example, decisions on discretionary housing payments, will always require a large element of human judgement. However, automated processing could deliver all the transactional aspects, such as changes in circumstances including family or address, allowing staff to focus more time on the decision making side of the job.

Overall, the introduction of automated processing across the entire back office is a key development for the future of local government. Not only can it deliver new, much-needed efficiencies and ensure greater information accuracy, but it will also enable more time and effort to be focused on key council priorities and strategy needed for the years ahead.

With austerity set to remain until at least the next parliament, the grip of financial pressure is unlikely to ease and the job of providing efficient public services is going to become increasingly tough. Forward-thinking councils should now be looking to radically transform their management, organisation and delivery, and automated processing technology should be a key component of any solution.

Debra Maxwell, is chief executive  of CRM and public sector, UK & Ireland at business process outsourcing firm Arvato

Colin Marrs

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