Region:Europe

Industry:Public Sector

Client:Surrey County Council

Improving citizen and employee experience with automation

Surrey County Council

60

automations

£600,000

annual savings

40,000

hours of manual work saved

Surrey County Council has a long history. Founded in 1889, it has a passion for making a difference to local people’s lives, aiming to deliver the best possible outcomes for residents. Its motto—no one left behind—is a powerful reminder of what similar organizations all over the UK strive for.

Achieving this isn’t easy. The demands on local authorities are rising thanks to greater expectations from the public and an aging population that needs evermore support. Yet central government funding for all councils has dropped. In short, the team in Surrey must do more with less.

The Council recognized the need to optimize its operations to meet increased demand while managing the reduced funding. To navigate this complex challenge, they embarked on a digital transformation program in 2018, aimed at driving efficiency and improving the experiences of residents and staff.

The onset of digital transformation, however, brought about a challenge—the intricacies of existing processes. Mehmet Kaynakci is the authority’s Principle Digital Consultant working on the transformation project. “The systems were finely customized to specific tasks, allowing for a level of specialization that had been critical to the council’s operations for years,” he explains.

The main challenge this presented was one of integration. The complex web of different systems the council had in place meant that they couldn’t ‘talk to each other.’ Kaynakci noted, “There were a number of complexities we had to consider. Ultimately, it was important to preserve the core strengths of each system while enabling them to interact seamlessly.”

With reduced funding, the Council didn’t have the luxury of ripping out all the software and starting again or introducing costly and complex APIs (coding that connects two systems at a software level). As a result, employees wasted time copying and pasting data from one place to another. This took time and resources but also increased the risk of errors and data discrepancies.

Automation steps in

That’s when automation appeared as a workable solution. “We thought hard about what our digital transformation would look like,” Kaynakci says. “We asked ourselves if automation could help us solve this issue.”

“We began with a prototype project in the pensions department to transfer data between systems. The goal was to automate an entire process end-to-end,” Kaynakci recalls. “However, it didn’t yield the results we had hoped.” Once again, legacy technology stood in the way.

Glen Bolton is the Council’s Automation Delivery Manager and Kaynakci’s colleague.

The process wasn’t right. There needed to be major modifications to the tech before it would work. The system was just too old, and we wasted valuable time trying to get it to a point where it was ready for automation.

Glen Bolton • Automation Delivery Manager at Surrey County Council

But all wasn’t lost. It taught the team an important lesson about automating an unsuitable or inherently flawed process. It also served as a catalyst for a new automation strategy, with the creation of a center of excellence (CoE) to ensure future implementations were effective.

“We used the CoE to help us identify and capitalize on ‘low-hanging fruits’, instead of focusing on complex processes,” Kaynakci continues. The goal was to target smaller processes that could deliver quick wins and tangible results, gaining the necessary buy-in from senior leadership. “We focused on more straightforward tasks that involved things like moving files, data, sending emails and so on.”

Paying it forward

One such automation took on a task associated with the Council’s payslip archiving system. Every month, staff inundated the IT help desk with password reset requests from people wanting to see their pay details. “The help desk had to manually request password resets on behalf of each employee,” says Bolton. “They reset the passwords and then emailed it back to staff. This was the perfect use case for us.”

A robot now seamlessly handles the process, allowing employees to access their payslips without delay, while significantly reducing the helpdesk’s workload. It was an instant success and provided the springboard to begin promoting automation across the organization. “People were skeptical at first, but we filled our pipeline as they learned more,” says Bolton.

Soon, the team had eight automations running.

We’d gained the credibility we needed and we were able to show operational benefits and value to the board.

Glen Bolton • Automation Delivery Manager at Surrey County Council

At this point, the C-Level executives and particularly the Chief Digital Information Officer gave their support, too. “They realized the Council could save a lot with automation,” Kaynakci remembers with a note of pride.

Buoyed by the success, the team continued its path, automating as many small-to-medium processes as it could. It now has 60 successfully running. This has slashed over 40,000 hours of manual work and produced £600,000 in annual cost savings.

Through automation, residents experienced a smoother and faster service from the Council, as processes across different systems were streamlined. Staff could shift their focus from routine tasks to more valuable ones, such as decision making, data analysis, or personalized engagement with its citizens.

But that’s just half the story. The real proof of success is the difference automation makes to people’s lives. Because behind every process is a person. A child needing care. A family without a home. A mother or father registering a birth. The work of a local authority sometimes can’t be measured in numbers.

Children in need

When asked which automation really stands out, Bolton picks up the story with passion. “It’s a robot for the social care team,” he begins. “One employee was solely responsible for processing forms that were used to assess adults and children in care.”

The process involved getting questionnaires from carers every few months, which were then evaluated with a score to decide if further help or intervention was needed. This was all done by hand, on printed forms.

Glen Bolton • Automation Delivery Manager at Surrey County Council

Understandably, most carers just didn’t have the time. They handed forms back, incomplete or not at all, delaying assessments and posing significant safety concerns for those in care. These incomplete questionnaires delayed other teams’ assessments too, causing a backlog of cases that needed to be reviewed.

“We needed to help. How could we help this sole worker, who was enormously passionate about what she was doing? She worked overtime, in the evening, and sometimes over weekends to make sure that these forms were processed and adults and children received the care they needed. But she couldn’t keep up.”

First, we needed to ensure that the process was automation ready. And to do that, we had to go from the printed form to a digital form. Once we’d created that, we were able to send links out to the carers directly. This made it easier for them to fill out via their laptop or mobile device.

Glen Bolton • Automation Delivery Manager at Surrey County Council

When a form was submitted, the automation triaged it, swiftly handling the collation, scoring, and data entry tasks, replacing hours of manual work in a matter of seconds.

Automation enhanced efficiency while alleviating the workload of an impassioned employee. “Eventually, she was able to move on to another team, leaving the robot in her place,” Bolton says. “She no longer had to work out of hours or sacrifice personal time to complete the assessments. She left the role knowing that the residents in need were in good hands.”

What the future holds

The success of these cases has seen more departments approaching the team, looking for help and savings. There’s also been a notable improvement in employee morale, too, with many no longer feeling the “Monday blues” as Bolton puts it. “The beginning of the week is less daunting when robots are here to help,” he smiles.

The Council now has ambitious plans for AI to take on legacy technology. Kaynakci says AI will also allow for automation of customer-facing processes. “This will further streamline operations and improve service delivery,” he concludes.

Bolton finishes the story by suggesting some advice for other local authorities considering automation. “Avoid starting with overly complex processes,” he says from experience. “Starting small with simpler tasks will allow for a smoother transition and build confidence in the technology. Particularly when looking to gain approval from employees.”

And never automate a bad process. You’ll waste all your time and resources fixing it when it falls over.

Glen Bolton • Automation Delivery Manager at Surrey County Council

Which is good advice coming from an organization that’s been through a steep learning curve to achieve some notable successes.

Automation remains a priority for Surrey County Council, enabling it to deliver enhanced services, improve efficiency, and empower its workforce as it continues its digital transformation journey. All of which will help it meet its goal of leaving no one behind.

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