Council workers meet their new colleague –and she’s not human

Local council workers are preparing to welcome an unusual new colleague. Enfield Council will become the world’s first public sector organisation to deploy a cognitive agent to improve local service delivery.

The council will implement Amelia, a virtual agent built by IPsoft that is capable of analysing natural language, understanding context and applying logic. Amelia learns, resolves problems and even senses emotions.

The artificially intelligent agent will be put to work within Enfield Council later this year, with services due to be in operation from the autumn.

According to the North London council, Amelia has the capabilities to make it easier for residents to locate information and complete standard applications, as well as simplify some of its internal processes.

For example, the council is evaluating how Amelia can help visitors to its website to quickly find the correct information. Amelia will also provide self-certification for planning, making it possible to authenticate applications for permits and licences.

Amelia has been adopted in a wide range of roles in the US and Europe, but this is the first time this kind of technology will be deployed in the public sector.

Existing use cases of the AI agent – which IPsoft also pitches as a ‘digital employee’ – include managing IT service desk queries for a European bank, managing invoice queries from suppliers for a global oil and gas company, providing policy guidance to mortgage brokers for a high street bank, and assisting front-line customer service agents for a large media services organisation.

The deployment represents a significant milestone in Enfield Council’s overall digital strategy.

‘This is a very exciting opportunity to deliver better services to residents, without increasing costs,’ said Rob Leak, CEO at Enfield Council.

Enfield Council’s finance director, James Rolfe, adds, ‘Our approach to transformation embraces digital technology to find completely new ways of supporting residents, which, in turn, frees up valuable resources for reinvestment in front-line services.’

Rise of the machines

The council was introduced to the technology at a conference last year and immediately saw the potential for it to transform its service delivery.

There are already numerous AI solutions on the market, but Enfield Council was attracted to Amelia’s ability to interact with customers in a conversational tone.

The council’s IT team will provide Amelia with the knowledge she requires to autonomously undertake specific processes – mainly as an online presence that customers can interact with 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

‘She won’t necessarily ask prescribed questions from steps one to ten,’ says Tim Kidd, Enfield Council’s head of ICT. ‘She’ll ask the relevant questions in steps one to ten, based on how the conversation and interaction takes place with the customer.’

Enfield Council is also looking to trial Amelia on its internal intranet as an HR assistant to deal with employee advice, guidance and information.

Digital demand is a major challenge facing the public sector. The more services are digitised, the greater the demand gets for more online accessibility – particularly at times outside of typical nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday working hours.

But when customers can’t find the correct information online, they call telephone agents – and that can be a hefty drain on capital resources.

However, Enfield Council is very careful with its language. When asked what human processes Amelia will be replacing, Kidd prefers using words like ‘complementing’ and ‘aiding’.

He is also hesitant to expand on whether any cost savings were part of the council’s return-on-investment proposal for the deployment, preferring to focus on ‘the benefits it will provide to residents’ and the time it will free up for staff who deal with day-to-day, information-based interactions.

Indeed, as artificial intelligence becomes more integrated in workforces, organisations face the challenge of managing feelings of fear and uncertainty among their human employees. They’ll have no such issues with robotic additions to their workforce, of course.

Unfolding benefits

This culture change will be something that Enfield Council’s executive leadership team will keep an eye on as Amelia takes on more tasks. For now, Kidd is vague in his response: ‘The other benefits that could come with it will be built upon as we look at it on a case-by-case basis.’

Nevertheless, he is enthusiastic about the introduction of the council’s first cognitive employee, while also admitting to a feeling of ‘trepidation’.

‘The key is around messaging,’ he says. ‘This is an assistive technology that’s there to complement existing members of staff. It’s not here to replace jobs – it’s here to undertake a workload when staff aren’t here, such as 11pm on a Sunday.

‘In years to come, this sort of technology will be mainstream. And I think really this allows the council to get an early foothold in the technology and its use, especially in the areas we identified where we want to exploit it.’

He adds, ‘I think given the varying types of technology that are out there operating in this space, I expect a significant take-up over the course of the next five to ten years within the public sector as we try to cope with the increase in demand on services.’

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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