Reimagining the way councils work

Andrew Grant, CEO of Aylesbury Vale District Council, recently addressed the AWS Public Sector Transformation Day, where he outlined the journey the council has made from a traditional inwardly focussed council to an innovative, forward thinking and commercially orientated organisation. Digital by Default shares the best of that presentation

Addressing a room packed full of leaders and decision makers from across the public sector, Andrew started his presentation by saying: “Cloud has broken the model of computing and introduced the fourth industrial revolution. Free from the hard drive and the desk, it has reconfigured customer service forever. The cloud alone isn’t digital and digital alone isn’t business transformation, but together they can help solve the pains we face.”

He went on to explain how, back in 2011, facing drastic service cuts and rising service costs, Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC) was facing extinction in less than five years, so it had to rapidly increase income and change our business model.

“We had to expand our model to meet the needs of our citizens,” he told the audience. “We had to obsessively focus on our customer and provide value propositions and products that they wanted to see in their lives, so that we could build a business with £100m of revenue whilst delivering statutory services that always had to remain free, whatever the cost.

“We also had to energise our people to create a commercial mindset and amend behaviours that could deliver true cultural change. We had to leverage the trust in the council, from as wide an audience as possible. And, most importantly, we relied on digital to move us from an inward-facing organisation to one that inhabited the personal orbit of each and every customer so that we could understand their pains and gains and their expectations in real time and ahead of time.”


Cloud as the facilitator

Andrew went to on talk about migrating to the cloud facilitated this development and shift in culture.

“The cloud breaks you free from the ground, from the server room, the desk, the building you’re in, from maintenance and from the software providers who stay with you until their legacy software is obsolete. With your data managed, secured and directed anywhere you want when you need it, via the cloud, you can easily scale your offer up and down, you can practice different methods – and fail faster I might add! – you can reduce your infrastructure and staffing costs and shift the financial mindset from capex to opex. It also allows you to direct resources to your business imperatives and free your staff to work whenever they choose and from wherever they choose to be. It provides you with a great operating platform and reconfigures business strategy.”

The AVDC development timeline:

  • 2010 – Agreed move to the cloud
  • 2013 – Moved to AWS and SaaS Model
  • 2015 – Launched My Account
  • 2016 – Launched web chat
  • 2017 – Launched AI Digital Genius & Alexa

“In 2010 we adopted a strategy to be ‘infrastructureless’ within five years and entered the Amazon Web Services Cloud in 2013, two years earlier than planned. This wasn’t just about efficiency – this was about world class customer service.

“Our partner, Arcus Global, literally wrote our customers into the model and, in 2015, we launched a retail-like My Account, where customers had their data, could self-serve at their convenience and which offered a great platform for service offers – all of sudden we could set council tax benefits, local taxi drivers could book their MOT, a special bin collection could be ordered or a missed collection reported. It’s the Martini principle – the belief that customer service should be enjoyed any time, any place, anywhere. Above all else though, it was a direct channel to our customers for the future.”


Continuing the transformation

Andrew continued his presentation by discussing how, in 2016 AVDC launched web chat, which extended the council’s operating hours well into the evening. In 2017 it then piloted AI Digital Genius, which had previously only been used in the private sector with companies such as KLM, on its email webchat channels to give agents machine learning of past history so that faster responses could be given to customers. Most excitingly according to Andrew, the council recently launched a skill on Amazon Alexa, providing voice activated access to My Account.

Moving on to discuss the benefits of cloud transformation, Andrew said: “The benefits of our work seemed clear and obvious but, in a recent Eduserv survey, it was discovered that 90% of all councils have no penetration into the cloud. Paradoxically, they also found that over 50% of councils had a cloud migration strategy. Is this lag or mission creep? What’s the reason for the caution or the concern?

“Something is holding councils back but, for me, the benefits are clear. Of the £16m savings we’ve achieved or income that we’ve generated in the past five years I estimate that over £6m of that has been through digital. A smaller office footprint, flexible staff working, paying only for what you use, and deploying staff in different ways have all contributed to savings.”

Some of the numbers from AVDC:

  • £6m saved over five years
  • 43,700 residents signed up to My Account – out of 75,000 households.
  • 1,500 webchat enquiries every month

Andrew continued: “Crucially, as I mentioned earlier, we now have a direct way of contacting citizens. I can call over 43,000 people to tell them that waste trucks won’t be heading out because it’s too icy, rather than using a newsletter that nobody would read.

“When we first launched web chat we had 49 conversations in the first month. Now we have 1,500 enquiries a month. Our agents can deal with five web chats in one go, costing 15p per chat versus one phone call costing £2.25 per call. Web chat has reduced our overall phone traffic by 20% and in our high-volume areas such as waste or benefits, that reduction is more like than 40%. But above all else, it means we’re serving people faster and better. One lady called us to say that she was deaf and could now communicate with us independently, without having to ask her husband to do it. That’s incredibly liberating.

“With AI Digital machine learning we’ve found that response times have reduced by up to 50% from 15 minutes per enquiry to 6 to 8 minutes.”

Andrew concluded by saying: “For me, while all of the technology behind it is wonderful, our advancements are all about driving the AVDC business. It’s important to point out that digital is nothing if it doesn’t fit into the purpose of your business. If you don’t think it’ll work, don’t spend any money on it.

“However, use digital technology correctly and you can leverage customer loyalty, improve their trust and delight those customers by providing needs ahead of time. It’s about making your customers have a better day. Do that and your business will thrive too.”

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