Local Digital Project: Chatbots and AI

Full Application

Full discovery application for the Local Digital Fund

Project title: Can chatbots and AI help solve service design problems?

Lead applicant:Oxford City Council

Neil Lawrence, Digital Development Manager (nlawrence@oxford.gov.uk)

Partner organisations involved

Question 1: Summary of proposal for the common problem you want to solve*

What is the problem you are seeking to address in the discovery phase, and what are your main objectives for this project? [max 1500 characters]

There is a drive amongst local authorities to embrace the potential opportunities provided by AI and chatbots as a means to improve service to their customers, solve complex issues in service delivery and release efficiencies through reduced staff resource requirements.

However, there are problems for local authorities looking to adopt these solutions;

This discovery project aims to resolve these problems by delivering;

In pursuing this it will also;

Question 2: How you will approach the problem*

Tell us how you plan to deliver this project, mentioning:

[max 2000 characters]

As a collection of councils we have differing levels of experience of working using Agile techniques, and none have knowledge of using chatbots or AI for solving service issues.

We will use the Digital Marketplace Outcomes and Specialists framework to find a digital agency partner with suitable knowledge and experience to help guide the project, ensure a consistency of approach across the partner councils, guide the user research and undertake background research.

Specifically, the successful agency will;

Managing delivery timescales

There are 81 working days (from announcement to delivery date) for the project to run, so an effective work plan is essential. This will be managed by the lead authority (Oxford City Council)

We will begin preparing our Digital Marketplace requirements shortly after submission of this application to ensure the procurement can start immediately after.

The procurement will consume up to 4 weeks of the available time, during which time other non-dependent activities can be scheduled. This will include recruiting user research participants and reserving

The scope of the project has been scaled to address the time available (8 weeks), for instance by limiting the service user research to four areas. This will allow for up to three councils to collaborate on each area to get a wider spread of user research and identify benefits wider than a single authority.

Using a ‘publish as we progress’ approach will mean that deliverables will be created during the course of the project as well as at its conclusion. Time will be set aside in the project plan to ensure this takes place.

The project milestones will be;

Deadline Event/Activity Milestone
3 December 2018 Decision announcement Publish requirements on Digital Marketplace Project started
10 December 2018 Launch project website Scheduled blog posts commence Communication started
4 January 2019 Digital agency appointed Procurement completed
7 January 2019 Project kick off meeting arranged with project partners, Formalised understanding between project partners, Briefing on project approach by agency Onboarding complete
14 January 2019 Core team established, people allocated to the project, Data analysis, information gathering on the service areas for each partner, Initial customer journey maps developed Team formed and ready to start, Discovery Baselining and data gathering completed
28 January 2019 Undertake first user research round User research round 1 completed
11 February 2019 Undertake second user research round User research round 2 completed
18 February 2019 Overall summary of user research compiled User research summary completed
31 January 2019 Undertaken market summary of chatbot technology Technology summary published
19 February 2019 Explored feasibility of a common platform for localgov Common platform report published
14 March 2019 Framework business case used to evaluate the service area studies Business case results published
29 March 2019 Write up and share the project findings: - Final report and recommendations - Case studies Discovery outputs produced and shared

A full project plan has been developed in Smartsheet for tracking through the project delivery stage and is available at


Question 3: Benefits to the local government sector*

Describe the current cost of the problem you’re looking to address, and highlight the benefits that could be achieved for local people and public service providers if your project is successful (e.g. avoid staff re-keying a lot of data or applicants waiting too long to receive a service).

[max 2000 characters]

Chatbots and AI are being considered by councils across a broad range of service areas but work on these is not shared, with any user research not visible, the business cases not shared and the outcomes not published. For councils wishing to start work in this area they, effectively, have to start from scratch, replicating work already undertaken. This can’t be easily quantified but the shared outputs of this project will help minimise them and reduce cost

The chosen areas for research and their key service enquiries are;

The potential benefits for each of these areas is set out below

Planning advice

In 2017/18 Oxford City Council received 2,154 planning applications online and 3,929 planning application comments online, so the propensity for using online services for planning is high.

Currently the planning service funds a planning advice drop-in service for the public for 3 hours each day (equivalent to 105 person days per year) using a qualified planning officer. Estimated costs for this are 0.41FTE (or £15,400 per annum) which could be released. Service could be extended beyond the current delivery hours using an alternative delivery method.

The current guidance available to the public via the Planning Portal (https://www.planningportal.co.uk/info/200234/home_improvement_projects) is lengthy, confusion and includes an interactive diagram that fails to adequately answer simple questions. Using a common chatbot, or set of chatbots here, could improve this service and deliver benefits much wider than the councils involved in this application

Highways Defect reporting and enquiries

72,000 visitors on average per year visit Surrey County Council Highways web pages to report defects. Between January 2018 and November 2018 there has been an increase in Highways demand with this figure already up to 82,000. One of the challenges for engagement with citizens through digital channels is drop off rates. For example from the first page to the confirmation page only 21% of visitors complete reporting a defect. Our data shows that 5.3% of the visitors exit the journey by clicking to the “contact us” page. Assuming that these visitors are calling the contact centre to report those defects, this equates to 4,350 avoidable calls per year. This is reflected as 0.5 FTE additional costs to the contact centre which could potentially be released. Moreover, quality and availability of service to our residents can be improved if digital assistant chatbots could help our residents to find out the right information in the first place and guide them through the process 24x7 – improving citizen experience and make savings.

In addition to Highways defect reporting, 62% of the visitors who drop off from the Roads and Transport landing page are also potential opportunities for avoidable calls to our contact centre. These general highways enquiries to our 1st line contact centre can readily be responded by chatbots and there is also an opportunity that we can investigate in this discovery work. This opportunity could be extended to more specialist 2nd line service contacts in the future, meaning more savings throughout the value chain by reducing the time spent on responding to enquiries.

Waste and recycling enquiries

Doncaster Council currently receives about 95,000 waste enquiry phone calls per annum which makes up a third of all phone contact despite a good online offer regularly promoted. This is equivalent to about 8 Customer Service Advisors at a cost of approximately 191k per annum during the working hours 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday. Therefore, the use of chatbots could contribute to the release of resource but also extend this to a 24/7 service.

Revenues and Benefits

There are a number of strands where we could use chatbots in the Redditch Borough Council and Bromsgrove District Council Revenues and Benefits Team (Shared Service) :

1. Recovery of Council Tax and Sundry Debts

We issue approximately 50,000 recovery notices per year across the authorities. These notices drive extensive demand into the council with call volumes increasing three fold in the days following issue.

A majority of recovery notices can be resolved through the application if business rules which will require limited interface between the customer and back office systems and then dependant on levels of debt, recovery history and payment methods, the call can be resolved through a simple payment arrangement of recovery inhibit.

The use of AI and chatbots can remove these simple calls from the process and allow complex cases to be passed quickly for evaluation by trained officers.

The issuing of recovery notices requires a minimum of 5 FTE to be available for fielding customer enquiries (approx. £125,000 pa).

2. Progress of benefit application and notification of change in circumstances.

The calls received into The HB services will be in relation to chasing claims, and proviso of information in relation to change in circumstances.

These calls require simple interrogation of back office systems to provide update on claim process and information to the customer on the actions that they need to take to progress claims. The equivalent of 1 FTE (approx. £25,000 pa) is utilised solely to field these enquiries.

We also have a fifth service area for research should time and capacity allow;


The licensing team in Cheltenham Borough Council are currently undergoing a digital transformation, to improve service efficiency and customer experience. Following the introduction of online forms, it would be beneficial to explore whether AI and chatbots could support full automation of certain elements of the licencing process, reduce the time spent on standard enquiries and improve the customer experience. Although no baseline data exists to understand how much time the licencing team spend on enquiries, if we were able to reduce time spent handling the validation of the existing 4000 licences, by half an hour, there is the potential to save approximately 2000 hours with an estimated value of £30,000. Prior to starting the research project data would be collected to confirm the current number of enquiries, in order to identify how this new technology would impact the frequency the licencing team answer emails and phone calls. An online survey would be included within the research to inform our understanding our customer’s response to the technology.

Other benefits will be delivered through the capability building as part of the work, with less reliance placed on suppliers to undertake user research . Train up person to be able to conduct in future

Question 4: Demonstrate how you’ll ensure your work is relevant to others*

Describe how you propose to collaborate with other councils in the development and delivery of shareable user research, benefits research and proposals to develop solutions in this phase of work.

[max 1000 characters]

The interest and involvement shown by the partner councils involved in this application also reflects the current issue that many smaller councils find themselves in: “how do we get started if we wish to use chatbots as a solution to a service issue?” The project will seek to address this with practical examples.

The large number of partner councils and their distribution across the country will make collaboration on project delivery more challenging.

We will use collaborative tools as we have to develop this application; using Google Docs for creating and sharing information, and Google Hangouts for our meetings.

We will create and update a blog throughout the project with each participating council posting their progress during discovery. A lightweight project website using GitHub will be set up early on to facilitate this, with access for publishing via a CMS interface

We will adopt an ‘open first’ approach to how we work, including any mistakes, to help others learn from our experience.

The outputs from the project will be published on our project website in a format that can ensure their re-use by others for their own discovery of alpha phases.

Q5 Impacts expected from funding*

Describe the outputs you expect to produce, making sure to mention the 3 required project outputs. Explain how you’ll ensure they’re ready to share online by the last week of the project.

You must mention:

[max 2000 characters]

By 29 March 2019 the project will have delivered;

Research methodology

We will use our digital agency to design an approach to information discovery for the participating councils to use in assessing chatbots/AI to deliver solutions for particular applications.

This will be captured in a series of templates that can be published and re-used by others. This will be an early deliverable of the project to guide the initial research work.

Business case

We will commission our digital agency to develop a framework for evaluating the suitability or otherwise of a particular application for developing into a chatbot or AI product. This will be in a format that other councils can download and complete with their own data

This framework will be used to examine the feasibility of the four service area cases, comparing old and new scenarios to arrive at a value for money evaluation for adopting the technology as a service design improvement.

Technology summary

Will will commission our digital agency to develop an overview of the potential technology solutions that are currently available with their individual advantages and disadvantages, and their applicability to different circumstances.

This will be in a form that can be updated and maintained by others to ensure the summary stays valid and useful to the sector. The work will be completed prior to the summary report so it can be used in the recommendations for next steps

Feasibility report

Following on from the technology summary, our digital agency will also examine the feasibility of developing a common platform for localgov to adopt, and which technology to pursue. This will be published as a report that will be used for the final recommendations in moving to an alpha phase.

User research reports

We will publish all outputs on our website on our user research from the four service areas, and will produce a final summary report in a format ready to be published on localdigital.gov.uk. The user research teams will make use of existing templates to present user research findings in a consistent way after every round of user research.

Summary report and recommendations

Our digital agency will produce a final report that either proposes how to take the individual projects forward to alpha stage or explains why each should not continue.

We have the last week of March reserved for this work to ensure that the deadline is met.

Case studies (use cases)

The outputs from our user research and business case analysis will be developed into four case studies to assist local authorities developing their individual business cases to save time and resource rather than duplicating research.

This will be developed in parallel to the summary report by each of the four service area leads in the last week of the project.

Question 6: User research and engagement*

Who are your users, how will you engage with them in the discovery phase and what are the proposed user research objectives?

[max 2000 characters]

User research will be used to;

For each of the four services chosen, the research will;

The users for each area will be;

Users will be recruited to the research process through;

The appointed digital agency will plan, direct and (where feasible) undertake the user research. They will also complete the summary of findings.

Question 7: Training needs

We’ve considered this question sufficiently answered in the expression of interests and will not repeat it in the full application form. We’ll circulate training registration information to successful candidates later in the winter.

Question 8: Additional support requirements for the project

Please use this section to mention any other support you would like us to provide above and beyond the award of grant funding, e.g. support from the Local Digital Collaboration Unit or support accessing the digital marketplace to secure specialist support. We can’t guarantee that we can fulfil your request, but we’ll try. We will use the answer you give in our evaluation of your bid.

[max 1000 characters]

We anticipate using the appointed digital agency to provide most of the support, direction and guidance required for the project.

Question 9: History of funding

Use this box to state that you have not been granted funding for this project in the past. Use the space below to provide information about any funding you have previously applied for to fund this project.

[max 1000 characters]

No funding has been provided for this project previously

Tick-box Question 10: Delivery of required outputs

Use this box to state that you commit to delivering the outputs listed in prospectus point 21 by the the end of March 2019. []_

Where fund beneficiaries have not submitted satisfactory outputs, advice will be given on what must improve to remain eligible for future rounds of funding.

Question 11: Team resources and your contribution to the project*

Outline the resource required to deliver this project in the table below, listing both those for which you’re applying for funding and those your organisation(s) will contribute. Lead applicants will be expected to adequately resource funded projects, ensuring that external support is procured on time, and all collaborators have budgeted the necessary time and money to make the project a success.

Resources required to deliver project

Resource Quantity required Total cost/value for this application Who will pay
Digital agency services, to include a range of specialisms Duration of the project £72,500 (maximum)* Local Digital Fund
Council project lead (partial backfill) 3 months £5,000 Local Digital Fund
Council project lead (partial backfill) 3 months £5,000** Oxford City Council
Project sundry costs (travel, materials, meetings) 3 months £2,500 Local Digital Fund
Council user research, meeting time, write-ups etc 3 months x 11 councils £22,000*** Partner councils

Total funding requested of MHCLG: £80,000 (maximum)

Total funding contributed by applicants:£27,000 (estimate)

*The actual costs of the digital agency procurement are unknown and will be procured as a complete package via the Digital Marketplace. The actual sum used will only be that required to undertake the work, leaving the remainder (if any) to be returned to Local Digital

**Payments in kind will be non-financial time contributions. Oxford City Council uses Timetastic to track time spent on projects. Development of the expression of interest and application to date has accrued 19 hours at a cost of £950.

***Estimate based on £2,000 per council of in-kind time contributions (excluding Oxford City Council) multiplied by the 11 participating councils