How can Conversational AI help Scotland’s understaffed public sector
With many roles unfilled, human parity AI and process automation could help trouble-shoot essential service provision
In our conversation with Stevie Grier from Microsoft Scotland, and a public sector CIO and Consultant, Claudette Jones, we’re discussing how the workforce shortage is affecting Scotland’s public services and what to do about it (watch the recording here).
ICS.AI: How is the use of Conversational AI evolving in the context of the last couple of years?
Stevie Grier: When I think back to the case for AI and automation in pre-COVID times, we’ve already had some fantastic technology, but the business cases were predominantly based on how staff could do things differently. The goal was to be more efficient and redeploy people elsewhere, particularly in the public sector. In traditional environment, we would have gone from a paper-based process, digitise it, apply some form of artificial intelligence to it to make it more efficient. But due to COVID, suddenly, there was no one in the call centre to answer the calls, they're either at home or in a hybrid world. It created new challenges that affected service. The progression towards Conversational AI had to be refined.
ICS.AI: So, taking paper to digital and digital to AI. But what do you do in COVID times, when there was no one in the office to do the first part?
SG: It’s a fact, COVID heavily affected staff. We needed to ask ourselves - what can we offer those people that used to process the forms, either paper or digitally? Are they still there? Even organisation like Microsoft, who have an attractive brand and are competitive from the salary or benefits point of view, must make fairly big changes to our workforce, in terms of attracting people into certain roles. The public sector often doesn’t have the immediate funds available to attract people.
ICS.AI: That’s why technology itself is so important?
SG: AI technology and what it can do in the context of staff shortages had to evolve. And it has. It’s an amazing technology from a practical implementation perspective. And the transformations that you were able to drive with the team at ICS.AI, means its use is becoming a 'no brainer'. The critical events of the lack of staff, staff in different places, processes that had to be digitalized because of or during COVID. Considering these circumstances, application of this technology is now even more compelling, but also the technology itself must be better – quicker to deploy, easier to use and more efficient at driving consistent results.
ICS.AI: Claudette, given your experience in IT, what’s your take on the Conversational AI’s role in combating staff shortages in the specific context of the public sector?
Claudette Jones: I have been in IT for 30 years. And in the last 10 years, most of the organisations I have been in, have been deploying either process automation, or more recently Conversational AI. I recognise the public sector staffing challenges. We can't offer the most competitive salaries, but we can make the jobs interesting. Using process automation, we take some of the drudge off people. The issues with recruitment are severe. There are organisations with 10% of the roles unfilled, the reason being the vacancies not being viewed as desirable. And the way to face it, particularly in the admin and IT areas, is to use intelligent automation instead.
ICS.AI: We have worked together at Abertay University. You were instrumental in the project. Can you talk a bit about how that relationship started?
CJ: The Abertay project started at the high-level vision for digital transformation. They wanted some help turning it into an actual strategy, which is why I was brought in. You don't normally start a digital strategy by seeing what technology is available, but staff really wanted to research what’s out there first. We decided to run an ‘Art of the Possible Day’, and we sent a notice out to the entire market, describing what innovative solutions we were interested in. We received about 80 responses. We selected suppliers to come and present at the Innovation Day. This allowed me to run a quick mini competition on the spot, which made the process faster, especially for a public sector institution.
ICS.AI: Why did you end up choosing us?
CJ: We wanted Conversational AI that could actually do things. You offered process automation within the solution. We felt that ICS.AI had the entire picture, both the Conversational AI part and the process automation part. The Abertay IT team is great, but they're small and don’t have the bandwidth to implement it themselves. To create an entire machine learning system is quite a feat. To plan and monitor where it fits in is another. We decided to buy it off the shelf from somebody who understood it and could implement that for us. What was important as well was that, if we decided later that we wanted to create our own algorithms, we would have the ability to do that.
ICS.AI: You are right, when in the process of digital transformation, customers often wonder where AI fits in. They might be worried about the effort involved in participating in the project - if I am no AI expert, will this add value? But, when we look at the Abertay project, AI played a role at the immediate start of the transformation. With cloud implementations and the great Microsoft foundation most of the public sector customers already have in place, we're good to go. Then customers can expand into new use cases, driving the value up even further. What else is something you must think about before starting an AI project?
CJ: There's a question that keeps coming up. And let's say I have implemented this in a few places now. Both people in the business and academics wonder; should I not fix my processes first?
ICS.AI: You don't. One of the great things we can provide is, we shield your users from the complexity. All they need to know is how to chat. It’s our job to connect that conversational experience to the organisation’s knowledge. As you’ve gone through your transformative activities, you can switch to the new environment. True, the user might get a slightly different user experience, but to be fair, if you've trained them on a conversational experience to begin with, you won’t face a problem of training your end user.
CJ: Exactly, and this reminds me, every sector has their own ecosystem. For Conversational AI to be able to serve in this ecosystem and support existing staff, its needs to know and recognise that questions that are being asked and even learn from them. Choosing a vendor of Conversational AI, you need to consider their experience in that regard – do they have a language model that will enable their product to work within your ecosystem. And ICS.AI does.
ICS.AI: It’s a very valid point. AI language model connected with the process automation is absolutely the way to go. Those two things are what will drive successful transformation.
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As an AI vendor, we are exclusively focused on the public sector. This means that our Conversational AI is built for higher education and further education with universities and colleges, local government councils, central government and the health sector institutions. We are very close to the staffing challenges the sector is experiencing, and so, we’re always exploring ways for Microsoft’s technology to help solve them.