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February 2020
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Innovation on a shoestring

We are emerging from the worst recession in 60 years and plans to repair battered public finances are well underway. The news agenda continues to be dominated by gloomy predictions that further public sector jobs will be lost and service users will suffer. However, Brian Redpath, Director of Public Sector at Nuance Communications asks whether this is the right focus, right now.

While plans to reduce the deficit presents a herculean struggle over the next few years, we have a proven capacity to drive productivity gains, while reducing cost and improving employee satisfaction. With a practical focus on progress, tough times can bring forward innovation and a positive change to the way we work.

Just as Cabinet Minister Francis Maude said he would leave no stone unturned, we have an obligation to our public services to exploit all options, which include using the latest technology to fundamentally change the way citizens interact with government bodies. It’s not enough to bring the public sector up to par with the private enterprise. The public sector needs to lead in areas of modernisation, efficiency and excellence.

To a significant extent this will require government departments and agencies to enable their customers to self-serve, through the channel they prefer to use at the time most convenient for them. To do so, government must harness existing experience and technology to automate and improve everyday processes

In UK and around the world today, self-service on the telephony channel using speech and voice technology is widely deployed. For example, using speech recognition, conversion of text to speech and optionally the use of voice prints to identify an individual remotely and with confidence.

These capabilities have been combined and deployed at scale, significantly reducing the cost to serve, improving the customer’s experience and enabling much greater insight in to the business of service delivery, through real time capture of management information on the telephony channel

Centrelink, Australian’s Federal Government service delivery agency, offers 140 different products and services on behalf of 20 government agencies. It has over 6 million customers, processes 3.2 million new claims and over 300 million payments per annum. It can manage these calls and more through its speech enabled Interactive Voice Response (IVR) platform. Customers dial in via one of seven phone numbers, with calls ranging from compulsory income reporting, to queries about childcare benefit. They can be quickly authenticated and served, or given the opportunity to serve themselves. By investing in technology to deliver an efficient public service, Centrelink set a benchmark in best practice for other public sector organisations around the world to emulate.

There are plenty of opportunities for public services in the UK to benefit in a similar fashion, while cutting overheads. According to a Nuance commissioned report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (cebr), the public sector could save approximately £13 billion per year by appropriately automating more customer service calls.

The report also analyses third party sources and finds that staff absences are disproportionately higher in public sector call centres compared to the private sector, as well as below average in terms of the amount of time spent handling calls or doing follow-up work in relation to industry best practice.

Furthermore, as reported via the Cabinet Office web site in January this year, the annual fraud exposure to the Public Sector in UK is running at £21 billion pa. Some of this will be complex cases, but a proportion of this will be ad hoc manipulation of the system, with fraudsters taking advantage of the goodwill of agents in the contact centres. In Australia, there has been some research conducted suggesting that in around 40-50% of cases, an individual with a plausible story can socially engineer their way in to another person’s bank account. Self service on the telephony channel, delivered in a convenient, easy to use natural language method, is not susceptible to such trickery.

In summary, this is a watershed opportunity to fundamentally alter the very make-up of the public sector, for the better. Yes, difficult challenges lay ahead but those government departments and councils willing to grab the innovation initiative will set the agenda for the years ahead.

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