London Borough of Redbridge ‘Planbot’ goes live

London Borough of Redbridge has been working with Agile Datum, our specialist data sciences team, to develop the first AI enabled chatbot for planning applications.

And since launch, it’s already helping to free up the council planning team and cut turnaround times for planning validation services to just 24 hours.

We spoke with Brett Leahy, Head of Planning and Building Control at Redbridge Council, who has been leading on the project, to see what impact the technology has had on staff capacity and customer service.

Brett, what is a chatbot and what can it do?

Working with Agile Datum, we’ve developed an artificial intelligence-based chatbot, built on Microsoft Azure, that processes requests and administrative tasks automatically, giving staff the breathing room to focus on more complex tasks. 

The ‘Planbot’ has now gone live. Visitors to the Redbridge Council planning pages on the website can now communicate directly with the automated system. Over 200 planning requests and queries can be handled quickly with no human intervention, while more complex cases can be channelled efficiently through to the relevant department.

This has drastically cut costs and enquiry turnaround times, and given us much more flexibility with staff and resources, something which is vital for under pressure councils.

How have staff reacted?

It’s been fantastic and instant. Staff have reported a marked increase in time available for dealing with complex cases as they are not distracted by basic, time-consuming administrative tasks – the chatbot handles these.

Another bonus is that the chatbot can be used internally by call centre staff to find technical information without the need for training. This means that queries requiring specialist knowledge don’t get held up waiting for someone from a particular department to become available – customer call centre staff can look up what they need to know on the chatbot and relay this information to the customer. This is really useful if certain staff members are off sick or busy with other work.

Overall, the chatbot has given our staff extra time, flexibility and capacity for dealing with requests.

What lessons have you learnt so far about using AI?

The big takeaway is that AI gives staff more time and improves customer services at the same time.

This work, as part of a wider focus on this part of our service, means the timeframe of our planning validation service has been reduced from 3 weeks to 24 hours.

Staff have more capacity and headspace for complex cases, and are not distracted by having to process basic administrative tasks. 

The chatbot has given us the flexibility and resilience to deal with overwhelming workloads, staff sickness, ever-increasing call volumes and lack of resources. 

Staff are happier, and can move flexibly between departments using the chatbot to support them with technical knowledge that they don’t necessarily have. 

So what next?

AI-enabled chatbots are about adding a new dimension to your customer service that can run 24/7 and free up resources across your teams. Whether that’s in Waste, Highways, Social Care, or more generally supporting Customer Service teams, smart thinking and use of technology is going to be more vital than ever.

We are also watching very closely the progress of Agile Datum’s AI-enabled Planning Validation system that automatically analyses planning forms and drawings and helps us to quickly validate planning applications and keep citizens informed and engaged throughout the planning process. Construction and building development affect everyone in society, but citizens tell us that they struggle to navigate their way confidently around a multi-page planning document and drawings. 

By making the planning process more accessible, AI also has the power to make it more democratic. This can only be a good thing.

Final thoughts?

There is a general fear out there, and it’s understandable, that AI means job redundancies and a loss of human engagement. Our work with Agile Datum has proved the opposite.

With AI dealing with the background administration ‘noise’ at Redbridge, our staff are happier, less time-pressured and able to focus on more complex cases and greater citizen engagement.

The general ‘more-for-less’ attitude that is being pushed down onto local government is not going to go away. Our staff already work hard, but we also need to work smart. AI gives us the capacity to do this.

In my view, there is no longer a choice around this – councils simply must adopt AI strategies into their systems to keep meeting their targets and provide good customer service.

To find out more about Agile Datum’s latest work with local government and how chatbots can help your organisation in tough times, contact info@agileapplications.co.uk

Breaking news

We are already liaising with councils as we roll out  a specialist variant of our “Emergency chatbot”  to deal with coronavirus-related enquiries and the surge in more general enquiries – bin collection, schools etc. Please email  info@agileapplications.co.uk  for more information.

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