Case study: Why GenAI is taking off in local government

Barnsley has become one of the first councils to roll out generative AI (GenAI) tools across its entire organisation as part of a six-month trial of Copilot for Microsoft 365, which it hopes will take some of the heavy admin load off staff.

Local councils have become perhaps an unexpected testing ground for GenAI as they search for cost savings and productivity gains.

The public sector is often seen as risk-averse because it’s spending public money and caring for some of the most vulnerable people in society, which creates a massive sense of responsibility, said Wendy Popplewell, executive director of Core Services at Barnsley Council.

“But that shouldn’t stifle our creativity,” she told Computer Weekly. “People would always be surprised to learn that innovation happens in the public sector – well, actually, it’s got to. We’ve got no other option. We’ve got some really tough challenges, and we have to deliver our services. So, the only thing we can do is innovate.”

Popplewell said the council is still delivering all of the same services it did 10 or 12 years ago, but with probably half the budget and half the people.

“We are always trying to find ways of using the resources in the best way we can, but also looking after the workforce a bit,” she said. “They are trying to do the best they can with what we’ve got, and the demands are getting greater.

The council started with a trial of about 300 Copilot licences late last year. “We offered them out to basically anybody who wanted one, and I think that attracted the early adopters who wanted to use it straight away,” said Popplewell.

Return on investment

In January, access to Copilot was extended to all council staff who have a laptop – around 2,300 people – as part of a six-month trial of the GenAI technology. The idea is to see what use cases staff come up with, and whether the council can get a return on the investment it’s making in AI.

“We need to make sure we are getting bang-for-buck out of this technology, and we are using this six months to do that,” she said.

The council is already halfway through the trial, and Popplewell said Copilot is being used by about 60% of the staff who have access to it. That figure is higher than she had expected, with departments including corporate services, public health, and children’s and adults’ social care leading the way.

The council has 180 staff who volunteer as Copilot champions, which it calls “flight crew”, who can help less confident staff to use the tools. The council also organises demos, workshops and weekly stand-ups hosted by Popplewell, as well as training sessions and walkthroughs.

She said that so far, Copilot’s ability to summarise information is particularly useful for staff. In particular, it has helped staff deal with what she called the “post-holiday dread” of getting back to an inbox crammed with emails. Copilot will create a summary and a list of what staff need to do today and what they can delete.

“For a workforce under pressure, it’s just something off your shoulders,” she said. Council staff have also been using the tools to take minutes of meetings and to help with tasks like writing bids for funding and analysing data.

Urgent interventions

In social care, the teams are using the AI tool to reorganise visit notes into accurate records, divided into categories, saving hours of analysis, so that social workers can prioritise any urgent interventions.

The tools can also be used to summarise large files when social workers take on a new case, highlighting key information and risk factors. Barnsley is also planning to use Copilot to make social care training materials, and to filter through large data sets to check records are accurate and up to date.

“It’s basically like giving everyone a PA, they get to outsource some of those repetitive tasks to someone else,” said Popplewell.

By reducing the burden of admin on staff, the hope is that workers will have more time to spend on higher-impact work. “The idea of Copilot is that we have lots of people in the organisation like social workers, HR professionals and finance professionals,” she said. “What I want them to be focusing on is the complex stuff that they do, where we have to have decision making, and that still stands.”

One of the potential downsides of GenAI tools is the risk of AI hallucinations, which is when the tools simply make stuff up themselves. Popplewell said the risk of this means staff have to check the work themselves and be aware of the risks.

“Everything that is produced by Copilot, you are still responsible for as the decision maker, in the same way as you would never type an email with your eyes closed and press send,” she said. “You have to check it. You are still responsible. It’s not replacing you, it’s just taking the weight off a bit.”

Staff well-being

Part of the benefit of using GenAI will come from supporting the well-being of council staff by giving them the breathing space to focus on what is really important. For example, councils spend a lot on agency staff to fill gaps when staff are off sick.

The hope is that if staff are working shorter hours because the admin burden has been somewhat lifted, this will improve their well-being and make it less likely that they will be signed off sick, saving the council money.

“I want to free up people to use their skills for the more complex work and be able to solve more problems,” said Popplewell. “That is, I think, where the prize is.”

Beyond the ways that GenAI is being used, there could be further applications down the line, such as using these tools to automate more data entry to improve accuracy and to speed-up report building.

“There’s massive potential: this is the tip of the iceberg for us,” she said. “It allows us to be more ambitious, with that breathing space, with that space for innovation. At Barnsley Council, we are always talking about being brave, and that’s what we want. It gives us space for that ambition.”


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