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Preston City Council chatbot set to be rolled out further

Posted on - 3rd October, 2023 - 12:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Business, Politics, Preston Council, Preston News
The Town Hall is set to see further usage of the chatbot for answering queries from the public Pic: Tony Worrall

Callers to some of Preston City Council’s busiest departments could find themselves being helped by a robot – if their enquiries are not too complicated.

The authority has been trialling the use of so-called “chatbot” software within its revenues and benefits service and is now considering a wider rollout of the technology at the town hall.

The council’s automated telephony contract is due for renewal and a report to cabinet members revealed that the chatbot experiment had “proven successful”. The document explained that the system was “designed to simulate conversation with human users”.

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The facility builds on an automated phone set-up that has long been used by several of the council’s services and which is designed to answer frequently asked questions without the need for individuals to speak to a call handler.

That system – under which only 40 percent of people go on to speak to a human – uses a series of scripts which provides callers with relevant information and advice and directs simpler queries to self-service options.

The chatbot is an evolution of that software, but cabinet members were told that the benefit to the authority and residents remains the same in that it frees up advisors to speak to those callers who need additional support as a result of their query being more complicated or sensitive – such as dealing with council tax arrears or reporting a bereavement.

As part of the new contract that the cabinet has empowered the authority to enter into, the council’s existing automated telephony provider, Inform Communications, would provide phone services to the revenues and benefits, environmental health, waste and planning departments.

The council’s intention to explore chatbots “as a possible corporate solution” – as revealed in the cabinet report – suggests that it could be expanded to all of the divisions to be served under the new contract. Inform’s website states that its local authority chatbots can handle up to 90 percent of calls without the need for human “intervention”.

Chatbots are becoming more popular across the public sector. The trust that runs the Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble hospitals has been using the technology to help manage long waiting lists by getting the bot to call patients and ask them a series of questions about their condition. The answers help medics to determine whether they need to be moved up the queue or no longer need treatment at all.

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City council cabinet members were told that another benefit of the chatbot service is the ability to quickly update the scripts it relies upon – and so deliver “important messages at times of significant change or crisis”.

Since it started using the broader automated telephony services, the town hall has saved £100,000 by being able to remove three contact centre advisor posts from its payroll.

The current contract with Inform is not due to end until February next year, but the cabinet report explained that the firm had offered to waive the £4,950 set-up costs for the chatbot facility if the council entered into a three-year extension of the arrangement before the end of this month. That three-year deal will cost the authority £125,000, before any discounts are applied.

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