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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Council of the Future

The Council of the Future

What would a future-ready local authority look like if you designed it from the ground up?

This is the question a client asked me a few years ago. The answer looked quite different to any of the organisations I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a few from the inside now.

Fundamental units

Each of the organisations I have looked at has suffered from the same problem: the fundamental organisational unit is a service. Each of those services has people attached to it. Those people have their own processes. Those processes are often captured in the service’s own technology. The service has its own interface to customers (citizens). And its own internal interfaces to the rest of the organisation.

This structure has resulted from the way that local government has grown: organically. Every time there has been a new demand, a new initiative, or a new legislative decree from the centre, a new function has been built to deliver or support it.

These services might sit under a management hierarchy, but that still leaves a huge number of internal interfaces to manage, with friction at every one. And more importantly — and expensively — a huge number of external interfaces to the customer.

Thin veneers

Attempts to rationalise these interfaces have been challenging. Common web or call centre interfaces have often been little more than a veneer over the existing structure. Any interaction beyond the most rudimentary, exposes this internal complexity.

For example, I once called my local council to report that my regular cycle path was overgrown, layered with leaves, and affected by fly-tipping. The web form couldn’t handle this complexity. Instead I spent 40 minutes on the phone as a call centre operative worked her way through three different systems, manually inputting my requests into three different systems with three different interfaces, to be addressed by three different teams.

Citizen-centric design

Imagine if you changed the fundamental organisational unit of the council. Instead of an organisation built around the services it provides, you build an organisation around the citizens and places it supports.

This might sound counter-intuitive if you’re trying to rationalise: there are infinitely more places and people than services. But right now, every place and person has multiple touch-points with the council. Each external interaction sets off a cascade of inefficient internal interactions.

This is problematic for the 80% of citizens with whom the council has relatively few interactions beyond the automatic. Regular tax payments, mass mails, use of the library or leisure centre, and the occasional issue with a lost bin. For the 20% or so of citizens with much more intensive needs, it is catastrophic.

Without this re-orientation around the citizen, it is incredibly difficult to build consistent, coherent support, and to do so at what might be a sustainable level of cost. It is even more difficult to begin to intervene proactively, preventing issues from arising rather than addressing them when they are acute. You just don’t have the connected data about people and places to be able to consistently identify — early — where interventions might be needed.

Construction not criticism

I have nothing but admiration for the leaders and workers in the councils I’ve encountered. They have shown incredible resilience and ingenuity to address staggering difficulties. Losing huge fractions of their budgets and many of their colleagues in recent years, they have coped by redoubling efforts, changing their operating models, and investing in new systems and technology, in order to maintain service — particularly for the most vulnerable. Nonetheless, most senior leaders that I speak to admit that the current situation is unsustainable.

People and places are the wholehearted focus of the councils I’ve worked with. But their operating models aren’t aligned to supporting those people and places efficiently.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Decoupling growth and jobs

Decoupling growth and jobs

At two events this week I have found myself speaking about jobs and automation. The people I have spoken to seem largely to be coming to the same conclusions: technology will drive productivity and increase net wealth, but it will also diminish the number of jobs available and increase the gap between rich and poor.

Not everyone reaches these conclusions. They’re still convinced that the next wave of technological investment will create more jobs than it destroys — as previous waves of change have. But the signs are not good for this view — like this article about state-funded investment in automation from China. Here, one factory cut its workforce by 80% and raised productivity by 60%.

Distinct paths

I think we have to start to accept that jobs growth and economic growth are perhaps no longer as tightly tied together as they once may have been. Translating new wealth into work for the many rather than the few, may require rather more active interventions than it has in the past.

This is the sort of talk that scares large corporations. It sounds like increased taxation. And in reality, this is likely unavoidable.

But it isn’t just about taxation. Only by thinking about these two problems distinctly are we likely to find real solutions. Any economic stimulus that only drives growth may well drive faster job losses, or as we are seeing at the moment, maintained wage suppression.

We have to be much more thoughtful and creative about what people will do. What industries can we nurture that will continue to engage people, as well as creating wealth? And how we engage those outside those industries in work that fulfils them and is valued by society?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Robots in Public Service: Automating Local Authorities

Robots in Public Service: Automating Local Authorities

This week I hosted a round table event for executives from local authorities, alongside my client Freeths Solicitors and the HR & finance recruitment consultants Seymour John. The topic was automation in the public sector, and to kick things off I gave a short talk.

Here’s what I said.

I’d like to kick off the debate with a little provocation. I’ve worked with a few councils and public sector organisations over the last five years, and the attitude to digital transformation in all of them has been largely similar. Outside of the few cheerleaders for technology, it is usually seen as a necessary evil. It’s accepted that the ideal solution would be maintaining humans in their roles. Digital services are largely a low-cost — and lower quality — alternative.

I have some sympathy with this argument, for a number of reasons. For a start, the drive to digital has been an explicit response to the extraordinary cuts you’ve faced. It has naturally felt like compromise.

Worse, the compromise has often been very real: the results of digital transformation projects haven’t always lived up to expectations or been a suitable replacement for what went before. They have been implemented at a direct cost to service, but also at a less-visible cost to flexibility. There’s very little ‘give’ in a digital system, when the computer says ‘no’.

A fresh perspective

What I want to propose this morning is that we have to rethink that attitude and look afresh at the next generation of technology that is inbound into the public sector. Because I think we’re approaching a point where technology, and particularly various types of robotics, could actually help us to deliver services better than humans ever could.

To back this up, let me give you three examples, one from the contact centre, one from the back office, and one from a care context.

The customer support robot

The first example is Amelia, the artificial intelligence that I was loosely involved with helping Enfield Council to procure last year. I’m not involved with the roll-out of this technology, so with the caveat that I can talk only about the promise rather than the practicalities, let me show you this video then I’ll talk a little about what I have seen of Amelia.

Amelia is a learning system. What that means is that it can digest information from natural language and then create answers from what it learns. It is not like a chatbot where you have to define every step in a particular workflow. It understands the meaning of questions and finds the answers from its base of knowledge.

In a demonstration that I hosted, we used the iPhone manual as the source of that knowledge. Amelia starts knowing nothing, just an avatar on a screen with a blank text box. But two minutes after copying and pasting a page from the iPhone manual into that box, it confirms that information has been digested. From this point on it — or now ‘she’, the avatar — can answer natural language questions about any of the information.

Q: “Why isn’t my phone charging properly?”

A: “Common causes of battery issues are…”

She speaks, and she writes. And she answers 80% of queries first time. But what’s most confounding to expectations, and to anyone who has interacted with prior generations of voice system, is that people prefer dealing with Amelia to dealing with other people.

Why? She’s quick and efficient. And sometimes, you’re dealing with things where a human on the other end isn’t an advantage. Rent arrears, for example.

The data processor

The second example is a much less anthropomorphic robot.

I’ve seen multiple situations in councils where human beings have been engaged to make connections between disparate systems and siloes in an organisation. I called my local council once to report that the cycle path I used each day was getting heavily overgrown, was an inch deep in slippery fallen leaves, and increasingly interrupted by fly-tipping. This was apparently a ‘complex query’ so I was directed from the website to the call centre. There I had to spend over half an hour on the phone while the poor recipient of my call had to work her way through three different systems — and two different mapping interfaces — in order to report my three issues.

When I was working with Enfield we had a hypothesis that callouts to environmental health might be an early indicator of an adult social care problem. But we couldn’t test this easily because the data for the two services was in completely separate systems. And if we had wanted to act on it, without major investment it would have meant Janet from environmental health having a chat with Bob from adult social care*, if she thought there was someone that may need checking on.

A robot doesn’t have this issue. Because a robot can natively speak data, it can communicate with two disparate systems and look for correlations, even without any formal integration work. In the most extreme cases it can even pretend to be a human with a screen, keyboard and mouse, if there’s no other way to access an ageing system. A robot could operate across three systems simultaneously, in real time. It could test hypotheses across disparate systems, and perhaps even start to come up with its own.

The care robot

The third potential application for robotics is perhaps the most controversial: inside an adult social care setting. The idea of this, imported from Japan with its impending demographic crisis, horrifies a lot of people. Surely robots can’t care? They can’t show empathy?

My argument is that perhaps they don’t have to. I’ve been observing my childrens’ interactions with robots for the last few years, from home built things that waddle around and make rude noises, to Amazon’s Alexa and most recently, Cozmo. What’s clear is that each of these devices has quite a very rich appeal based in part on its rounded personality. But that personality is not a factor of the technology, however clever or otherwise it might be. It is projected onto these devices by my children.

The number of marriage proposals received by Alexa, around half a million when I last spoke to someone from Amazon about it, suggests that adults also anthropomorphise even faceless machines. Combine our imaginations with the capability to track our health with ruthless efficiency, and you potentially have an incredible tool for preventative medicine and light touch remote care.

Not better than humans, but better in single aspects

None of these things is a direct replacement for a human being. But we can also no longer afford to look at them as a poor compromise. Even if there were to be some radical political reversal in the near future — something that looks increasingly likely with every government own-goal — we shouldn’t abandon the opportunity that robots present. The opportunity to do things better than we alone ever could.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future humans sleep more

Future humans sleep more

We are not who we could be. Our minds and bodies are capable of much more than we have yet achieved.

If you’re anything like me, you have already raised a sceptical eyebrow reading this. It sounds like the beginning of a woo-laden pitch for whatever the latest fad is in new-age treatments.

It’s not.

In the realm of real science, we are constantly uncovering new information about the operation and optimisation of our brains and bodies. Applying that information could lead to a dramatic change in our capability and longevity.

One of the most fascinating areas of research right now is around sleep. I was directed to this by my friend David Turner, founder of TweakSleep, who told me an array of horrifying statistics last week. I was drinking beer rather than taking notes, but suffice to say most of us don’t get enough good sleep and it is killing us.

Prompted by our conversation I hit play on a recent episode of the RSA Events podcast, a talk given by Matthew Walker, director of the Centre for Sleep Science. He didn’t reassure, packing his presentation with stat after stat about the damaging effect of sleep deprivation on our bodies and minds, starting with a shocking piece of information about how sleep ages testicles.

Shocking as this all was, it was also extremely positive. Because what we understand, we can start to address. Fixing our sleep problems might help us to tackle everything from mental illness to cancer, accelerate our learning, and even boost our economy.

The ways to do this also sound interesting and novel. This isn’t just about early nights. For example, Walker is experimenting with direct current stimulation to the brain to amplify positive effects, such as the laying down of memories. It’s a technology that could help students to learn but it could also be applied to tackling the onset of dementia.

Sleep is just one of many areas of human physiology about which we still have so much to learn. As we do, and as we apply that knowledge, we can improve. It’s vital to remember this when looking to the future. The limits of human capability are far from set. Whether you are looking at population, economy, work or any other factor, you have to remember that tomorrow’s humans may well be much more capable and robust than we are today.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future of work: a positive vision

Future of work: a positive vision

This week I co-hosted a round table debate on the future of work with my client Fuze and a group of IT leaders from a variety of industries. My job was to set the scene for the conversation and to moderate what proved to be a lively and engaged session.

What fascinated me was how much time we spent talking about culture and how little time we spent talking about technology.

While there are still critical choices to be made between platforms and partners, technology is increasingly a given. Even if it doesn’t do everything we want today, we can see where it is going. But changing corporate culture remains hard. And the burden of responsibility for making culture changes, seems to be falling on those who own the technology.

This presents a challenge for the people in these roles, but also an opportunity. How do technologists make it to board level? Perhaps it is through driving strategic change like this.

A more positive vision

In setting the scene for this debate, I wanted to present a more positive vision for the future of work, since so much of the conversation recently has been dominated by stories of AI and automation. Automation is a critical issue that I’ve written about many times. But it’s not the only issue. And for those humans in the workforce over the next 20 years, I think there is an increasingly interesting role, focused on the skills that remain uniquely human — at least for a while.

Here’s what I said:

“What I’d like to start with this morning is a rather more optimistic view of the future of work than you may have heard recently. While automation may lead ultimately to fewer jobs, in the next thirty years or so, it is also likely to place a higher premium on a particular set of human skills.

The skills I’m talking about are what I call the ‘three Cs’, the abilities to curate, create and communicate. And they are skills that can be enhanced by technology. In fact, I’ll argue we’re already seeing the benefits of this enhancement.


The first of these skills is ‘curation ‘— shorthand for the ability to discover and qualify information.

Machines still can’t make a good value judgement. This is why all the major tech companies still employ huge armies of people for particular tasks, like moderating social media content, or categorising products on an ecommerce store. It’s why you still get asked to identify the road signs in a photo every now and again on Captcha questions: they’re still training the machines.

Effective curation requires rapid access to information but also the tools to collate, analyse and the opportunity to rapidly cross-check with colleagues.


The second skill is creation, the synthesis of something new. While machines can assemble products or documents — even news stories — within strict guidelines, true originality remains the purview of humans. Whether that creative process is an iterative or re-combinative process, it requires access to the raw materials, whether it is code or content, data or design files.


Communication is the ability to share what you have created with colleagues and customers. And for the foreseeable future, only humans will be able to deliver original ideas with passion and purpose.

A place we want to work

I think an environment that prizes these skills is a workplace that many of us would want to work in. But the reality is that this is less and less about place. Though face-to-face human contact remains a crucial component of business, more and more in a globalised economy, we find ourselves working remotely.

Slowly, we are coming to accept the benefits to the business of this capability. It can enable greater productivity and lower costs, but it can also bring people into the workforce who may have been excluded. Crucially, it can support a greater quality of life.

I say ‘slowly’ because despite the fact that this is at least a 20 year old conversation, it’s clear we have a long way to go on this front. Every packed rush hour train and clogged arterial road will tell you that the vast majority of workers are still very bound by geography and traditional hours.

Plus ca change…

While progress on this front is disappointing, so much has changed when you consider the impact beyond geography that technology has already had on the workforce.

Think about the speed with which you can communicate an idea, capturing thoughts as audio, video, a message or a digital memo. Think about the reach of your communications, sharing that idea with a single colleague or the entire business, instantly. Think about the richness with which we can communicate an idea, producing complex analyses or compelling presentations without recourse to specialists.

All of these things enhance the bandwidth of business.

This is what technology does. Technology is the lubricant of our lives, freeing the flow of information and breaking down barriers. And in doing so it will continue to define the future of work.”

Tom Cheesewright